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The film, annotated, in part.
Years ago I wrote and submitted to a movie magazine, my overall description and commentary on that great American Christmas movie. But it was rejected, the editor said, because the mag had published a general article about the movie a few years before. Here’s a slightly-edited part of the introductory matter I wrote, plus a paragraph from the 2016 holiday issue of the magazine Vanity Fair.
• • • • • • • • •
“Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”
In case the reader doesn’t know, A Christmas Story (1983) is the movie about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas. His mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out. He (a cute kid with glasses), his kid brother (very whiny), his parents and friends, live in the steel mill town of Hohman (actually Hammond), Indiana. Their world is just as we remember life used to be or feel it should have been. Yet almost every incident in this sort of picturesque, just-like-it-should-be world, ends in disaster. But then the kid gets the gun and the parents show mutual affection, so all imperfections convert to life as we dream of it. The End.
• • • • • • • • •
NOSTALGIA (Jean Shepherd: “Get it out of your skull!”)
Although director Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give A Christmas Story a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was seriously meant to be an exercise in nostalgia. Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” That is not nostalgia.
Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, had a negative view of life’s ultimate meaning, and often expressed an intense dislike of nostalgia. From his earliest radio days he insisted that, despite evoking the past, his stories showed that the past was no better than the present. On one radio program he put it this way: “My work, I think, is anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a putdown of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.”
A QUOTE FROM THE VANITY FAIR HOLIDAY ISSUE, 2016
Shepherd’s biographer [sic*] Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, ‘Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.’”
*As I continually explain, my book is not and never was intended to be a “biography.” It’s a description and appreciation of his art.
With all of this, A Christmas Story is the funniest, most enjoyable, wittiest, clever and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see yearly for twenty-four hours straight starting Christmas Eve.
Over fifty million people watch at least parts of it every year as it’s shown on Turner Cable television. Some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialog and the narration, repeating them along with the film. (Despite watching it yearly and remembering most details, my wife and I laugh unfailingly at the same places.) Most watch it yearly, filled with the teary-eyed nostalgia they bring to it, though most of them undoubtedly do not know what the film is meant to be about and that there is only the tiniest bit of authentic happy-days that I think was probably (through a producers’ arm-twisting of the script-writers) tagged onto the end. The viewers’ ignorance is bliss. Yet, they might increase their pleasure in this delightful creation by understanding more about the film, because knowledge and insight, as we know, is a very satisfying sort of adult bliss worth adding to one’s heretofore innocent enjoyment. Viewers will come to understand why the kid nearly shoots his eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Let’s follow A Christmas Story
from its opening titles to its picture-postcard, sugarplum end.
Of course not enough people read opening titles, but in this case, it’s worth taking the trouble,
because who created the film and narrates the entire thing is of much relevance to what it’s all about.
Probably a vast majority of viewers don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that,
prominent among the opening titles they would read the following four:
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Presents
A film from the works of Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Ralphie as an adult
• • • • • • • • •
Based upon the Novel
In God We Trust
All Others Pay Cash
By Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown
& Bob Clark
• • • • • • • • •
The title “Ralphie as an adult,” refers to Jean Shepherd doing the entire narration we enjoy so much. He had previously used this narrative style in his 1970s television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” and he described the style in his introduction to the published script of it, writing: “The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously in communication with the viewer.” Fans of the 1988-1993 sitcom, The Wonder Years may well recognize that form of narrative. Shepherd, who, because of his use of it for A Christmas Story in 1983, had been considered for the narrator role in the sitcom, but had then been turned down, apparently because his adamant beliefs regarding his creative endeavors were considered too difficult to deal with. Bitter for many years, he claimed that The Wonder Years producers had stolen from him not only his technique, but some plot lines.
For those unfamiliar with Jean Shepherd, note that he improvised his nightly radio program in the 1950s through early 1977, and that most of the film’s content was told by him on his shows in the early 1960s without a script. Then he wrote down the stories and they were published in Playboy, then in his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’ Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Shepherd, a major jazz personality in the late 1950s, is also known for his other films, several television series he created, as well as for hundreds of live performances around the country for decades, and for perpetrating one of the great literary hoaxes of all time: the I, Libertine affair. (You can look it up.)
Merry Christmas to all,
and may none of you ever
shoot your eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
So I’m this 63-year-old guy and I’m in a booth at the Museum of Television and Radio on 2/15/2002, listening to a Shep program broadcast 12/20/1959, and I’m doing my best to transcribe it. No, actually–I’ve caught myself–I’ve got a small cassette recorder hidden there in the dark and I’m recording it to transcribe later. Not many of this sort have surfaced yet. It’s one of Shepherd’s really laid-back, ironically amusing “philosophical” broadcasts that I like so much.
Now, about fourteen years after I’d recorded and transcribed in longhand (it’s now early 2016), I look over the eleven pages of script on ruled yellow paper. That’s only about 12 and-a-quarter minutes out of one of his extended programs. I know about how long because I just read it aloud–trying to give it the pacing Shepherd had–timing it with a stopwatch. (I do what I gotta do to get these blogs down right.)
This program of his really is a downer, but, remembering how ol’ Shep can tell it, I know just the kind of amusingly ironic tone he’s giving it, so I know I laughed while listening then just as I’m laughing now. (I hope this hint has readers also listening to Shepherd in their minds as they read.)
Now I’m wondering how much of it I can put down here without losing the audience. I’ve got to give it a try, and maybe break it into a number of separate posts. I hope that will keep the readers/listeners glued to Shep’s philosophical rant–(with the help of a meaningful simile-cum-pun) like bubblegum tossed on the sidewalk now stuck to the souls of their psyches.
…each one of us. Someone who stands off to one side and tells us how we can get it all straightened out. How we are going wrong. How we faulteringly missed the step, the eternal roadway of damnation. Always. I think there is a giant monkey on the back of everyone. It is truly. It is the individual corrective agent. The giant monkey of “Now look, you’re going wrong, and I know how to fix it up. I know how to cure it.” It might be a man, it might be a woman, it might be an incense burner for all I know. But there is that monkey on the back of everyone.
And nothing seems to deter them. They’re always there. They’re always waiting for their moment. And it’s no wonder–it’s no wonder that a good portion of mankind continues to believe in black magic of one kind or another. That the woman who looks out of the television screen, out of that commercial with the great flashing teeth, and she says, “I have just discovered the new wash-day miracle.” It’s going to straighten it all out! All of it! Happiness will flow through your family like a great river of Karo Syrup. A new miracle. And somehow it seems to be true–there is a new miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. The next miracle, and the one after that.
Yes, be the first one in your neighborhood, friends, to burn Lucky Me-Joe Incense three times a week. according to the directions on the box. The sweetness will last for days. Your friends will love to visit you–and remark on the delightful perfumed fragrance that fills your home.
The burning of incense for luck was a secret belief known to the ancients and people of many different ancient, ancient, ancient, long-forgotten cults. It drives away your enemies and brings out those who will, in the end, be your true loves. Now–there is no guarantee that this will happen. We only say that it has happened in the past. So burn it, burn it, burn it.
To be continued.
Yes, Shep knows how we have gone wrong.
Will he reveal his secret verbal ingredient?
What do Shep and Ol’ Blue Eyes have in common?
Jean Shepherd and Lois Nettleton
Frank Sinatra and Lois Nettleton
Yes, but what else? My wife comments that some of my favorite creative people (Hemingway, Picasso, Mailer, Dylan, Shepherd, and Sinatra) have this in common: they could be not very nice people (to put it mildly). Probably the majority of people familiar with those names are not familiar with the ways in which each in his own way could be so self-centeredly cruel.
[Regarding creativity, how many know that Picasso wrote and that both Shepherd and Mailer drew?]
Recently, my interest spiked by an HBO two-part special on Sinatra, I encountered a short but succinct book by Pete Hamill, Why Sinatra Matters (1998). The intro concludes thusly:
….Now Sinatra is gone, taking with him all his anger,cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts with joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relive the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: “Only connect.” In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.
Read the following, with Shep’s–or Hemingway’s or Picasso’s, or Mailer’s–name substituted for Sinatra’s, understanding that I recognize that there are differences in the correspondences:
Now [Shepherd] is gone, taking with him all his anger,cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The [words] remain[
s]. In times to come, that [voice] will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to [Shepherd] in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives…. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relive the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: “Only connect.” In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will [Jean Shepherd].
A scrawled masterpiece by Marta Monteiro
Seeing the cover of the New York Times Book Review of January 17, 2016, I nearly passed it by as a nothing space-filler. But I began to look at it a bit more carefully. I became fascinated by its graphic sophistication masquerading as a childish scrawl.
Picasso is quoted as saying that it had taken him decades to learn to draw like a child. This childlike drawing contains a plethora of visually and intellectually fascinating details. My interest in fine art, my training as an industrial designer, and my career as an exhibit designer all train me to see and understand. I feel visually and mentally invigorated just thinking about this piece.
The image shows many people, from the back, wending their way past a title and its list to their right, and the section title: BOOK REVIEW. The colors are, roughly, red, white, grayish blue, and black. The color areas are nicely balanced in zigzag arrangement throughout, starting with the most realistic depiction of the red sole of a man’s shoe at the bottom, expressing his and the entire crowd’s movement. Major red items continue a bit higher up on the far left with a woman’s head scarf; move up to half of a man’s red jacket; centered to the right, a woman’s red coat; further right is a red scarf and coat; one continues the zigzag movement to the center. A red-jacketed man whose red-soled shoe repeats the motif from the bottom of the crowd, but, on the other foot, as though the two feet are part of the one entity—the crowd–re-emphasizing the crowd’s forward motion. Above, a girl’s red coat; to the right a round red hat; left a red coat; the zigzag continuing, diminishing in size with a number of small red spots: all, with smaller red strokes moving the eye up into the far distance. One can as easily follow the rough zigzags of blue, black, yellows, and a couple of greenish tans.
Most of the solid color areas follow the shapes of the clothing, but yellow and blue sometimes serve both as parts of objects and as extensions beyond their objects, becoming parts of the abstract zigzag patterns that help move us up into the distance at the top of the page. A good part of the blacks also serve as outlines, helping define objects, such as the many black-textured scribbles that amusingly define a great variety of hair styles, and, on the lower left in the white of a man’s coat, a long jagged line (seeming by itself to be an arbitrary stroke just for composition’s sake), defines a sleeve and its wrinkled connection to the coat’s shoulder. Check out for yourselves other color and shape areas to see how they assist the overall graphic composition.
Halfway up on the left, a blue-textured smudge seems to be a couple of far-off trees. The man with the checkered jacket holds on his head a red-outlined flat box, graphically, roughly echoed by the black-outlined cooler to his left, and much higher up and further away, a blue-outlined arc-shaped container on a head, and above that, another outlined box on a head. The tiny shapes in the furthest distance are somewhat recognizable as people, then further up, abstracted into pure color blobs beyond our recognition, but we know what they are. They become even more anonymous than the closer members of the human throng.
Near the bottom right, a blue shape with a pattern of vertical black lines denote a coat with sleeve, and the wearer’s large white bag on his/her back serves as background for a very sketchy man’s head and shoulders with scribbled blue sweater, scribbled black hair, and yellow outline of head and ears. He is almost the nearest to the viewer and, being transparent, lets us see beyond him, giving us a psychological sense of being maybe at the back of, but definitely a part of, the moving crowd. (Graphically illustrating this “psychological sense” because, when we are in a crowd moving, we sometimes don’t see some parts of those around us and then sometimes those pieces of the crowd are revealed in the shifting movement—yet, seen or not, we know that they are all there.) It is as though humanity, en masse, including ourselves, travels up the page and far beyond our ken.
I’d never heard of artist Marta Monteiro, so I googled images of her work and found many that I liked. Yet my favorite is the finely designed sketch of migrating humanity gracing the cover of the Book Review.
[Among elements I’d failed to note earlier is that the vertical box, low, left, is diagonally oriented to help the zigzag move up toward the right, where several people, facing diagonally leftward, dramatically form a visual element with the red-outlined box on the head, in all, strongly aiming the direction back toward the center in the zigzag design.]
I emailed my original comments–above the centered diamond shape–to Ms Monteiro (where she is located in Portugal) and she graciously responded:
Dear Eugene Bergmann,
thanks so much for your interest on my work and your kind words.
I usually say that I communicate more successfully using images than words. When I try to use words they fail on me all the time but images don’t. So I wish I had the time to do a quick drawing about how happy I felt when I read your e-mail.
Everything you wrote is on that image. The childlike approach to drawing, the zigzag of colors and shapes and the (sometimes) abstract design of figures/people. All descriptions are really accurate and I couldn’t have said it better….
In EYF! I prominently designate the period from early 1956 to some time in 1960 as Shep’s
What follows is more delving into this thought. (Please be aware that I believe that Shepherd’s 45-minute shows from the early 1960s to his last show on April 1, 1977 contain many masterpieces, and are a major part of Shepherd’s claim to greatness. See my many EYF! chapters–consisting of the majority of the book–in this regard.) Yet, the change from overnight shows (and the related and intermediate period of long Sunday night shows from 1956-1960) to the 45-minute shows most basically and most well-known of the 1960-1977 period, present interesting questions regarding the road not taken.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
When he was fired during the summer of 1956
and would be rehired to begin in September, 1956,
what options did Jean Shepherd (and WOR) have?
This in part must be seen without having the “overnight” programs available for study. (When will somebody, please, contribute some recordings of his overnight shows?) We can assume that to some extent, they were similar–but maybe more laid back than the Sunday night programs. Sunday nights, with the earlier hours–having only a small sample to go by–must be seen as an only partly known, transition between all-night and the 45-minute shows that dominate Shep’s best-known, final seventeen years of radio.
Recently I read a great and fascinating book about Robert Frost’s well known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Yes, the book is titled The Road Not Taken; it is by David Orr; it is 172 pages; it consists entirely of why the poem has been misinterpreted by nearly all who have read it and who describe it erroneously. It’s a wonderful, easily understood book, described on the flyleaf: “Yet in spite of this extraordinary devotion, almost everyone gets ‘The Road Not Taken’ hopelessly wrong.” Why is this related to Jean Shepherd? Because it was in the summer of 1956 that Jean Shepherd faced a path in the woods and had to make a choice that would determine the future of his career, his art, and his life.
Is the poem, “a paean to triumphant self-assertion, in which an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary between self-deception, in which a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life-altering?” The later is the surprising answer regarding the poem.
For Shepherd, what was his thinking regarding why he chose to change from the late-night route to the earlier, and eventually, the shorter time period? In what ways did he imagine it as life-altering and better? Was he right? What did he gain? What did he lose? Did he then or later understand all the important consequences of his choice? Did he believe, in later years, that he had made the better choice? Did he tell himself, as does the poem’s speaker, that his choice had made all the difference?
He certainly could not have told himself that he took the path less traveled by, because the path he chose led to easier and more popular hours, more exposure and bigger audiences, more sponsorship, wider work in more media. In certain ways, he became more popular. Is this what he wanted? Did he realize all the ramifications of this popularity?
There are quite a number of books on decision-making. In an op-ed essay in the August 25, 2015 New York Times, David Brooks’ column is titled “The Big Decisions.” He ends the column with: “It’s probably safer to ask ‘What do I admire?’ than ‘What do I want.'”
What more is there to it than that?
? ¿ OVERNIGHT PROGRAM VS. ? ¿
Was he tired of the hours and preferred the easier lifestyle of more “normal” hours?
Did he think he’d get more listeners broadcasting during earlier hours?
Did he realize what kind of changes in the type of listeners he would get with earlier hours?
Did he realize that the more hip audience he’d had might not follow him into evening hours?
Did he realize how the earlier and shorter hours would force him to change the nature of his style and content?
Did he understand that earlier (and ultimately shorter) hours would change the nature of his laid-back improvisation?
Did he recognize (as Lois Nettleton said she and he both did) that the shorter, tighter format was in some way not quite as “unique” and pure “genius” as Lois felt?
Did he realize that he would not be able to pursue on the air the kind of jazz he preferred?
How much did the potential for more sponsors (more $) affect his decision?
Did his jealousy toward the celebrity/success of some of his contemporaries (Mort Sahl, etc.) contribute much to his decision?
WE DON’T KNOW
PROBABLY NEVER WILL
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
“Just a philosophical question. I mean, who does who in–in life?
Or–and this is the worst question of all to ask–
do you do yourself in?
“Oh no, it can’t be! No, no, that’s ridiculous!
No, no! Society did it to me!
Rotten, crummy, evil society!”
(Jean Shepherd, January 22, 1966)
The scheduled time slot (overnight) for which he was one-of-a-kind got changed to his style’s detriment (so say some of us–it was a different kind of genius).
The medium in which he was fully prepared and the outstanding genius, faded in that aspect in which it–and he–excelled.
The audience for which his original style excelled, changed and expanded into adolescent acolytes who overwhelmed him–positively with their adulation and overwhelmed him negatively by overcrowding him in his personal space (Remember that WOR had to hire a guard to keep them at bay).
The audience, for whom he was an important mentor, included his two children for whom he was an abominable parent.
Apparently, the pursuit of greater respect, renown, dough, and additional outlets for his art produced a broadening of his professional endeavors.
The extraordinary fields and activities in which he excelled, diminished in popularity:
Radio as a medium.
He was a modern jazz aficionado–
evidence of change:
“A few years ago I was deeply involved in jazz—and in fact in my private life I still am. … I used to work in jazz a great deal.” He names many major performers he worked with and mentions the Loew’s Theater late-night concert featuring Billie Holiday. (November 23, 1971)
He does not explain why his interest has diminished to just private–but not public manifestations; during this program of jazz-nostalgia he plays not just snippets but complete jazz recordings, naming the performers and commenting on the pieces, just like the knowledgeable disc jockey he used to be;
I, Libertine hoax mentality;
(Blame the popularity of TV).
Culture-determined, diminished attention span of audience;
The varied skills he possessed to a high degree, failed to adequately replace, in other media,
his loss of radio as his prime medium.
Could/would he have continued to produce his unequaled radio art if increased money and desire for celebrity not been a factor?
That his frustration and anger at the world’s unfairness sometimes overwhelmed the better parts of his persona may well have been inevitable.
Larry Josephson: “I don’t think it’s possible to perform at the level that Shepherd did and have that kind of ego and drive–to be on the air five or six nights a week and yet be a sensitive, caring, loving human being. You have to get up and concentrate the energy–drive, whatever–to be a performer. It narrows your ability to give warmth and love to kids, women, and friends….I’m sure here and there there’s somebody in the world who was a very great creative artist and also a nice person, but I can’t think of anyone.”
We’re all born butterflies. Each one of us. With these beautiful, magnificent wings ready to fly in the sunshine. For those slow barrel rolls and loops. And slowly, oh, ever so slowly we burn those wings off–in flame And we wind up where we are now. Me sitting here. You sitting there….It’s a funny thing. We loose our wings in the sneakiest way possible, and it’s when we least expect it’s about to happen. (Jean Shepherd, November 25, 1958 [?])
I mean, anyone who looks at life with a cold unprejudiced, agate eye of truth must realize that life is basically in extremely bad taste. (Jean Shepherd, date unknown)
We ought to have a Dream Collection Day….As a kind of public recanting, you see….Everybody would have to do it together–all together, we’ll clean out all these broken, old, sad, poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams. (Jean Shepherd, November 22, 1959)
[Note above how early in his NY career he said these things.]
Shepherd from time to time commented on the discrepancy in life between what we assume is reality to be expected and the actualities of life. Therein lies much irony. Should examples of this be called “humor”? In a reference I recently encountered, a Lois Rubin has been quoted: “The great American joke” is “the incongruity between promise and reality, things as they should be and as they are.” I find this discrepancy as commented upon several times by Shep, but I’m not quite sure he was sufficiently aware that it also applied to him. And I’m not so sure he’d describe this as humor. He expected much more, and this is a good part of his tragedy.
Close friends of theirs say that in their final years (In Sanibel, Florida) Leigh drank and both of them lived like recluses. I don’t even like to think of them that way–a way in which they seemed to have given up. Laurie Squires: “After Leigh died, I called, and he sounded like a broken man….”
A Reality, 1997.
For Me, the Reality Always.
We are not the “vast hordes” he once described us as being, yet–yet still
–we three here represent part of the small horde
of Shep enthusiasts.
And Jean Shepherd still speaks to all of us:
Hear it? Listen, listen–you hear it? I’ve been trying to say it. What I have been trying to say all along. Yeah. There’s not much time left. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to be able to hear it. I guess you can’t. I guess everybody hears what he is hearing. Nobody else can hear it.
Did you hear that?
You know, it’s going to be summer soon.
–Jean Shepherd, 1960?
º º º º º
THE END–BUT WAIT! I RECENTLY ENCOUNTERED
WHAT WAS TO BE THE FINAL SUMMING UP
OF ONE OF MY “MISCELLANEOUS” SHEP BOOK MANUSCRIPTS.
OH YES, AND A RECENT BOOK
ABOUT A ROAD NOT TAKEN.
SO SEE THE NEXT POSTS–
A SUMMING UP OF ALL THESE LAST
* See EYF! last page of text, p.439-440 for longer quote.
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
Why and how he was switched from the more innovative overnights (at the NJ transmitter) to the in-studio, earlier-in-the-evening slot, is unknown. That he seemed to have retained the impetus of the overnights into Sunday evening, is a major victory. He seemed to have retained the slow and easy-going style of the overnights (I’m assuming this, as the following, much shorter broadcasts are of a different kind–still seemingly loose, and definitely improvised, but a bit less free-flowing.) That this schedule gave way to those earlier, 45-minute weekday segments, also represents a change that resulted in a different kind of show with its own very high-quality use of the radio medium.
My chart, shown in the previous post on the subject–as well as in a much earlier post–shows the difference in his career trajectory. Most noticeable in the programs themselves would seem to be the much larger percentage of school-age listeners and what I observe is the absence of contemporary jazz.
Many prefer his more refined and organized, 45-minute improvised radio to his long, Sunday evening, looser style. There is something easier to take, more conventional, more traditional as art and organization in his 45-minute style. He recreated himself, and that is a great accomplishment. The variety from night to night over about seventeen years is a marvel to behold. His commentaries, wit, philosophical bits and pieces, his cuckoo musical interludes with jews harp, nose flute, kazoo, and head-knocking, his stories that seem both improvised and sometimes, somehow well-formed, coming out just right at the end of the show. We revel in the variety, the unexpectedness, the mastery.
Comic strip artist Bill Griffith, in his “Zippy the Pinhead” tribute, expresses it well: HIS WIT WAS LIKE A LIFE RAFT TO ME. I CONFESS…I WAS A CULTIST…AND JEAN SHEPHERD WAS MY GURU. WHO KNOWS WHAT DEEP SUBCONSCIOUS EFFECT HIS LATE-NIGHT LOQUACIOUSNESS HAD ON ME…?
The large influx of high school and college listeners was a good thing as far as sponsorship was concerned, and Shepherd also enjoyed the adulation. But he did not so much like the intense crowding of his personhood that such cult-like celebrity brought.
As I’ve suggested before, I believe that, despite such masterpieces of his post-1960 WOR days as: Eulogy of JFK; Morse Code and Mark Twain; March on Washington, etc., Jean Shepherd’s creative heights leveled off at the very high standard he maintained for another decade-and-a-half.
Stay tuned for Part 5 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
In childhood and youth, Jean Shepherd encountered some little realities (no desks in kindergarten, not getting his name right!–oh my!) He discovered the joy of words and art. In his time in college he had two major epiphanies–snails and cars can give one important life-lessons. Among his early adult experiences in the army, he said that his training in Camp Crowder (aka “Camp Swampy” as it’s named in Beetle Bailey) made him a man.
Tadpole Dreams and Aspirations
Soon after the war, he began his radio career in such lesser locations as stations in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. He referred to these early times as his tadpole days. He honed his skills by talking “too much.” With the early history of radio’s dominance across America and his skill with improvised words, he had dreams, he had aspirations.
To me it’s the most romantic of all the media. Fantastically romantic medium. I’ll tell you some night.
At night I’m working in a radio station, see. I’m doing all these things. I’m doing these things–and slowly, by tiny, tiny inchings, my fame grew. I’m doing the English cut-ins on a Lithuanian man-on-the-street broadcast. After that I was given my own program. A program that was heard every morning at 5:30 AM. A program of Elmer Rhode Heever hymns–recorded–in which I did the commercials in between. I was beginning to inch my way up and up and up. Inch by inch. Moment by moment it looked like any day now–the next assignment I was Cousin Jean on a hillbilly teenage program when I had to talk like this [Imitates accent.] I was beginning to really feel it. I mean, you know, I was “tearing a side.”
I was just beginning to see that there was a world out there. I mean that there was something beyond Western Avenue, I was beginning to understand that–that out past Howard Street there was something. And it was beginning to erode me. This city [New York] is the worst seducer in the world. It erodes. It cuts and digs and grinds….Well, I got this special delivery letter. It said, “Dear Mr. Shepherd, I own a string of radio stations in Alaska. We would like you to come up and run our Juneau radio station. We will provide you with a cabin.” A cabin!
And every one of these guys who were doing things like the Elmer Rhode Heeber Gospel Hour, and guys who were doing the English cut-ins on The Croatian Hour. All of them looked at me. “What are you doing this ridiculous thing for?”
“Well, look at this–Alaska! Alaska!”
“Are you out of your mind?”
I said, “No, look around. Listen. Here we’re in this little dark radio station with the liana vines growing up the side, and the old Wayne King records that we play over and over and over again.”
Three of them looked at me with one eye, and all three of them said, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go–New York!–I mean, the Big Apple–that’s the big time! You can stand right next to Andre Baruch, right up there with Frank Gallup, with Kenny Delmar!”
And all the while the Bing Crosby record was going, “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.”
I looked at the three guys and I said, “You’re right!”
Yes, Jean Shepherd knew that they were right. Beyond his tadpole experience in his early radio days, with what sources of nourishment and knowledge was Shepherd equipped to create a name–and a persona–for himself in New York? The Midwest storytelling tradition and style. Extended stories that create a narrative environment for insights he wanted to convey to amuse and instruct through context and humor. Mark Twain, George Ade, W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade. No more “You and me, and blue Hawaii, da de a do do do do.” He was on the cusp of burgeoning. Evidence refutes the story that he would go to the Big Apple to take over as host of the Tonight Show. He would go to New York to be on the radio. He would burgeon.
Portent: That Andre Baruch, Frank Gallup, and Kenny Delmar are not currently names widely celebrated, or even widely known, does not tend to bode well for radio-based aspirations.
I believe that Shep’s faults and failure (despite his genius) to achieve universal renown to the height he believed to be his due, rise to the general classic level of tragedy. Read my first post on the subject and my upcoming posts (every other post on a subject, as is my custom) and give me some feedback, please, especially as I proceed with later posts in this series.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
(First of a Tragic Series)
This is The Shepherd’s Life, a very partial bio, selected, condensed, concentrated, focused—one idea and interpretation of a classic tragedy as understood by a particular person based on what he knows and understands and guesses. (Many people, including the media, describe any and every unfortunate occurrence–such as a fatal accident–as a “tragedy.” This may well be very sad, but not a classic tragedy.) For me, a classic tragedy emerges from a combination of a person’s conflict with his/her cultural environment along with some personal attribute and/or flaw within that person’s being. (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, etc.)
Please remember that quotes from the Shep are not necessarily objectively true, but are probably true in spirit. The opinions are based on current knowledge.
In italics there are basic facts, objective evidence, and subjective interpretations.
In boldface there are direct quotes from The Shepherd, based on edited, transcribed words from his radio broadcasts.
The results are as objective as I can make them–and simultaneously subjective/creative. If this is contradictory and an enigma–make the best of it. And let’s have feedback, gang.
I believe this is an insecure world. I mean, you know, that’s the way life is. Lightning bolts, thunderstorms, hail, Mack trucks, fistfights in the dark. –Jean Shepherd. August 29, 1964.
Jean Parker Shepherd, born July 26, 1921 on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois to Anna and Jean Shepherd–
Jean Shepherd with football,
and other kids.
On the South Side of Chicago.
[Photo: Steve Glazer, Bill Ek]
where he spends the first years of his life, until he and his parents and his younger brother, Randy (whining under the daybed), move across the state and city lines, eventually to Cleveland Street in Hammond, Indiana. He remembers his first days in kindergarten:
I had seen pictures of classrooms—with desks. The desk itself was very very attractive to me. The idea of having a desk—little kids love desks. They love to sit at their own little thing. Pile stuff on it. And have their desk….And I always pictured school too, to have something to do with reading. I was an early reader. And I was a fanatical reader. I could read well by the time I was about four so my whole idea of school was that I would go to school and we would read and I’d have this desk, see.
….This lady took us right into that room. That was actually the beginning of life itself. The official world, those buildings, and those buildings will pursue us all the way to the end of our life. Those official places. This is the very first one.
It was our first day of kindergarten. I will always remember. And, in fact, vividly remember—the intense shock and great wave of disappointment. There were no desks! There wasn’t a desk in the entire room! And there were sandboxes. Sandboxes! There were little girls sitting around cutting stuff out! There were thousands of kids all sitting around playing in sandboxes! I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox.
I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox. I didn’t want to come to school to play in the sand.
Already little Jeanie can see that he is in a world filled with disappointments. The teacher wants the kids to introduce themselves by telling the others their names:
And this is the first of a long series of traumas that begin. She says, “What is your name?”
“Yes, but you see, Gene is short for Eugene. And you can all call him Gene if he wants to be called Gene. But that’s a very pretty name. Is your father’s name Eugene?”
I never heard the name Eugene in my life! My name is not Eugene. Jean. J E A N, Jean. I’m falling behind in school—over my own name! I’m lousing up over my own name!
Jean Shepherd has many experiences typical of grammar school kids, and some that are special. He is particularly fond of reading, including, when he was about fourteen, P. G. Wodehouse:
I started laughing in the study hall and I couldn’t stop laughing. I was laughing like I was out of my mind. The author, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse and I read everything this guy wrote. From that time on, to me, writing—as a writer—writing and performing has always been directed toward being funny.
And, at about fourteen or fifteen he took his class’s supplemental reading list to the library and took out a book.
And everything changed. Trumpets blew. From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page. I never read anything in my life that was like this. It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on. It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense. They were beautiful. Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks. And I remembered the name of the book. Always, forever. Look Homeward, Angel.And from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful–as words. Words are what it’s about.
Reading. And words. Words are what it’s all about. Jean Shepherd found his love of words at about the same time that the great invention of electronic sound and words—radio– was becoming widespread in the United States. As he was growing up radio became the great communicator of music and words—ideas. Broadcast radio, ham radio, the medium for talking and creating sounds of all kinds. Classical music, jazz, stories, sports, news, ideas, all coming to you from Chicago and around the country. And Jean Shepherd was there at the time and place for him to embrace it and eventually realize it as a love and as a career for his talent.
Interest in ham radio begins for Shepherd in grammar school and extends throughout Shepherd’s life. Shepherd several times speaks on the air about his love of ham radio. He says that in high school, it led to his being chosen to announce a sports program—his first experience with broadcast radio.
I became, at the age of ten, totally, maniacally, and for life I might point out, completely skulled out by amateur radio. Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it and never lets go. I would sit in class in eighth grade and I would send code to myself by the hour, as I’m reading something—say, a geography book—I wouldn’t read it, I would send it to myself. I’d actually hear it in my head. The dots and dashes of the words. As a CW man, it got to the point when all of my world was bound by the sound of this language.
Shep in 1975 talking
about amateur radio
Sound as Art
In high school Shepherd plays bass violin, tuba, and sousaphone–instruments requiring both physical strength and intestinal fortitude. He describes the crucial role music plays in his life. From the beginning he is obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.”
How does a guy get to be a tuba player? There’s a certain look of sadness in the eye of all tuba players. A tuba player is a man who has lived through a peculiar kind of hell.
He comments on a broadcast that his playing tuba in the school orchestra is the first time he ever created beauty. Using music as metaphor, he illustrates his joy in making art.
As a kid in high school I was absolutely the ace of the bass section of our band. The first chair bass man. And that is a great feeling. For years I had worked my way up. I started in eighth grade playing E-flat tuba. The tuba itself is a kind of challenge. It’s a heavy instrument. You get so that you love the tuba. You get so that you actually have a physical love for your instrument—for your tuba. Yeah, you sit there and you pat it, you talk to it. Many’s the time I’d come into the band room and seen Reg Rose, who was in the bass section. I saw him one time weeping, sitting there talking to his B-flat sousaphone, weeping and crying, and the sousaphone was crying back. [He entered a tuba-playing contest and lost out to a phenomenal player.] Ever since that time I have known that for every good thing you do there are fifty-thousand better things that somebody else can do with his eyes shut.
In contrast to making art, as a youngster he spends time working in the steel mill as a mail boy (delivering words), and he describes his first disorienting and anxiety-filled day there. He finds Mr. Galambus, his protector, there and he feels better. And that was only the beginning. That day I learned something very important. I haven’t discovered yet what it is. Even after high school it’s sometimes hard to understand the nature of what one is learning. Shepherd says very little about higher education. But he learns two very important lessons outside of his college classroom. They are an essential part of his education. The lessons remain with him—because there is an aftertaste. They are epiphanies.
Escargot and Bugatti
Part 1–Escargot. He’s invited to dinner where the house and the customs and the food are much more expansive and finer than were his custom.
And the next thing I know, in front of me is this plate of something which had always been rumored in our house that people somewhere, someplace, ate. And we never really believed it! And whenever it was mentioned they ate these things—“Oh, ugh!” Nancy takes one of the snails and says, “Oh, these are so wonderful.” She takes one out of its shell and I see how she does it. She takes this little fork and she fishes one of these things out, and it looks strange, you know—like a little black snake or something. She pulls it out and puts it in her mouth—“Oh!”
I can’t chicken out. I’m feeling sick inside. With the little fork I fish the little thing out. I put it in my mouth. I go, “uuushup!” I taste it. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! [Pause.] It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is so good I can’t believe it!
And then the lesson hit me. I looked around. I saw all these other people—they’ve been doing this all of their lives! They weren’t surprised at snails. And it began to sneak up on me—what other terrible stuff did I learn at home? What other things do I think are awful? Just because it was back in the kitchen that way, you know? I ate the snails.
Late that night, lying in the dormitory room, I felt those snails—you could taste them. There’s an aftertaste. And I began to suspect that night that there was a fantastic, unbelievable world out there. And I was just be-gin-ning to taste it! Just beginning! God knows where it would lead!
Part 2–Bugatti. A Cincinnati college professor invites Shepherd and a couple of other students to go see something special on a Saturday morning. (An authority on the subject confirms to me that such a sight as Jean was about to see really was in Cincinnati at the time. Although Shepherd sees a variation on the actual car he later remembers as the one that appeared as one of the great masterworks, the epiphany remains valid.)
I’ll never forget the day that I had the great awakening regarding an art form. Even today, in this country, there are very few people who recognize this as an art form.
Up to the point when I’d discovered this form, I’d been a walking-around-ignorant. I was just beginning to see that there was more to the world than “Flash Gordon” and more to drawing than “Prince Valiant.” I was beginning to suspect things. We go through this period when we begin to see things that we never really realized. That the world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top. We begin to see how fantastically varied and infinitely complex it is.
It turned out to be a garage. A plain, ordinary, crummy-looking garage. He took his key and opened the lock on these big garage doors and he swung them open and the four of us walked into the gloom of this garage on a gray Saturday morning in Cincinnati.
And I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was that unreal. He had reached up and flicked on a neon light and that light made it look even more spectacular. This thing began to gleam with that light. And there it was.
We were looking at one of the great automobiles. I mean one of the great automobiles. By “great”—this car had appeared in probably two or three hundred catalogs of great masterworks—that specific car. Even today that car is almost priceless. It was one of the finest works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century–considered possibly his prime work. Ettore Bugatti. A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths. He created them as works of art.
I didn’t realize that there was one man to whom a car was not a car, and he spoke in a universal language. It was an art—pure and simple.
“The world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top.” To paraphrase Shepherd here, he found that there was one man to whom words were not just words….. It was an art—pure and simple.
Two Epiphanies: “And I began to suspect
that night that there was a fantastic,
unbelievable world out there.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
NEW (WIMPY) KID IN TOWN
Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its many sequels as kids books (originally composed with adult readers in mind, so the author says) have, reportedly, 150 millions copies in print and been made into a movie. An article about him in the NY Times says “the illustrated diary of an acerbic and devious middle-school boy named Greg Heffley. The stories were semi-autobiographical, loosely based on Mr. Kinney’s childhood and ‘put through the fiction blender.'” Thus, author Jeff Kinney’s work would seem to have some similarity to Shepherd’s.
I’ve skimmed this first volume and find it witty and well done, though not, as it claims on the cover, “a novel.” (Remember that Shep’s IGWT is described on the cover–and by Shep himself–as “a novel.”) Wimpy does follow the kid through his first year at middle school, seems not to have the structure of a novel, but, indeed, has, one after another, dozens of individual bits and pieces, each quite good as stand-alone, funny vignettes. They do add up to a volume that keeps one’s interest through funny little episodes and funny kid-like comments by the wimpy kid.
Neither does the book seem to be told through the drawings on every page (Described on the book cover as “cartoons.” The drawings are really very funny illustrations to the text. Altogether a well-done creation.
Does author Kinney have any acknowledged debt to Shepherd? I hope to find out.
An interview by David Hiltbrand posted online in March, 2010, comments. “Jeff Kinney had a clear template when it came time to adapt his wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid children’s books to the big screen. ‘I went right to A Christmas Story,’ says the author, citing the 1983 film based on the stories of radio humorist Jean Shepherd.‘ ‘In most kids’ movies, the stakes are very high,’ says Kinney, 39, in Philadelphia this week to promote the movie, which opens March 19. ‘The world is going to end or somebody is going to die or something awful is going to happen unless the characters do such and such. In this movie the stakes are incredibly low. There are two friends who break up and you want them to become friends again. In A Christmas Story, the stakes were perhaps even lower. A kid wants a BB gun. We kept reminding ourselves when we were working on the film that you can tell a good story even on the big screen with really low stakes as long as the emotional part of it works.'”
In another interview he says, “I see my books as joke-delivery mechanisms. I’m trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure a way to get a good story out of it or something credible then I’m very satisfied, but really, I’m trying to keep the kid laughing, and often, if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the joke and it burns through too many pages so I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke any time.” So we see that his intention is not the same as Shep’s long-form humorous tales (Though A Christmas Story, not a Shep-alone but a joint-creation, is constantly laugh-out-loud funny for me and my wife every time we see it.)
By the way, I also like the weird, kid-like drawing style of Wimpy Kid–it also has its appropriate, funny look to it.
Kinney is opening a large, independent bookstore in his home town. He’ll have a special spot for all the Wimpy Kid books and ancillary, money-making by-products.
Imagine how envious Shep would be regarding all this!
(Although there’s no focus on Shep’s total creative output
at the A Christmas Story House’s store,
maybe it’s the best we should expect.)
A couple of months ago, a New York Times front-page article appeared regarding audio books, noting that, “The story was conceived, written and produced as an original audio drama for Audible, the audiobook producer and retailer.” This might indicate an increase interest in audio stories–such as Shepherd’s radio stories (and maybe his other broadcast material).
The article goes on: “Some see the current audio renaissance as a modern version of the Golden Age of radio drama….”
Shepherd sometimes talked about his view of how the whole world of storytelling on radio had so soon faded from away after a relatively short life:
It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared. It would be as if somebody had invented painting and great painters had flourished for—oh, maybe twenty years and then everybody forgot about painting because everyone discovered ceramics. Or they discovered sculpture and—they—they just completely from that day on—because radio can do things that television and the movies and the stage can never do. It plays with the imagination and the mind [in a way] that I think no other medium can ever approach.
Yet the whole idea of radio acting—you know some great radio actors who in their field were as fine as, and in many cases even better than, anybody performing on Broadway, anybody performing in the Shakespearean repertory today. Some great actors rose to become really fine artists in the field of radio back in the 1930s and early 1940s. And the whole— the whole canvas is gone now. The whole thing is gone. It’s really a shame because this was a fine medium and is—it’s as though there was a big sleeping giant out there. A huge, sleeping giant that’s lying out there, that one time people hunted, that one time excited people and has now long since somehow been forgotten by the people. And it’s lying out there in the jungle there, just—just completely untouched as though it’s a whole new mind-land, let’s say, a universe of the—of the psyche is lying out there untouched, and will be untapped. (See my EYF! pages 97-98)
Shepherd (and others) had defended the special attributes of radio for creating a reality. The Times article quotes: “‘You can create a picture in your mind with sound that’s every bit as vivid as a movie,’ said the novelist Joe Hill,…’A lot of filmmakers who work in horror say what’s really scary is hearing, not seeing.'” The article also notes that, “Some are shunning the term ‘audiobook’ and trying to rebrand their content as ‘audio entertainment’ or ‘movies for your ears.” A new way of promoting audios, says the Times, is to”blend the immersive charm of old-time radio drama with digital technology.” This means incorporating sometimes considerable sound effects, music, varied voices, etc.
[Shepherd very much enjoyed the Paul Rhymer radio sitcom, Vic and Sade.
It played with the small minds and incidents
in American life.
Maybe not a serious example of great acting (?).
But exceedingly witty.
Vic, Sade, author Rhymer,
and one of the Rush players:
Art Van Harvey, Bernardine Flynn,
Paul Rhymer and Bill Idelson.
The Times quotes Jeffrey Deaver, described as a “lawyer-turned- thriller writer,” to end its article thus: “There are so many time-wasting alternatives to turn ‘The Starling Project,’ into a traditional book.” Deaver is hoping the project will help him: “This is an easier way for people to get access to good storytelling.”
Shepherd created his audio art with only his voice, and maybe a bit of crinkling paper or desk pounding–maybe he would have approved this technologically enhanced form of sound-in-stories.
Or maybe not.