THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
In childhood and youth, Jean Shepherd encountered some little realities (no desks in kindergarten, not getting his name right!–oh my!) He discovered the joy of words and art. In his time in college he had two major epiphanies–snails and cars can give one important life-lessons. Among his early adult experiences in the army, he said that his training in Camp Crowder (aka “Camp Swampy” as it’s named in Beetle Bailey) made him a man.
Tadpole Dreams and Aspirations
Soon after the war, he began his radio career in such lesser locations as stations in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. He referred to these early times as his tadpole days. He honed his skills by talking “too much.” With the early history of radio’s dominance across America and his skill with improvised words, he had dreams, he had aspirations.
To me it’s the most romantic of all the media. Fantastically romantic medium. I’ll tell you some night.
At night I’m working in a radio station, see. I’m doing all these things. I’m doing these things–and slowly, by tiny, tiny inchings, my fame grew. I’m doing the English cut-ins on a Lithuanian man-on-the-street broadcast. After that I was given my own program. A program that was heard every morning at 5:30 AM. A program of Elmer Rhode Heever hymns–recorded–in which I did the commercials in between. I was beginning to inch my way up and up and up. Inch by inch. Moment by moment it looked like any day now–the next assignment I was Cousin Jean on a hillbilly teenage program when I had to talk like this [Imitates accent.] I was beginning to really feel it. I mean, you know, I was “tearing a side.”
I was just beginning to see that there was a world out there. I mean that there was something beyond Western Avenue, I was beginning to understand that–that out past Howard Street there was something. And it was beginning to erode me. This city [New York] is the worst seducer in the world. It erodes. It cuts and digs and grinds….Well, I got this special delivery letter. It said, “Dear Mr. Shepherd, I own a string of radio stations in Alaska. We would like you to come up and run our Juneau radio station. We will provide you with a cabin.” A cabin!
And every one of these guys who were doing things like the Elmer Rhode Heeber Gospel Hour, and guys who were doing the English cut-ins on The Croatian Hour. All of them looked at me. “What are you doing this ridiculous thing for?”
“Well, look at this–Alaska! Alaska!”
“Are you out of your mind?”
I said, “No, look around. Listen. Here we’re in this little dark radio station with the liana vines growing up the side, and the old Wayne King records that we play over and over and over again.”
Three of them looked at me with one eye, and all three of them said, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go–New York!–I mean, the Big Apple–that’s the big time! You can stand right next to Andre Baruch, right up there with Frank Gallup, with Kenny Delmar!”
And all the while the Bing Crosby record was going, “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.”
I looked at the three guys and I said, “You’re right!”
Yes, Jean Shepherd knew that they were right. Beyond his tadpole experience in his early radio days, with what sources of nourishment and knowledge was Shepherd equipped to create a name–and a persona–for himself in New York? The Midwest storytelling tradition and style. Extended stories that create a narrative environment for insights he wanted to convey to amuse and instruct through context and humor. Mark Twain, George Ade, W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade. No more “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.” He was on the cusp of burgeoning. Evidence refutes the story that he would go to the Big Apple to take over as host of the Tonight Show. He would go to New York to be on the radio. He would burgeon.
Portent: That Andre Baruch, Frank Gallup, and Kenny Delmar are not currently names widely celebrated, or even widely known, does not tend to bode well for radio-based aspirations.
I believe that Shep’s faults and failure (despite his genius) to achieve universal renown to the height he believed to be his due, rise to the general classic level of tragedy. Read my first post on the subject and my upcoming posts (every other post on a subject, as is my custom) and give me some feedback, please, especially as I proceed with later posts in this series.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE