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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.”
My recent “Mad As Hell” post focusing on Shep’s invectives inspiring a scene in the film “Network;” scenes in “A Thousand Clowns;” and, maybe as a second generation/once removed from “Network,” Dee Snider’s Twisted Sister mega-hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” inspired Joel Baumwoll to post, in part, “‘Hurling invectives’ was one of several ‘pranks’ in which Shep cajoled his listeners to participate as co-conspirators. As far as I know, this was unique among radio or television performers. He made the listeners feel they were part of his act, and I think that created a strong bond between him and the ‘kids’ who listened to him.” [I emphasize in red some of the aspects of Shep’s clever ways to bring his listeners into participating, exploiting his followers into upsetting the domestic tranquility of the nation’s creeping meatballism.]
Joel goes on to mention several of Shep’s other pranks.
[I’d like to have a word other than “prank” but there may not be a better]:
PRANK, CAPER, LARK, LEG-PULL, PRACTICAL JOKE
Many of us, of course, are familiar with most of these maneuvers, but it took Joel to point out their relatedness. I’m going to elaborate on them, and I hope others will add to the list and elaborate on what I have to say.
HURL AN INVECTIVES
Although well-known as a major caper of Shepherd’s, very few have been noted down or even been available to hear. The most extended, as far as I’m aware, is the one I recorded on my reel-to-reel and quote in Excelsior, You Fathead! in which he builds up to it in part with the prototypical, “Put your radio on your windowsill now!” (Here–top one–is part of the quote from my book):
Myrtle! This is the third time you’ve come home drunk again. What about the kids? What about the kids, I ask ya? How long is this gonna go on? How long?
You don’t think for a moment you’re fooling anyone, do you?
How long do you thin you can get away with this? The jig is up!
You filthy pragmatist!
All right, you guys! Fall in. The doctor will be along in ten seconds. The uniform will be helmet liner, raincoats, and GI shoes, and nothing else! Let’s go!
Drop the gun, you rat! I’ve got the drop on you! Move one more time and you’re gonna get one between the eyes!
The “pragmatist” one was remembered by editor/publisher Paul Krasner. “Drop the gun” was Shep years later quoting himself on the Alan Colmes call-in program in 1998.
Hoax regarding fooling the book-buying-and-selling public by many listeners asking for a non-existent book has been discussed numerous times–here and elsewhere. The book’s afterword is a sly reference to the perpetrators–Sturgeon, Shepherd, Shepherd’s Night People listeners. Of course only those who were aware of the hoax would understand it.
In these, Shepherd asks his listeners to gather at a particular place and time and just quietly walk around aimlessly (“mill”), which, just by its non-confrontational manner, would gently disconcert the clueless. (Later fads maybe mill-inspired: “happenings” and “flash mobs.”)
Burned-out Wanamaker store when he was fired.
Marboro book store.
Early days at “The Limelight Photography Gallery and Coffee Shop.”
Washington Square to fly tiny kites.
Wave a white towel at the beach or flick your light switch off and on at night and look to see how many others (fellow listeners) are doing it.
Related to “mills,” reportedly Shepherd fantasized that many listeners should run to one side of a building to tilt it, or that they jump up and land at the same time to move Manhattan Island.
During a live-at-the-Limelight broadcast, he would sometimes ask attendees to yell in unison to the radio audience:
THIS IS W-O-R AM AND FM IN NEW YORK.
WE BUY SOAP AND WE TAKE BATHS
When being considered “not commercial” by WOR’s management Shepherd suggests that listeners go out and buy Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor.
WOR management is outraged and fires Shep.
Sweetheart Soap offers and provides sponsorship.
There are a couple of other ways that Jean Shepherd promotes
a sense of community among his listeners:
Refers to them as ” Gang,” “Listeners,” “Fellow Sufferers”
Those who send in interesting comments/news-clippings that might seem to indicate a burgeoning trend: “cracks in the sidewalk,” or “straws in the wind,” he calls:
Although it’s well-known that Shep’s was not a “call-in show,” he did receive from time to time calls from listeners–most prominently from Lois Nettleton, then an aspiring actress–they eventually met, dated, married, and divorced. Usually one did not hear the caller’s voice, but sometimes one did, especially when Shep requested a particular response from the caller. One time he did a kind of communal celebration when he asked and got from the caller, on the air, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Shepherd.” Shepherd also sometimes took calls during commercial or news breaks–then I once got to talk to him but was so nervous, I sounded like the klutz I was at the time (I think I’ve improved a bit over these many decades.)
Shepherd encourages his listeners to listen to and read various works of literature that he likes–at least in part so that they will feel this bond of mutual enthusiasms: including haiku, Thomas Wolfe, Robert W. Service, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), George Ade, and various specific books which he discusses on the air with enthusiasm.
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
A major form of assisting “the arts” includes his discussions with three of the rare guests on his show, the projects in which they are involved: Herb Gardner, Arch Oboler, John Cassavetes.
Drawn and widely popular before his soon-to-be-produced
play and film, “A Thousand Clowns” was to destroy their friendship.
I heard Shep’s broadcast with Gardner
discussing the Nebbish phenomenon–and I bought a ceramic tray of the above image
and a soft, white statuette of a Nebbish. I still have them.
“Night of the Auk”
I heard Arch Oboler, the well-known radio scriptwriter of such shows as
and various suspense dramas with Shep discussing on his show in 1956,
Oboler’s soon-to-open dystopian sci-fi drama. I attended one of the previews.
An opening title of John Cassavetes’ Shadows.
Shepherd and Cassavetes, actor and aspiring playwright, discuss his need for money to make the
film–so Shep’s listeners send in small amounts totaling about $2,000.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE MORE COMMENTS TO THE ABOVE IDEAS
→ 2 more appropriate additions from Joel←
SPIES: The very idea of calling us “spies” is so loaded with the us vs them feeling, which is so much a part of Shep’s attraction to adolescents who had any sense of humor. He really was an innovator in the art of getting his audience to feel they were part of his act. In fact, I can’t think of anyone today who is doing anything like this on TV or radio. The internet has created a great wave of participation. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram with followers and likes and such give users a sense of belonging. But a single performer creating the kind of true followers as Shep had has never been duplicated.
AWARD BRASS FIGLAGEE: Another technique he used was awarding a brass figlagee to anyone who could tell me the name of..the color of…the program that did…etc. This was Shep’s version of a tv quiz show, with some long forgotten esoteric person or even as the answer. He would take calls, but rarely put the caller on the air.
I remember one where he described a favorite childhood toy, a metal taxi cab painted in the yellow checkerboard colors and with two characters inside. I knew he was talking about Amos and Andy. He offered his prize to anyone who could name the cab or the program. I shouted at the radio “Sunshine Cab Company–Amos and Andy.” Almost always, the program would end without the answer ever being revealed.
Yet another technique was deliberately getting a name wrong, knowing that many of his listeners would know what he was doing and feeling in on the joke. He often called the Dickens character Ebineezer Stooge, and deliberately got the first name wrong for some famous character like Madeline Monroe, knowing it would drive some in the audience nuts wanting to correct him. All effective ways to make the “in group” feel in.
→ SNARK! ≈ AGONY! ≈ FITS! ←
Jean Shepherd loved to express his feeling that life, in all its glorious fruitcake-variety and joys, is also, ultimately fraught with defeat and is, indeed, absurd–that was his dark side of the mood. And yet, religiously, or existentially–or mindlessly–we go on. No wonder he enjoyed Lewis Carroll’s long poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” At last we now have Shepherd’s broadcast reading it, from January 29. 1963. (Thanks to Jim Clavin’s http://www.flicklives.com for providing; recording by David Singer; provided by David Director.)
What in Heaven’s–or Hell’s–name is a Snark, anyway? My dictionary says that snarky is an adjective meaning: irritable, short-tempered, irascible. It is a funny-sounding and absurd word–a word that surely Shep loved just for it’s self–as L. Carroll most certainly did. It’s a portmanteau word–a word made by merging the sound and meanings of two different words: chortle=chuckle and snort. So what is a Snark? — Might as well ask–what is a Boojum?
What is Agony? It’s awful distress–either mental, emotional, or physical. It is a God-awful word to find describing a posy for kid-types. (But it’s not really a poem for kids.) Agony is a state experienced in Purgatory, in Hell, or in an Existential Dilemma (if you get a dilemma, make dilemma-nade.) It’s existential–ask people who enjoy talking about it–Jean Paul Sartre or Norman Mailer, or Jean Shepherd.
What’s a fit anyway? A seizure of convulsion, a sudden outburst of emotion, a sudden period of vigorous activity. Or, as my dictionary also defines it, in a way that Carroll surely and sneakily had in mind: “archaic, a section of a poem or ballad.”
A child-like, sophisticate-like fit to befuddle. That’s what this poem is. It’s a poem to tickle and terrify us all. Fits and Starts. That’s why Professor Shepherd likes it and reads it to his Class of Sophomores.
After the excitedly absurd opening theme music–the ridicledockle and delightful “Bahn Frei, ” Prof Jean Shepherd starts right in unceremoniously and without a by-your-leave, to read Lewis Carroll’s preface to his dainty ditty. (At least so suggests the present audio, with its puzzling hiccup between “Bahn Frei” and the first word of our Shep.) Here’s paragraph the first of the author’s preface:
“If–and the thing is wildly possible–the charge of writing nonsense were ever brought against the author of this brief but instructive poem, it would be based, I feel convinced, on the line
‘Then the bowspirit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
Between the preface and the poem, our shepherd adds only, “And now the poem. A little Gothic music if you will.” He reads it with passion-he reads it with love-he reads it as though-he-were-inspired-by-something-Above.
“To pursue it with forks and hope.”
And in “Fit the Fifth” our shepherd breaks in. Hard to believe, isn’t it? He reads the fifth verse of that “Fit the Fifth”:
But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,
And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)
They marched along shoulder to shoulder.
Then he says: “I repeat that passage. Does it sound like recent history?”
But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,
And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)
They marched along shoulder to shoulder.
Good gracious! What was happening in the real world just before this January 1963 broadcast?
Oct 14th: US U-2 espionage planes locate missile launchers in Cuba. Oct 22nd: JFK imposes naval blockade on Cuba. Oct 26th: JFK warns Russia US will not allow Soviet missiles to remain in Cuba. Oct 28th:Cuban missile crisis ends after JFK and Khrushchev make a public and secret agreement. Of some note: During the scary/snarky period of October 1962, both the US and USSR performed several nuclear tests both underground and above ground.
Other than for the JFK assassination, I can’t remember Shepherd commenting directly or indirectly on political or other current events other than about such superficial stuff as the NY Worlds Fair.
Not often (if ever before) has Jean Shepherd devoted an entire broadcast–first word to last–on a single work by someone else. He reads the finale:
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away–
For the snark was a Boojum, you see.
And under the last few words there arises a faint fiddling sound–a Baroque ensemble–and Shepherd speaks:
Let me tell you, that ought to be required reading for the undergraduates twice a year. Along with the Army General Orders. Along with, I would say, the War Department Memos regarding suitable dress, along with–yes, I can think of several other things. “Snark was a Boojum, you see.” Heh, heh, heh, heh.
You think Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense, do you? It’s fascinating what they call nonsense. They call Lewis Carroll nonsense, and they call Herman Wouk sense. Well, the way I figure it, you takes your chances, you gamble, you put your money down–sometimes you win and sometimes you loses, you know. That’s the way….”but I didn’t have no luck, you see.” Inch this way, inch that way. It’s all a matter of luck. Just keep your glove oiled, dad. Keep your knees loose, and keep your spikes sharp. [“Bahn Frei,” in its self-confident pomposity arises and plays itself out till the end.]
The dark and scary humor must have really impressed him. I understand that it’s his kind of thing. Something childlike and funny in its sound and something dark and realistic in it surrealism. (It just occurred to me that Herman Melville might have titled his epic THE GREAT WHITE SNARK.) I find “Snark” infinitely above the entertaining Service stuff he sometimes reads with relish and piccalilli. “Snark” he reads with some of the same style he does with the Service material but with more control and, for me, just the right amount of enthusiasm and emotion warranted by Carrroll’s superior art. Unexpected and colossal this “Snark,” a broadcast to remember!
The fits have been read
and it’s time now for bed.
You wonder what dreams have in store–
will you snivel a bit or guffaw?
Now you’ll weep and you’ll quake
till the family’s awake.
You’ll gasp and you’ll shiver and shudder–
and go crying-out-loud fer yer mudder.