Shepherd spoke about writing and literature from time to time. He expressed how much he enjoyed reading. He discussed some serious literature such as the novels of Thomas Wolfe, and mentioned that he felt that he and Nelson Algren surely “vibrated” to each other. Of course we know that he frequently disparaged Norman Mailer and his writing. He mentioned Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He once spent a program reading the work of various serious poets he liked, and he on occasion read haiku, which, with its extremely short and compact form relaying symbolic meanings, would attract him in its relationship to his own stories. I wonder if he did the “serious” poet program in response to people who may have commented that most of his poetry reading consisted of stuff on the level of R. W. Service.
Service is fun. Service is cornball. Service’s familiar, comic poems have narrative–they tell a story as, frequently, does Shep’s own material. I enjoy Shepherd’s overly dramatic renderings of some of Service’s best-known poems, and I have a copy of his LP of reading Service. (He once commented that a particular Service poem was deeply serious–maybe to counter negative comments he’d received about the majority of them?)
Related to the over-the-top literature Shepherd liked, of course, is his use of Longfellow’s “Excelsior.”He seemed to especially like funny/quirky stuff such as Archy & Mehitabel, with its poet cockroach who typed lower case on an office typewriter. Come to think of it, it was Shepherd who introduced me to Service, haiku, and Archy & Mehitabel.
There is also the genre of “recitations,” which were memorized, moralistic stories popular in rural areas in the 19th century, Shep said. He commented:
“… the work that I do [on radio]…is a form of recitation, a form of imaginative drawing upon our own life and out own emotions to paint a picture, in a sense, of something that most of us don’t feel day by day. and I have a great sense of empathy for the early recitation artists and monologists….every time there was a gathering of the community, a social affair, Charlie would be called upon to give his famous recitation, his recitation of “Life is But a Game of Cards…”
“Asleep at the Switch” was another poem read by Shepherd, and several times he read the long poem by Langdon Smith, “Evolution,” accompanied by appropriately violin-suffused, dramatic music.
There it is:
storytelling, metaphor, and moral, creating an aura
with humor & bombast–
Jean Shepherd’s favorite literature to perform on the radio–
My design sketch for the Hall’s inaugural banner that
hung from the Museum’s main entrance.
Among my most treasured memories of decades designing exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History was the years I spent designing and supervising the installation of the permanent Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
[The entire Hall is filled with ART, but the final touch for me is how I dealt with
the issue facing installation of the Museum’s biggest ARTIFACT.]
As Senior Exhibit Designer at the Museum, I was told by the Exhibit Department Chairman that a major re-installation of our Pacific Peoples Hall would be designed by an outside design firm and that I would be responsible for its supervision and realization in its new space. (It had been designed by a former designer and had been universally criticized—The New York Times review was titled, “I Could Cry, I Could Just Cry.”) I was highly dismayed that I, a full-fledged designer, would be responsible, in such a diminished position, for overseeing someone else’s design, having to do the clean-up job of every possible design flaw—and then be blamed for any unavoidable problems that resulted. We held meetings with our director, my boss, Margaret Mead, as well as curators in our Anthropology Department and the outside designer. I surprised the group by presenting my own re-design solution, and, given the chance to compete by the director, with my mock up of a portion of the hall created by me in a month or so proving its superiority, I was given the job as the hall’s designer. (I won’t go into details of the other proposal’s major design flaw that would have resulted in a disaster beyond anyone’s ability to correct.)
Margaret Mead had been a curator at the museum for fifty years, but she was best known in the field as a major force in anthropological studies of Pacific Peoples, bringing her insight to her very popular books and to her widespread public media appearances regarding social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a force to be admired and reckoned with. (I originally wrote “feared,” which also was true.)
When I ascended the narrow, winding stairs to her tower offices in the Museum for the first time to meet her one-on-one to discuss my thoughts for her hall, I was nervous. My hands were sweaty and cold, a factor I knew she felt when we shook hands. We spent a half hour discussing the hall and my design ideas. At the end she commented that she knew that we would work well together and produce a superior hall. When we shook hands goodbye my hands were warm and dry. She knew how to deal with the underling essential to her permanent hall’s legacy.
In the following months, before we knew of her terminal illness, I would go across the street from the Museum and meet with her in her apartment, spreading out my floor plan of the hall on her living room coffee table, and we would arrange plexiglas model exhibit cases on each section of the hall’s plan until we were satisfied with the anthropological aspects of the design. When she was too ill to manage, I worked with another anthropology curator until the hall’s completion.
THE NEW HALL
The previous hall installation was very cold in feeling (largely because of its dominant white paint on walls and columns, and the omnipresent ceiling lighting which shed a blandness that failed to distinguish artifacts from surroundings and created reflections and confusion.) I won’t discuss other major flaws, except to comment that, with various changes to layout and other matters, my lighting and reorganization of case placement eliminated reflections and confusion, and my use of appropriate color in the subject areas created warmth and coherence.
A major focal point of the old hall—and the hall that preceded it—had been a cast of an Easter Island head that stood at the far end, and that would do the same—but more dramatically—in my new design.
Easter Island with a couple of heads.
For the major physiological studies that a Museum anthropologist had done decades before regarding the inhabitants of the Island, its government offered as a gift, one of the original stone heads. The Museum found that its weight would have crashed it through the floor, so the anthropologist, on the island, made a multi-piece mold from which the head was cast in New York and put on display. That old cast was lowered from the existing window of the old installation, down one floor and through the corresponding window to the new hall’s space.
Museum metal-workers lowering the head out—
and then down–into the new space.
I had intended to close off the window with a painted wall in the sky-blue color appropriate for the head. But the Museum workers who, for a year, had been reconfiguring the exhibit cases of the hall to my design, had come to love that large window view, and argued that I should retain it. At first I disagreed, saying that the public, in the Pacific environment of the hall, wouldn’t want to see out to New York’s Upper West Side.
Then I realized that, as I’d designed the space with the head on a grass-colored, upward-curving green carpet, I could have the window installed with a translucent, rippled glass and sky-blue sheeting that would allow light and suggest the sky behind the head. The mottled effect would disguise the outside scene, yet maintain the look of the outside—cloudy days or clouds in a blue sky, and, in the evening, the street lights giving a feeling of stars in the night sky. I exult in my design solution jump-started by the two Museum metal-workers.
New hall with blue “sky” behind the head
and sky blue paint on walls.
Green “grass” carpeting on floor.
[In reality, the colors and effect are far more subtle than in the photos.]
Only one problem remained to complete my tale. The Museum’s Director told me to put a railing on the green “grass” carpet so that the public could not approach to scratch, and thus disfigure, the painted plaster head. I commented that this would place an artificial barrier to what was, in a museum setting, a rare opportunity to have an open and appropriate environment around an enormous artifact. I pleaded for time to find a solution. I asked the supervisor of our Museum Reproductions section if he could apply a tough clear coating to the head.
In the head’s final position, I privately tested that coating and then phoned the Director. He met me in the hall by the head. Without a word, I pulled from my inside jacket pocket, a hefty hammer and with all deliberate strength gave that giant artifact–
several vigorous whacks on the nose.
He looked at the nose, he looked at me.
“Gene,” he said, “you win.”