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A CHRISTMAS STORY & some of my other truths
When I began writing the manuscript of my Excelsior, You Fathead! I wasn’t sure how to start my introduction and how I should deal with the movie A Christmas Story. You see, I hadn’t cared very much for it, having only seen it once years before–it wasn’t the same as Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts. Yet I knew it had to be a decent part of the book because it’s a part of his legend. Because of this, and because I therefore felt it important and useful as well as appropriate to open with such a prominent part of Shep’s legacy, I began the introduction:
where much of his current fame resided.
That was written in about 2003. Subsequently, having watched the movie well over a dozen times just for the pure pleasure of it, I enjoy it tremendously and promote it whenever I can. I’ve written about it on this blog, and my introduction to the book A Christmas Story–Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic is an extended essay. For me, among the totality of his creative work, it is only surpassed by his radio-studio broadcasts.
When I began working on EYF! in early 2000, I got out my file folder of Shepherd material. ( A rather thin file–now, over a decade later I’ve got bookshelves and closets full of Shepherd-related files) As for Shepherd’s short stories–another confession. I found in my thin file the torn-out first story Shepherd published in Playboy, June, 1964: “Hairy Gertz and the 47 Crappies.” I think it was the only Shep story I read at the time, probably because- it was not like Shep on the radio! After the ’70s, 80’s and 90’s I had a lot of catching up to do when I realized (thanks to the New York Times obituary) that he was gone–my oldest and closest friend who had done so much to form me and entertain me way back in my late-teens and twenties, whom I had neglected for so many of my adult years.
Regarding the movie Network, with its famed scene of the TV broadcaster Howard Beale, in a version of Shep’s invectives, telling his listeners to yell out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” I’d seen that bit a dozen times over the years. But I can’t remember seeing the whole movie–until a couple of months ago when my wife and I watched it. We were both caught up in it. I especially enjoyed the extent to which Beale/Chayefsky railed against the culture–of American in general and of TV in particular. I also recognized how Chayefsky’s attitudes and Shepherd’s could be similar in subject matter, but Chayefsky’s projections were much more fierce, with a scathing brutality as a forecast of what might happen based on current trends. Shepherd’s lampoons I consider to be much more lighthearted and not up to the level of his stories and other radio material.
Go for it, Howard!
I was especially stunned to see him
shot to death live-on-the-air.
It’s Paddy Chayefsky all the way!
Great, but that ain’t Shep,
who mostly wished to stay on the sidelines
observing, reflecting in his stories–
or slyly mocking.
PLAY “MISTY” FOR ME
I don’t know why I never paid attention to this movie in regard to Shep. I’ve never even been aware of anybody else mentioning it regarding Shep, so I had no clue. What I may or may not have known about it, I was undoubtedly put off by the apparently consistent violence of Eastwood’s movies–joy for sadists and masochists alike. Only the recent reference to it by Jim Clavin of http://www.flicklives.com, when he received the audio of Shep’s “Misty” broadcast and passed it along to me, got me involved. Then I realized that I’d have to force myself to watch the horrific, bloody movie–I’m obligated because of shepology. My wife says it’s “just a movie”–that “just” is something we’ll have to talk over one of these days. I’ve now forced myself to watch it and I’m perusing the paperback novelization-based-on-the-movie for any other clues to Shep’s world.
Not Shep’s usual subject matter.
I’ve seen clips from it recently and now I’ve read some about it. Brrrr! Not Shep’s style of radio to be sure. I felt obliged to some day soon see this damn, rotten, fantastic flick! Finally saw it. Powerful! Grim. Not like the Shep we know. Even more to come about it.
I’ve previously indicated some tributes to Shep in the media.
Here’s a bit more.
A THOUSAND CLOWNS
Jason Robards (Murray) and his nephew performing
“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” one of Shep’s favorite songs
to sing and play on the air.
The tribute in the movie Network to Shep’s “hurling an invective,”
as parodied in Mad Magazine’s
illustrated article, “Nutwork.”
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
Jack Nicholson playing David Staebler, “a melancholy Philadelphia disk jockey
who tells long, angst ridden stories of his childhood over the radio” lives with his
elderly grandfather. An extended story he tells (shown in the closeup),
about he and his brother as kids, complicit in their grandfather’s death
by choking on a fish bone, is obviously a fabrication because,
as an adult, Nicholson lives with his grandfather.
This clear fabrication might well be a comment on
Shepherd’s stories being at least in part fabrications “based in part on his life.”
“Tribute”?–or just Reference?
PLAY “MISTY” FOR ME
My recent posts discuss Shep’s relationship with this movie–
I can’t ask the two scriptwriters of the movie because both are dead.
Clint Eastwood as the late-night DJ
ARE THESE SHEPHERD HORROR STORIES REAL?
DAMNED IF I KNOW.
PART OF ME SAYS ABSOLUTELY NOT.
THE OTHER PARTS SAYS THAT
I CAN TELL THAT THEY’RE REALLY FOR REAL
In the last part of his broadcast, with all the commercials out of the way, Shepherd gives more details about the young woman who killed six.
I’ve got something to tell you tonight about “Please Play ‘Misty’ For Me,” and it’s a pretty scary story. It’s–it’s actually scarier than the events that occurred with Clint Eastwood in the film. That was very straightforward. A girl got hung on this whole loneliness thing and she wound up wanting to kill. But I can tell you a story, that to this day, is inexplicable, and I’ll guarantee you somebody along the line connected with that film…either heard of this case or knew about the incidents that were around it. I’ll just let it stand for that.
Laurie Squire, who worked at WOR with Shep in the 1970s reports: “I actually remember an off-air casual conversation where Jean said, in essence, “And you know that Play Misty For Me was based on me.’ (Followed by a chortle.)”
Does the chortle represent that “I’m just putting you on”? Or does it represent that, “See, here’s another example of my life and work being referred to in the media.”?
I feel that the scary stories are for real for a couple of reasons:
- I’ve never heard Shep so awkward/repetitious/unsure–as though this is affecting him more than a fictitious story ever does.
- Someone telling a “horror” story does not begin by calling it “scary” and “inexplicable,” because that undercuts the story-teller’s attempt to make the fiction seem believable.
- I’ve never heard Shep tell such a true-sounding “story” about his real self before. He speaks more like telling an anecdote than telling one of his kid or army “stories.”
I feel that I can tell they’re fictitious because:
- They seem overwrought/overly horrific.
- Why have we heard nothing about these occurrences before in the professional life of Shep?
He talks about fans and groupies and assures us he doesn’t mean their kind of enthusiasm. He says:
“The media groupy is a solitary person. A solitary in a solitary room, and often, in the case of the neurotic, the only communication they’ve got–with the outside world–is this radio set….Radio presents a curious set of conditions to the neurotic. First of all he often believes he’s the only one who is getting this. Now a normal person wouldn’t think that way. But the neurotic we’re talking about, remember, he’s crossed the line of reality.” [He comments that in this case it’s a female.]
“…she believes that this thing that’s coming out is for her, and it’s only for her. That all the others are intruders. Incidentally, for your benefit, there have been two attempts on my life….the incident occurred right here [laughs] on Broadway at 1440 on a Saturday morning. And it was a wild fantastic moment. Every bit as frightening as the moment when the girl attempted to stab Clint Eastwood….
Well, before we go any further, I’m going to tell you a really hair-raising story–you better turn your lights on–that makes the Clint Eastwood story look like greasy kid stuff….This happened to me personally. This is not fiction, I’m not inventing it. This really happened.
Alright, I will tell you the story of what happened to me. [pause] and a–it was–it was–it, it forever changed my thinking, I suppose you might say–rationality, reality, all the other things we take for granted in our lives. Ah–it was a very odd experience. And I will tell you exactly what happened without embellishing it.
Radio is part of lonely peoples’ lives–three in the morning they’re out there in those dark hives, in the–in those unimaginable cells, with the radio going and this voice is talking to them and they begin to have all kinds of fantasies.
Well, I began to get, just out of the blue, one day–this was in Cincinnati, as a matter of fact….I began to get letters–of course you get thousands of letters in the media,…but there’s a certain kind of pattern that begins to develop. Immediately your senses–if you’re in this business enough, your senses begin to raise the little hackles in the back of your neck….there was something curious about these letters. Was a certain tone about them. Ah–they were written in green ink, a rather exotic handwriting–it was kind of backwards slanting and quite flowery and ornate. And the letters always came with some kind of face powder–had been sprinkled into the letter, so that when you opened it, this face powder drifted down….an odd combination of English and a few French phrases thrown in….This woman, or this girl, assumed that I was French [Because, he thinks, of his name, Jean] so I knew the language.
The letters began to get more and more verbose….They were verbose about things which had no relationship to anything I was doing. For example, she would say, “Well, of course you know that today I went to the bank….” the letters were getting longer and longer and after about three or four months, every day they began to arrive….Suddenly I was getting seven, eight, nine, ten letters in one mail, all in this green ink. and getting more and more–I can only say–feverish–is the best word–feverish.
Well now, it just so happened that I was doing at that time–just about–I started to do a show in a nightclub. I was doing a nightclub show–in Cincinnati. and the show actually, was broadcast at the same time.
From July 1949 to Spring of 1951 Shep did an
evening show from WSAI in Cincinnati.
This, according to current knowledge appears
to be the last time he had an evening show
in Cincinnati before going to Philadelphia.
Is this restaurant setting the “nightclub”?
Well, out of the blue I got a package–just came to the station. and it was like many packages some people send things to you. But this package was unbelievable–it was heavy, big, it was a big, thick package. About the size of a Sears Roebuck catalog it was. Opened it up and it was the biggest, longest, most unbelievable letter. It was a letter of about a thousand pages in length, written in green ink. A continuous letter. Imagine–can you imagine getting a thousand-page letter? Finely written in tiny handwriting?
I was getting worried about this. Really worried, because it seemed to have overtones that–that really started to scare me. Well, one night–a–we were setting up, and there were people arriving in the nightclub….So that night I see down in the crowd–I instantly knew-there was a strange-looking, very thin, hawk-faced girl, with unbelievably burning eyes, wearing what looked like a big leopard-skin beret. Strange-looking hat. And just looking. With no-blinking eyes. Just intense–intense, looking at me. And she’s down in this crowd.
And I turn to my friend–“Look out! I think we’ve got something going tonight.”
And he says, “Yeah, I think we have.”
When, right in the middle of the show–as I’m performing on stage–she got up off of her seat and walked forward and laid on the stage right in front of everybody–she laid a package–that was thinly wrapped with tissue paper in a box. [Shep’s 2-minute closing theme music starts] And–a–I paid no attention to it.
Bob very carefully opened it–off-stage–and in the box was a doll. Painted black. Wearing a red-lined cape. Well, wait a minute. Think about this. This is a male doll painted jet-black wearing a cape that had been put on it. Red-lined. Just–that’s all there was to it. At that point I began to see–that there was more going on here, friend–than I had bargained for.
And that was the beginning of one of the most bizarre, fantastic events–well, can you imagine coming out two years later–coming out of a television/radio station in Philadelphia–at two o’clock in the morning in a driving rain, with my MG parked out front. And standing in the doorway across the street–is the girl. Wearing the same leopard-skin beret, just watching me. Everywhere I went. What it finally resulted in–would make–I have to say–it would make the Clint Eastwood movie look like an episode of the Bobbsey Twins. It wound up with six people dead.
And it was a saga that went–over seven years. This woman constantly pursuing–a girl, really. She was only in her early twenties roughly. And she changed until she finally became a wild shrike with burning eyes, with only one desire–and that was to kill.
And guess who.
That is right.
Yes, and, perfectly timed, Bahn Frei ends with those last word of his story: That is right,” and with the music’s conclusion there is Shepherd’s familiar “Ahhhh.”
Don’t we get any more odds and endings than this?
“And you know that ‘Play ‘Misty’ For Me’
was based on me.”
(followed by a chortle)
THE SHOCKING CONTINUATION
I’ve just heard what seems to be a recently discovered audio–probably originally from 1971– in which Shep discusses in some detail his having seen the movie “Play Misty For Me,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (1971). It’s about a late-night disk-jockey on a small radio station in the late 1960s.
→ Hear Shep show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yqbnLs0FF4 ←
Shepherd’s discussion is a far-ranging one regarding his early days in radio as having almost always been on stations with 50,000 watts (top notch!); describing neurotic notions caused by the nature of modern media such as radio especially, notions which he refers to with what he believes is his own coinage, “the media neurotic.”
Shepherd describes the DJ in “Misty” as one who doesn’t play the Top-40, and that he has a very personal kind of radio monolog. (Already this sounds a bit like Shepherd himself. Is this movie another Shep-inspired concoction?) A woman calls frequently, asking the DJ to play “Misty.” She manages to meet him and they have sex. She then becomes jealous of his regular girlfriend, she murders several people, and she tries to murder him. [I’ve just seen the movie for the first time and find that she seriously injures one person and kills a cop, threatens to kill the DJ’s girlfriend after binding her up, and tries to kill him, wounding him several times with a knife before he, defending himself, accidentally pushes her so that she falls over the balcony to her death.] Shepherd says that most people who see the movie would just feel that it’s a fiction–a horror movie and not like something that could really happen. He wants us to realize that what happens in a horror movie–such as in “Misty”–is something that can happen in real life. (He is leading up to his revelation about someone who stalked him.)
Film critic Roger Ebert comments:
“The movie revolves around a character played with an unnerving effectiveness by Jessica Walter. She is something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you’re held. Clint Eastwood,….He is strong but somehow passive, he possesses strength but keeps it coiled inside. And so the movie, by refusing to release any emotion at all until the very end, absolutely wrings us dry. There is no purpose to a suspense thriller, I suppose, except to involve us, scare us, to give us moments of vicarious terror. ‘Play Misty for Me’ does that with an almost cruel efficiency.”
Well, I am not going to say any more about that except to say that–that there are very close parallels in that film–not only close parallels but actual repetitions of actual events–that have happened to me–in this business….
Now it’s long been my feeling–working in media–it’s long been my feeling that we’ve created a new kind of psychosis in our time….A new kind of mental problem. The media sicky….
Shepherd tells a fragment of an extraordinary story about himself in which a woman was obsessed with his radio persona and ended up killing six people. Are we to believe this? Curious people want to know. Quick, somebody, track down every such murder story–Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York–that made the newspapers. Later in the program he continues the story, locating it mainly in Cincinnati.
He tells this as actually having happened to him. (Not to be confused, apparently with his kid stories and army stories, because he is connecting it to his whole real world as a radio person who has really experienced this.) After some commercials, as he returns to his monolog, he refers to what he is describing as a “story.”
Alright, lets get back to life here. You know, I–I–I have–I have–mixed feelings about this media neurosis. And I don’t often tell stories–I suppose you might say–or a–I suppose they’d be stories–about what’s actually happened to me personally–in media. Very rarely hear this.
What are we to make of this?
What seems to make this a real–true–true–occurrence–
is that this whole telling about
“Misty” and media neurosis and his own problems with cuckoos–
is that it all seems
to have discombobbled Shepherd–
he is awkward rather than smooth,
he nearly stutters, he repeats–
he does not seem able to keep his “story” under control.
It seems as though the movie of a crazed listener
stalking a DJ
has hit him
very close to home.
Radio presents a curious set of conditions to the neurotic. First of all he often believes he’s the only one that is getting this. Now, a normal person wouldn’t think that way. But the neurotic we’re talking about, remember, he’s crossed the line of reality. And–or she–it’s most generally–in this case it was a she. She’s crossed the line of reality and she believes that this thing that’s coming out is for her, and it’s only for her….
Incidentally, for your benefit, there have been two attempts on my life. That’s no joke. If you’re here to say I’m laughing–these are serious.
One of them involved a knife–much like in the movie that you saw. And in fact, curiously enough that knife almost looked exactly like the one she used….
It was a big, twelve-and-a-half-inch bread knife…and the incident occurred right here [laughs] on Broadway at 1440, on a Saturday morning. Every bit as frightening as the moment when the girl attempted to stab Clint Eastwood….
A woman was attacking me from behind and I had no knowledge of it–didn’t see it. But an elevator operator happened to be standing there at that point and he saw her charging at me with a twelve-and-a-half-inch bread knife ready to plunge into my back. He floored her, he just left his feet and knocked her flat. And there was a hell of an uproar, the knife was skidding across the floor, and she screamed, “You can’t do this to my life. You can’t do this to my life!”
What was I doing to her life? Well, she was hearing on the radio. And the show had become, in her neurotic way, bound with her life. She would build her whole day on listening to this show….whatever I would say would seem to be about her. About her….It seemed that I was privy to her life. You notice that most other media are not connected with the daily life…. But there is in radio. It’s an instantaneous medium. So you begin to believe “he’s like me, he’s living my life.”
Shepherd is connecting it to his whole real world as a radio person who has really experienced this. This is not just a matter of Shep’s art of radio story-telling. This seems to be a matter of what really happened to Jean Shepherd.
Does he call it a “story” so that we may not quite take it as real truth?
Is his confused manner for real or is it so good an act that he convinces us truly?
I do not know.
I want to know.
In the last portion of the broadcast he goes into some detail about the young woman in Cincinnati who, through listening to him on the radio writes him strange letters and eventually turns up during a broadcast he’s doing in a “night club.” She puts on the stage a very disturbing present for him during the show.
WHERE IS ALL THIS LEADING?
Stay tuned for Part 3
Let’s talk about cuckoos. Most well-known people encounter them. Shepherd seems to attract more than his share. I broached the subject in my EYF!, starting on page 184:
“Fan” after all, is a derivative of “fanatic.” The peculiar showed up, as they tend to do in a performer’s life–Shepherd seemed to attract a large share of especially strange people. The older brother/mentor feeling and the direct communication that Shepherd inspired attracted some listeners who had excess enthusiasm. Possibly odd loners who had trouble connecting to real people in their lives found Shepherd’s special intimate style attractive and they “glommed” onto him.
Of course most listeners to Shep weren’t/aren’t cuckoos. Remember that, in fact, the most famous “listener” called in during Jean’s overnight broadcasts in early 1956 and eventually married him–actress Lois Nettleton, who, based on my knowledge of her, was an extremely rational and sensitive person–with a genius IQ. A few years later, when she discovered aspects of his “secret life,” I understand that she simply changed the locks on their apartment door and he was finished. Bobby Fischer, strange and neurotic chess-champ, was another kind of brilliant acolyte of the Shepherd persona, and they became friends–Fischer’s recent biographer confirms these facts as Shep related them. Oddball genius Andy Kaufman was a fan. Shepherd’s earliest comments about cuckoos that I’ve heard is in a 1965 broadcast in which he comments in part:
I would like to tell you–all you nuts out there. A special message to the nuts who are with us tonight. If you have suppressed calling, you know–I understand that it’s not easy being a nut and I understand that suppressing you nuttiness is one of the most difficult parts of being a nut….There ain’t gonna be no more nut calls tomorrow night. okay?”
Several other cuckoo-contacts I’m aware of, as described in my book, are from the early-to-mid-1970s. Again from EYF! a report from Barry Farber is that a thirteen-year-old girl was so infatuated with Jean-on-the-air that when he responded innocently to her fan letter, she fantasized that he visited her at night. Look ’em up. Here’s a bit more:
Shepherd on the air in 1972 asked, “Have you ever wondered why I have a funny look in the eye, when this stuff keeps coming in over the transom?” As general manager of the station, Herb Saltzman remembers, “They showed up, and we ended up having, I believe, to put a security guard into [WOR’s offices].”
From a broadcast in the Fall of 1970, closely related to what he discussed in his broadcast about ‘Play “Misty’ For Me”:
Once in a while you’ll have the misfortune to actually run into one of these people in person at a show, see, and they’ll be a lot of people coming up–you know, they want to talk to you about things–autographs or whatever it might be, see.
I’m not talking about just Shepherd. I’m talking about all kinds of people. By the way, it might surprise you to know there are other listeners to my show other than you, friend. Which always surprises people. But you’ll go to some place in person, and somebody will come up and say, “Hello!”
And you say, “Oh, hello.”
“Well–ah–hello!” they’ll say. “I’m Clarisse!”
And you say, “Oh, yes, well, hello, heh, heh, glad to meet you. My name is Jean Shepherd. Is there–“
Girl says, “What do you mean? I’m Clarisse!”
You’ll say, “Yes, well–well, is there anything I can do for you, Clarisse? Do you want–“
“But I’m, [bewildered tone] I’m Clarisse!”
And you’ll say, “Do I know you?”
“Of course. I’m Clarisse!”
By that time, of course, the guards, wherever they are, are beginning to edge forward, see, because they can recognize the cuckoo eye. The cuckoo eye is usually a kind of watery eye, where one eye spins faster than the other in its socket.
The foregoing is but a calm introduction to the most incredible and scary Shepherd broadcast I’ve ever heard–that’s dated January 28, 1975–thought to be a rebroadcast of the audio originally broadcast in 1971, at about the time “Misty” came out–a program that must make one rethink what Shepherd had to say about truth/fiction in the past. On that, in part, I said in my last post about “foibles”:
That what Jean Shepherd said and wrote could not be relied on as real-world-literal-truth is well substantiated. This could be caused by any combination of the following: conscious creation of an artistic fiction as he said above in reference to In God We Trust; conscious deception in order to give a false image of himself; faulty memory.
What other possibilities are there? In that scary broadcast we are faced with a serious issue– as he describes having seen Clint Eastwood’s movie “Play ‘Misty’ For Me” and he discusses how it relates to his true life. Shep, is what we’re hearing real truth?
Stay tuned for the shocking continuation.
[I seek any/all info regarding cuckoo-threats against Shep.]