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In the late 1950s Jack Paar’s late-night TV program was the first big Tonight Show to gain wide popular viewership. (Remember that this was the show, earlier staring Steve Allen, that Shepherd was reportedly brought to NYC to take over—but the evidence shows that this was not so). Alexander King, as a guest, became very popular on Paar’s show. This resulted in high sales of several of his books.
King told autobiographical stories with entertaining wit and charm. The first paragraph of an Amazon Customer Review of a King book by Jon Richfield—-describes him well–at least as he appeared on TV: “King was a mercurial spoiled brat with enormous talent, great compassion, great selfishness, idiosyncratic tolerance and intolerance, impressive culture, totally variegated experience, a marvelous capacity for talking about it, and enormous charm. He raises serious doubts about some of what he says, but says it all with such natural conviction….”*
The New York Times obit of 11/17/1966 described his Paar appearances as providing “…witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on life, art, woman, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction, and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”
FIRST BIG KING BOOK
King’s charm, wit, and quirky energy captivated the audience. Shepherd’s style, being more of a slowly articulated description that relies on a build-up of humorous situation, did not grasp and hold a studio (or a home-viewing) audience sufficiently, I believe, which is why Shepherd-telling-a-story on television by simply talking, as he did on his radio shows, did not work. Fellow-performers on TV such as Ernie Kovacs and Victor Borge seemed to recognize this and undercut Shep—on live TV.
*King once claimed that he’d published his translations of Ovid’s love poems (43 BC-17 AD), even though he knew no Latin. He said that he gathered various translations of the poems and reworded them for the better. He said that he received acclaim for the best-ever translations of Ovid. Amusing story and very possibly true–but I’m not convinced. In fact, it may also be that, just as with Shep, little that King told was more than a smidgeon true to fact.
The Love Books of Ovid:
A Completely Unexpurgated
and Newly Translated Edition.
Internet search shows several booksellers
offering this 1930, privately published book.
All booksellers (and the book’s spine) show
King only as illustrator.
(21) FULL COLOR NEWSPAPER WARS
The New York Times, from time to time, has published some esthetically lovely photographs. Beautifully composed, wonderfully colored. One might say, “masterpieces.” They compare with some of the great painted masterpieces of violent centuries past. Many of these depict the ravages of wartime. They’ve made me stop and wonder at my own intellectual/emotional conflict. I’ve saved scores of these images and concocted a couple into an elegant, cedar, cigar-box-artifact meant to preserve and remind. (It needs to be noted that some of the lovely photos I’ve saved from the Times are simply beautiful and not disagreeable in content.)
Man and grandmother: homeless refugees.
Women: grieve over the yellow head, cheerful red and white-striped cover
with body beneath.
There are still elegant photos in the Times, and I look forward to those to come.
Canadian pianist/genius Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a strange and fascinating person. He’s most famous for his interpretations of Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations.” I’ve always been intrigued by what makes artists of various kinds tick–go about their work–at least in part this is envy–wanting to be like them. (However, I’m a very conventional sort of guy–except for a few of my inexplicably “uncharacteristic” activities–for example, I’ve spent a good part of the last 15 years focusing my attention on a personage named “Shep.”) I think there are some similarities between Shep and Gould.
Although I listen to very little classical music these days, I’ve got a couple of Gould recordings and I’ve read a major book about him to see, in my own conventional sort of way, if I could somehow understand his ticking. (Yes, I know–people like Gould can’t be understood by reading books about them–but maybe a bit of understanding can be grabbed?! For the most part, in my Excelsior, You Fathead! I didn’t try to understand Shep–I felt it much more important to describe and appreciate what he’d created. And as for interpretation, I tried to give quotes and suggestions from others who knew him, adding what Whitman referred to in another context as “faint clues and in-directions.”)
The book I read years back, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations by Otto Friedrich, says this on its back cover:
He was a virtuoso of the piano who inspired an almost religious fervor in his fans, yet he hated performing and left the concert stage forever at the age of 31. He was a tireless advocate of the technology of recording, an artist who looked forward to a time when mere musicians would be rendered obsolete.
He was a notorious–and some thought, a deliberate–eccentric, who muffled himself in scarves and gloves, liberally dosed himself with pills, and once sued Steinway & Sons because one of its employees had shaken his hand too roughly. He lived in hermetic solitude and liked to call himself “the last Puritan,” but those who watched Glenn Gould play piano saw an eroticism so intense it was almost embarrassing.
One encounters many descriptions of Gould that might well make one think that he was a totally goofy guy. Why did he wear gloves and be so ultra sensitive about his hands? Why did he perform with his own odd piano seat (His father had made it for him and it made him feel more physically comfortable than any regular seat he’d ever sat on. It was unusually low, so that his hands on the piano keys were at a seemingly strange angle). Critics complained about his odd mannerisms on stage: singing loudly while playing, waving his hands about. It’s said that he approached each performance “from a totally re-creative point of view”–that is, with the aim of playing a “particular work as it has never been heard before.” Why did he abandon public performance? Many other oddities. But each had its “reasons”–he was not just the cuckoo he appeared to be on the surface. Watch the film “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.”
What do Gould and Shepherd have in common?
Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shep enthusiast
Joel Baumwoll comments on the matter.
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[December 10, 2014. This post comes a day earlier than my usual schedule because of the complexities of moving our home about 2 miles further east on Long Island. I’m expecting that the next post and those following will be on the usual schedule–following one on 12/14.]
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The above title is the name of a newly surfaced Shepherd Holy Grail we didn’t even know existed. In that regard, the front matter of one of my unpublished Shep book manuscripts states:
The author beseeches all those potentially munificent fatheads who harbor miscellaneous Jean Shepherd holy grails to come forth with them now before their ignorant heirs toss them in a dumpster.
A Shepherd fan, Jonathan Sanger, after many years of holding onto it, passed along to Jim Clavin a 20-minute video made, apparently, in 1966, by Sanger and his friend Al Tedesco, graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Jim Clavin comments, it seems a bit like the broadcast program, “Three Worlds of Jean Shepherd,” in which a WNYC production crew followed Shep during his perambulations in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in 1967. Jim describes that 30-minute program:
“Not much is known about this. I recorded the audio from the show, but can only describe the video portion. The 3 worlds are ‘Radio’, ‘Limelight Shows’ and ‘Writing’. The show follows Shep through the moments right before he goes on the air, walking down the hall and into the studio just as his theme begins to play. Along the way he speaks about the Limelight performances and his writing as he is interviewed in his WOR office by John Wingate (?). There is even a minute of Leigh Brown describing how it was to work with Shep.”
“Channel Cat” also follows Shep around, in this case, mostly within walking distance of his New York WOR broadcast studio at 1440 Broadway (just south of Times Square). Parts of the audio are recordings of Shep talking. What is so wonderful about this video is that we see Shepherd in motion: walking along Broadway, entering WOR premises, being in his office space showing his desk area, in his studio broadcasting, and some shots of producer Leigh Brown in the engineer’s booth on the other side of the glass. Here are some stills, all in glorious black and white video.
Shep walking the streets of Mid-town with his
small-brimmed, tan hat.
[By pure coincidence, during the mid-60s, for years,
in cool weather, I daily wore the exact same tan hat!]
Shepherd performing at the Limelight.
Shep in the WOR studios, at his desk.
Note the Laurel and Hardy picture, upper left.
There’s also a Buster Keaton portrait there.
Leigh Brown in the engineer’s control booth.
Shep on the air.
On the air, obviously enjoying himself!
Many thanks, for making this video and allowing it to be seen by one and all! Jim Clavin will have more on his http://www.flicklives.com site. Let us hope that any others who have Shep material make it available before it’s too late (the dumpster looms for all of us and for all historical records!).
Mike Nichols got a double-page obit and appreciation from the New York Times on Friday, November 21, 2014. (Obituary, starting front page, by Bruce Weber, appreciation by Ben Brantley.) I very much liked Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” I remember him on TV in the late 1950s with Elaine May doing their improvised skits. I liked them a lot. Nichols and May came out of the Chicago 1950s climate of improv along with others who were “Seriously Funny” at that time. Shep came out of that ambiance at the same time–and he claimed to have acted at the Goodman Theatre, although his former wife, Lois Nettleton (also of Chicago and of the Goodman Theatre), indicated in an interview about Shep in 2000 that she had no knowledge of Shep’s connection with that Theatre. I think that, considering their common background and Chicago connections, She would have know if he’d been with the Goodman Theatre. Yet, there is the improv and Chicago connection of Shep and Nichols.
Brantley’s appreciation comments that Nichols was, “like most of that breed of stylish New Yorkers transplanted from elsewhere, a self-invention.” Also sounds a a bit like Shepherd.
Improvisation is the special connecting link between Shepherd and Nichols.
The obit comments that, regarding Nichols’ style, it developed “through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing, a sharp eye….” The obit also comments that “Mr. Nichols said in interviews that though he did not know it at the time, his work with Ms May was his directorial training.
“He said that improvisation was good training because it acclimates the performer to the idea of taking care of the audience. In that regard, Nichols is quoted, “But what I really thought it was useful for was directing,” he said, ” because it also teaches you what a scene is made of–you know what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. there must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
All of the above seems to me that it might also relate to Shep’s sensibilities.
I’d think that improvisation also helps a story-teller like Shep.
The description of the Nichols and May performances also notes that:
“Developed through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing….” This makes the point that their material, coming out of improvisation, was worked over to hone it into the final, precise presentation we’re familiar with from TV, theater, and recordings. Here, I would say, is where their precision differs from Shep’s delivery. I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation–within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.
According to the obit, when Nichols was honored at Lincoln Center for “lifetime achievement,” Elaine May commented, “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared, and he writes.”
Another quote from Elaine May: “But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.” Of course we Shep enthusiasts know that Jean Shepherd has some more serious flaws than that, but he’s still brilliant!
Despite the far-different paths their careers took, I do find that some
aspects of Shepherd and Nichols connect.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED? A WORLD IN UNREST
“Jean Shepherd Arrives”
Recently a long-time, enthusiastic Shep-fan, Pete Delaney, encountered “The Metropolitan,” the student newspaper of Fairley Dickinson University dated February 15, 1967, with a report of a Shepherd appearance before a capacity audience. Shep was one of several who spoke on the subject of where we are headed. (Remember, we’re talking the 1960s here!):
Jean Shepherd Speaks on Dream Reality
At Midway Point of Weekend Conferencc
Quick and cunning on the outside, but carrying a message of deep importance on the inside, Jean Shepherd spoke to an audience of over 900 in the Recreation Building as winter Weekend entered its final stages.
The front-page report of the newspaper summarized each speaker’s talk, describing our hero: “Jean Shepherd, beneath a humorous exterior, imparted a serious message to the theme. One can’t think in terms of the future when the present is so tenable. One can never predict the future. Yet, Man persists in living in a dream world. Perhaps the future is to become a dream. That is impossible to say.” On an inside page, spotlighting Shepherd, a certain Sanford Freiman (probably a Shep enthusiast, working at the height of ridiculdockle), contributed a short piece, transcribed in full below:
Text of Jean Shepherd’s Speech
In case you missed Jean Shepherd’s speech, we thought it would be interesting to reprint the text of his speech last Saturday afternoon, so here it goes:
Charlie Schmiddtlein, mouths, models, Moderately Ridiculous, Drive-In Movies, Playboy, drugs, Mets, Pizza, Vogue, New York, The “Garden State,” Indiana, Sophia Loren’s bras, Charleton Heston, Route 3, Lincoln Tunnel, “crud,” reality, the future, “making it,” Cracker Jacks pirzes, Robert Hall jackets, Howard Johnsons, rusty Mustangs, Mabel, Dimitri Tyompkin, Esso, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, inflatable bras, beer cans, religion, sweaty slaves, tire pumps, root beer, Holland Tunnel, “Go to a movie” billboards, Jersey “meadows,” creeping hands, Moses’ P-R Man, “Girlie pictures,” “boyie pictures,” the New Jersey Turnpike, Secaucus, dreams, “Score,” Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, parks, and Clarence.
Shepherd listeners will recognize and applaud the reporter’s skill in capsulizing Shep’s style and content. Regarding the Metropolitan’s cartoonist (named “Kallas,”) in capturing a variety of attendees, we surely know that in the Shepherd portion, the snoozing audience represents not the reality of the response to Shep’s words, but a symbolic treatment of the “Dreamworld” Shep described his audience as inhabiting:
We know from our own response to Shep
that the co-ed’s exclamation:
“I touched him!”
represents the way we all feel
in the presence of The Master.
“I’VE GOT A SECRET” HEAD-THUMP STORY
Oh how we Shep-cuckoos have sought the elusive video of Shepherd performing by thumping on his head (kopfspielen) as his secret on that early TV game show, I’ve Got a Secret, originally aired August 31, 1960. Seated with host Gary Moore, the guest would be questioned by a celebrity panel of four until they guessed the secret or time ran out. “The Game Show Network” occasionally replays that program but despite entreaties by hordes of anxious fans, they won’t say when it or the I’ve Got a Secret anniversary broadcast of June 21, 1961, containing just the Shepherd performance itself, would be aired. The only way to snatch a copy would be to set one’s video recorder going day after week after month, search while running the recordings at fast speed, and some year luck out. You see the kinds of things that make anxious fans spend fitful days and sleepless nights. Eventually a couple of fans managed to capture a showing of the anniversary program and it’s now part of the Jean Parker Shepherd Historical Record.
In that visual record, in glorious and blurry black and white, Gary Moore introduces: “Here is Norman Paris and his quartet [piano, drums, guitar, and bass] featuring Jean Shepherd on head, playing ‘The Sheik of Araby.’” Shepherd, in front of the musicians, wears a suit, white shirt with cuff links, and tie. As the music starts, he quickly massages his short crew cut (part of the tuning process?) and then rapidly thumps his knuckles on his head, mouth opening and closing to various degrees, performing the piece. At the end he bows his head slightly, gives one of his shy smiles, and it’s over.
Shepherd with knuckles and head.
Anyone who has heard Shepherd head-thump on the radio knows how it sounds. The song is recognizable by the rhythm and the rise and fall of the “notes”—tune-appropriately—though nowhere near on pitch. Shepherd shows off his skill by rapid embellishments to the base “melody.” This talent is extraordinary and one must remain in awe—he can thump out at least a half-dozen notes, but on the many occasions I’ve given it a shot, I manage only two notes and a sore head.
On a radio broadcast he comments that he performed head thumping on several other programs and was “always well-received critically.” He muses:
The only problem is, they typecast me. They never ask Zsa Zsa Gabor to thump her head. And I can be funnier than Zsa Zsa, although I’m consciously so. She’s unconscious, but that’s something else. And so I’ve given it up….What if the word had gotten out that Ernest Hemingway, for example, used to make music by cracking his knuckles? What if Hemingway sat around and played “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” crackin’ his knuckles, and he was invited on Bookbeat to do that?…No one would take his writing seriously. No way. No way. And if tomorrow morning, say, Norman Mailer suddenly announces that he is a fantastic, secret, closet tap dancer. And the next thing you know he’s out there tap dancing on the “Sonny and Cher Show.” (April 12, 1976)
Another bizarre instrument in Shepherd’s bag of musical tricks is the kazoo. Sometimes he plays it straight, sometimes he does a jazz rendition, and sometimes he does the equivalent of “scat.” The extraordinary Italian composer/performer, Paolo Conte, in about 1988 performed with his group, his “Lo Zio” (“Uncle”) , on the piano, singing, and playing the kazoo (and for some moments, playing two kazoos at once!) See YouTube for his “Lo Zio,” plus his “Come With Me,” and “Sotto le Stelle del Jazz.”
Shepherd: “I think the kazoo is a kind of amalgam of all of us,” adding:
You know there’s something very irritatingly, maddeningly true about the kazoo. I think the kazoo in a very real way, Don—I think it takes the human voice, it takes music, it takes it all and puts it together in one almost unbelievably, realistically, irritating package.” (June 1964)
The nose flute is played by placing the instrument (frequently seen as a small brightly colored plastic piece) flat against the nose and mouth. One exhales through the nose, adjusting the tone by changing the volume of one’s mouth cavity. Preferably one plays when one does not have a drippy nose. (I can get about three distinct notes, Shepherd gets a lot more than that.)
Shepherd played the jew’s harp from time to time, and claimed that Lincoln was an expert and played it frequently. According to Weldon Petz, one of America’s leading Lincoln scholars, “Lincoln played the jews’ harp at the debates with incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois state election campaign.”
Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Lincoln”
(1939 film) playing the jew’s harp.
Shepherd claimed that he made his first entertainment money at age 15 playing jew’s harp for the Colorado Cowhands group. Describing a letter he’d gotten accusing him of pandering when playing his strange instruments and that it wasn’t the “real” him, he responded:
Baby–this is the real me in spades!
Recently I discovered on a blog (see below) Leonard Cohen in Ghent (August 12, 2012.) playing the jew’s harp for about 10 seconds! WOW! http://onboogiestreet.blogspot.com/2012/08/magical-moment-leonard-cohen-playing.html.
Leonard Cohen in concert with jew’s harp
CONTINUATION OF LEIGH’S KNOWN WORKS WITH JEAN
The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters
Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss
Co-writer–Title credit for script of the film A Christmas Story:
Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown & Bob Clark.
(Disregard the surround–this is a “Print Screen” capture)
While engaged in the simple act of transcribing for Jean,
Leigh often made editorial suggestions.
Agent–Among other possible times, Leigh was Jean’s literary agent for his book manuscript of The Ferrari in the Bedroom, which she submitted to Tom Lipscolm at Dodd-Mead, which published it.
Bit-player in films and videos—
A Christmas Story film–Leigh seemed to want to make herself unattractive standing in line to see Santa. Editor/publisher Tom Lipscolm tells us that she had been pushing for years for this film to be made featuring the BB gun story.
The Phantom of the Open Hearth–television film: Leigh is shown at
the Red Rooster as “The Lovely Arlita.”
The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters–Leigh sings “The Ballad of Ludlow Kissel.”
Jean Shepherd’s America–video series:
Leigh in a bar where Jean sketches her in the New Orleans episode.
Leigh dances with Jean in the Wyoming blizzard episode.
The loving couple dancing in the Little America Motel
AND WE MUST HAVE MISSED LOTS MORE!
WORDS OF LOVE AND DEDICATION:
To Leigh and Daphne who share my bed, my board,
and walks along the sea.
May they never regret it.
–JEAN SHEPHERD (Fig Newtons)
To little Leigh with love.
I hope it’s been worth it all…
–JEAN SHEPHERD (Wanda Hickey)
…the suspicion that she could actually live without him ran out of her…
–LEIGH BROWN (The Show Gypsies)
I can conceive of a world without sunlight easier
than I can conceive of a world without Jean.
–LEIGH BROWN (Personal letter)
For Jean Shepherd,,,this fool’s rainbow.
–LEIGH BROWN (The Show Gypsies)
Leigh signing “Excelsior!” to a fan
Joel asked if I intended to post Leigh’s contributions to Shep’s work, so here it is in all its incompleteness. Anyone with more info, please let me know.
What we actually know of specific instances of how Leigh contributed to Jean’s success and well-being is undoubtedly just a small percentage of what she actually did day-by-day and in many particulars that just have not been recorded or encountered.
For example, as I’ve noted, Tom Lipscolm, editor/publisher, who knew her well, indicated that she frequently steered Shep away from negative results and toward the positive–not quantifiable, but nevertheless important. It’s also said that she, along with others, pushed Jean into putting his stories on paper and getting them published in print, beginning with Playboy and then collected in In God We Trust–All Others Pay Cash, etc. One might also remember the rather back-handed compliment Shepherd once gave her, indicating that he valued her judgement as an average person–a litmus paper–in her response to some things he’d been working on.
The listings below are undoubtedly very incomplete,
as many projects Leigh must have also worked on, remain uncredited
as far as we ignorant fatheads would know about them.
(some of this material=thanks to http://www.flicklives.com)
Radio Producer–Leigh’s foremost job for many years was as Jean’s producer of his radio show. Although it now appears that she began at WOR in early 1962, we don’t know when she added new roles to the list.
Gate-keeper–-many people have admired/complained that Leigh protected him from intrusions, thus keeping him able to concentrate and function at his high level.
Assistant–The word “assistant” can mean everything from getting him something he wants to helping with his makeup–to giving suggestions, to who-knows-what important tasks?
in a television production of shorts.
Director Fred Barzyk standing.
(This photo is also in my
Excelsior, you Fathead!)
Leigh is listed as Production Associate for this TV film.
In addition she got her name on the title page of the published text.
In one of the many stills in the book, she appears as “Lovely Arlita.”
Creator/scenic designer–Shepherd credits her on the air for doing a great job in creating the effects for his 1973 Carnegie Hall show.
“Staggerwing Productions”–some if not most/all of Jean’s live shows seem to have been done under this name. Leigh, of course, was part of the action.
“Pholly Productions”--Various Shepherd films?
“International Jawbreaker”–the team consisting of Leigh, Jean, Laurie Squire, Herb Squire in an early syndication of Jean’s radio shows–mostly to college radio stations.
“Snow Pond Productions”–Leigh is listed as a co-producer of both Jean Shepherd’s America series–1971 and 1985.
MORE TO COME ON LEIGH’S WORK WITH JEAN
”Let’s say I have intimations that I’ll never make it—
because I’m on radio.” (Shep, in a 1960 Realist magazine interview.)
Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night. I can tell you that. And I can tell you this—nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night. (Jean Shepherd on the radio, 8/22/1964)
HOW DO YOU GET TO BROADWAY?
Shepherd had his problems with other writer’s characterizations of people in plays (and with films and books, also). He felt that most of the plays he saw were unrealistic—they did not portray people as they really were. His own view was that people mostly live rather mundane lives, but that theater displays its characters doing very unusual things, and that the plots were not true to peoples’ lives.
Shepherd also very much wanted to get into live theatrical performance, even though, at the same time, he wanted to deliver his own words rather than those of another author. As he’d put it in 1960, he was less interested in “reading other guys’ lines” than in doing his own material. His friend Pete Wood remembers that around 1961 “He talked a lot about the fact that he was going to study to become an actor.” One might wonder if another factor was that his wife was the up-and-coming actress Lois Nettleton.
Village Voice Obie Awards dinner, 1959.
Shepherd with Lois Nettleton, who had won an award.
Anne Bancroft, far right,
“Greenwich Village Sunday,” 1960-61 short documentary.
Narrated by Shepherd from script by Stewart Wilensky.
Lois portrays a visitor to the Village.
One might also imagine that his desire to be on the stage had something to do with a perception that radio was losing its driving force to television, a medium he wanted to be a part of, but which he could not break into sufficiently. (Television represented a bigger audience, more celebrity, more money.) Remember that he claimed that Johnny Carson said to him, “Look, Shepherd, forever they’re going to think of you as a radio guy. You better get out of that damn medium.” (Jean Shepherd commenting on the Alan Colmes interview show, 1998.)
In addition he sometimes felt that he was too isolated in the radio studio and thus, did not have an audience with whom he could be in immediate contact. (This is undoubtedly why he enjoyed his Limelight and other live-before-an-audience performances, which were in front of devoted fans.)
Drawing by Herb Gardner Mephistopheles
Shep as “Destry”
In the late 1950s and into the early 60s Shep engaged with live theater, including several multi-person “revues,” for which he wrote his own material. In 1958 Smalltacular, and in his revue with Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton, Look, Charlie. He was especially busy in 1961, playing Mephistopheles in A Banquet for the Moon; acting in The Voice of the Turtle, Destry Rides Again, and The Tender Trap. He featured in New Faces of 1962 (again his own material). He acted in 1963 previews of Arthur Kopit’s Asylum or What the Gentlemen Are Up To Not to Mention the Ladies, which Kopit closed “for rewriting” just before opening night. No subsequent theater work by Shep has been encountered. Fred Barzyk, his main PBS director/producer, quoted Shepherd as having said: “I’m an actor. I’m a good actor.”
LOIS NETTLETON ON ACTING
A letter she wrote indicating her preference for live theater:
In notes to me regarding my book, Lois had several comments, indicating Jean’s desire to act and his troubles accomplishing the feat. Note that Jean and Lois were together during the entire period during which he pursued acting. (Remember to click on the scans to enlarge them.) In a note about my book, she comments that Jean helped her develop a comic character for an unnamed play in which she performed. Lois also mentioned that before performances, in Jean’s dressing room she assisted him in getting ready.
Lois, in parts of each of the notes that follow, refers to aspects of Jean’s acting experience. They depict a sad, yet probably very true image of Shepherd’s frustration in a field that was in conflict with his improvisational nature. He had trouble memorizing the script. I include the entire note in each case because I hope that most people will find all of her words of interest. (I describe Lois’ notes in an objective manner, but writing about them, I am thrilled to have and to hold all of her hand-written comments she wrote for my benefit!)
In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000,
(Just a few months after Shep’s death)
Lois commented that Jean’s improvisation
on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that, but it seems almost–almost, less profound, less important than what he was doing. I mean I think what he was doing was so–it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
+++++++++++Truth, Fiction, & Friction+++++++++++
These days the separation between truth and fiction is a battle line, even though most of us have entered the no-man’s-land in an ever-widening conflict, and we mostly accept that there’s a bit of fiction in every reported fact. Many decades ago I believed Shepherd when he told his stories. A near-contemporary of mine says he always realized that the stories were fiction. My understanding now is that Shep’s stories were basically fiction, but I read missives to me from people who believe his kid stories and army stories (as per my SHEP’S ARMY) are basically true to fact. I’m steadfast in believing them to be fiction, yet with equal surety, I believe that almost all of Shepherd’s travel narratives are true to the facts of his experiences.
TRUTH = FICTION FICTION = TRUTH
Ever think that a row of plus signs [++++++++++] sorta looks like barbed wire?
Most people must now be aware of some of the various disagreements these days regarding such tellers of supposedly “true tales” as David Sedaris, Spalding Gray, some “This American Life” guests, Mike Daisey (especially in regard to his popular and controversial performances of his “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,”) and Jean Shepherd. Somewhere I quoted the title of a book I’d recently read: The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! by Jan Harold Brunvand. Add to that the opening paragraph of the book The Story is True—The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories by Bruce Jackson: “Without an informing idea, the details of real life are clutter, noise, chaos. We need an idea given form for things to make sense. And that’s what stories are: ideas given form, ideas given breath.” Do I upset many by saying that when Jesus told a parable, many/most, these days, understand that he told a made-up story to illustrate a larger truth? Some believe that the entire Judeo-Christian Bible is a fantastic, wondrous metaphor/parable.
Descend to the world of human authors. David Sedaris’ “true stores” about his family and other matters, once claimed to be factual, are now admitted to have fiction blended into the mix. I’ve only just become aware of the uproar regarding the Daisey performances of his “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” during which he reportedly had delivered to the audience statements that “This is a work of non-fiction” but in which it’s become known that some of the damning evidence presented was hearsay (though reportedly true).
Daisey is quoted as saying, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theatre that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.” In Internet exchanges, one commented, “….journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe often fabricated or changed elements of their work to make a better story.”
Some internet comments regarding Daisey’s “Steve Jobs” performances
“If Mike Daisey had presented his work not as exact, journalistic truth, but as a theatrical interpretation of events, it would have been different. Had he even said that it’s basically, essentially true but it’s a story, it’s theatrical, and it’s an assemblage of events, it would have been fine. But again and again he said that everything in his monologue was true. And that was a lie. He misrepresented his work, and that undermined its essential truth.”
“I feel annoyed and disappointed in and for Daisey, but most importantly, I think that when I see a piece of THEATER, no matter HOW it is billed, it is CAVEAT EMPTOR. This is not a lecture being presented at a college during a conference on ethics in business. It is a theater piece, written by an actor, to be entertaining as well as informative, and…I can tell you that I take the words “this is a work of non-fiction” stated in a theatrical monologue context as fairly elastic.”
“His sin is not being upfront with the “This American Life” people who were ready to take his piece as journalism. But outside of that, what are his crimes? He can construct his monologue however he wants, and you are free to see it or not see it, believe all of it, some of it, or none of it. He is not testifying before a senate subcommittee, he has not been sworn in under oath. He is not a reporter, he is not the employee of a trusted new organization. He is an actor and playwright. He put on a play.”
Some may find these disputes infuriating. One part of me finds all this replay-with-variations annoying—but another part of me enjoys the interplay of battling attitudes on this subject. In a related matter, recently I decided to find out a bit more about Spalding Gray (The immediate impulse motivated by encountering on the de-cataloged rack at my local library, a paperback book for sale: Swimming to Cambodia, by Spalding Gray transcribed from his live performances made into a film. I bought it and read it with great pleasure. A dime very well spent.) I quote from James Leverett’s introduction:
“When he first sat down behind a modest wooden table, took an almost calibrated sip from a glass of water and began to read from his journals about memories of early erections and the death of pets, Gray surely did not realize that his experiment would become the focal point of a vast range of performance art which would dominate New York’s Soho and other bastions of the artistic vanguard during the 1970s. He became a major influence in that work, praised as an original by some, damned as a perpetrator of the “me-decade” by others. (After all! A guy sitting at a table just talking about himself!) [eb Note: The last part, in parentheses, is by Leverett, originally printed in brackets and changed by me so as not to confuse. I hope you’re not confused.]
“It would be incorrect to think that these early monologues, eight in all, could be written down and served up end-to-end to total a neat autobiography. All are impressionistic; all weave back and forth in time and place to form tapestries of intertwining themes and imagery which only occasionally reveal a strand of sequential narrative.”
Leverett continues, “It has gradually become Gray’s chosen lot simultaneously to live his life and to play the role of Spalding Gray living his life, and to observe said Gray living his life in order to report on it in the next monologue. Perhaps this hall of mirrors, this endless playoff between performance and reality, has always been the situation of the artist.” Leverett concludes his introduction with:
“This is a recording. For the first time, Gray’s odyssey has been taken down. What in his monologues has always seemed to be writing, hovering just above the little table from which he performs, is now written. We lose the wry, desultory, curious living presence of a master storyteller. But we gain the opportunity to make our own replays again and again, and to take the measure of an achievement that seems to grow with each encounter—perhaps even to epic proportions.”
We Shepherd enthusiasts can be forgiven if we nod and smile knowingly, recognizing that much of what’s in the introduction to Gray’s work, with just a bit of adjustment, could be said of Shepherd, who began doing similar things (plus a large variety of other entertaining bits and pieces) two decades earlier. Gray was not a born-again-twin to Shepherd, but his bloodline definitely arose from the same extended family.
A major difference between Shepherd and his “descendants” should be noted: Most others, whether as performers and/or as reporters, tell untruths that make a difference in our understanding of real-life and historical events; mostly, Jean Shepherd fictionalized mere details about himself and much of his thought-to-be stories about himself, not the world beyond himself. So his kid stories and army stories almost entirely affect only our view of Shep’s personal history–and only affect larger parts of our understanding of the world in that some of these stories are parables–the same sort that (oh, Heaven forgive me!) Jesus sometimes spoke in parables to give us aspects of his world view in his sermons.
Shepherd expanded his performing role into other media, but in so doing, he altered the form of his monologs. Jean Shepherd’s America modified his radio role into television, but most of his other media forays were his radio persona and stories kidnapped and re-engendered into different venues for other audiences. Shepherd’s descendants do not in the main perform on the radio. They have found other areas for their work–stage, film, even the Internet–into which they continue the format of talking to us about themselves, about ourselves, and about everything else.
TRUTH = FICTION FICTION = TRUTH