Home » Television
Category Archives: Television
In the late 1950s Jack Paar’s late-night TV program was the first big Tonight Show to gain wide popular viewership. (Remember that this was the show, earlier staring Steve Allen, that Shepherd was reportedly brought to NYC to take over—but the evidence shows that this was not so). Alexander King, as a guest, became very popular on Paar’s show. This resulted in high sales of several of his books.
King told autobiographical stories with entertaining wit and charm. The first paragraph of an Amazon Customer Review of a King book by Jon Richfield—-describes him well–at least as he appeared on TV: “King was a mercurial spoiled brat with enormous talent, great compassion, great selfishness, idiosyncratic tolerance and intolerance, impressive culture, totally variegated experience, a marvelous capacity for talking about it, and enormous charm. He raises serious doubts about some of what he says, but says it all with such natural conviction….”*
The New York Times obit of 11/17/1966 described his Paar appearances as providing “…witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on life, art, woman, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction, and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”
FIRST BIG KING BOOK
King’s charm, wit, and quirky energy captivated the audience. Shepherd’s style, being more of a slowly articulated description that relies on a build-up of humorous situation, did not grasp and hold a studio (or a home-viewing) audience sufficiently, I believe, which is why Shepherd-telling-a-story on television by simply talking, as he did on his radio shows, did not work. Fellow-performers on TV such as Ernie Kovacs and Victor Borge seemed to recognize this and undercut Shep—on live TV.
*King once claimed that he’d published his translations of Ovid’s love poems (43 BC-17 AD), even though he knew no Latin. He said that he gathered various translations of the poems and reworded them for the better. He said that he received acclaim for the best-ever translations of Ovid. Amusing story and very possibly true–but I’m not convinced. In fact, it may also be that, just as with Shep, little that King told was more than a smidgeon true to fact.
The Love Books of Ovid:
A Completely Unexpurgated
and Newly Translated Edition.
Internet search shows several booksellers
offering this 1930, privately published book.
All booksellers (and the book’s spine) show
King only as illustrator.
(21) FULL COLOR NEWSPAPER WARS
The New York Times, from time to time, has published some esthetically lovely photographs. Beautifully composed, wonderfully colored. One might say, “masterpieces.” They compare with some of the great painted masterpieces of violent centuries past. Many of these depict the ravages of wartime. They’ve made me stop and wonder at my own intellectual/emotional conflict. I’ve saved scores of these images and concocted a couple into an elegant, cedar, cigar-box-artifact meant to preserve and remind. (It needs to be noted that some of the lovely photos I’ve saved from the Times are simply beautiful and not disagreeable in content.)
Man and grandmother: homeless refugees.
Women: grieve over the yellow head, cheerful red and white-striped cover
with body beneath.
There are still elegant photos in the Times, and I look forward to those to come.
My previous blog about “The Village” focused on what the book, The Village, had to say about Shep’s Greenwich Village. I just re-encountered the audio of Shepherd’s program (reportedly broadcast sometime in 1972) about his connections with the Village. He talks about his various associations with it, but, as related to him as it mostly is, he treats it in a rather objective list as explanation for his affection toward it. Although I wished for a more heartfelt paean, what he has to say is worth repeating in order to get a fair surface picture of Shep-and-the Village. Because portions of the program he devotes to some basic background info, I edit out and rearrange some of this to make it more concentrated regarding issues that fatheads would find of special interest. As always, I don’t change anything and I don’t leave out important stuff. For Shep, follow the bold text.
Washington Square Arch,
near which Shep held a “mill-in,”
one Saturday afternoon, listeners having made,
at his suggestion (and attempted
to fly there) 3″-5″ box kites .
According to one of the letters I’ve just received—the letter here says, “Shepherd, the trouble with you is it’s obvious that you live in Greenwich Village. Of course that totally warps your view and makes you somehow suspect.” Well, this is one of the most prevalent ides of the outside world RE the Village.
You know I rarely talk about that part of the world. Even though I live in the Village. You probably know that, don’t ya, Herb, that my home is the Village, and I’ve lived in the Village for a long time. And various parts of the Village. I used to live in what is now called the East Village over on 7th Street. And now I live in what is called the West Village. And I also lived in the Village when they just called it the village-Village.
But the curious thing about the Village, I think–which to me is very interesting–it’s one of the few places in America, really, where you can live–you live in an area–it’s almost a state of mind.
End of Part 1 of 3
“Pretty Bubbles in the Air”
I’m forever blowing bubbles,/Pretty bubbles in the air,/They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,/Then like my dreams they fade and die./Fortune’s always hiding,/I’ve looked everywhere,/I’m forever blowing bubbles,/Pretty bubbles in the air.//I’m dreaming dreams, I’m scheming schemes,/I’m building castles high./They’re born anew, their days are few,…
No wonder Shep would sing some of the lyrics–they exemplify his philosophy.
Some of the little-known or unrealized Shep projects
Over the years, Shepherd claimed to have a play in the offing, and a movie he said he was working on as late as 1998, the year before he died. None of these has appeared. Maybe they were mere pretty bubbles.
In a major film made in 1964, Light Fantastic, Shepherd plays a dance instructor. The film, apparently released only in Europe, has not been available in the United States.
Shep plays the part of Frank, the older Dance instructor. “In this romantic drama, a plain, lonely secretary wins three dance lessons. Her handsome instructor tells her that she is quite talented and cons her into signing a long-term contract. She soon finds herself in love with him, and an affair begins. The normally cold-hearted instructor is surprised when he finds himself genuinely returning her affections. Trouble ensues when she dances with another instructor who gives her exactly the same sales pitch.” Source: IMDB – Written by Jim Sadur.
For a video documentary of 1974 that hasn’t been seen for decades Shepherd narrated “The Great American Balloon Adventure” about a ten-week tour of America in an eighty-foot balloon. And a number of other projects have been reported. Two “Fisherman’s World” videos (1969, 1970) show Shep fishing for salmon in Michigan and ice fishing in Wisconsin, with a gag showing him being served drinks on the ice by Playboy Bunnies.
In An Answer, a half-hour documentary about an early 1963 visit by President Kennedy to Naval and Marine facilities to observe military might, especially on the high sea, Shepherd gives a straight narration of what obviously was material scripted by the armed forces. That he had the opportunity to be involved must have gratified him, as in his eulogy of JFK only a half year later, he said that he had always been “a Kennedy man.”
Another film project recently uncovered is No Whistles, Bells or Bedlam. In 1972, Shepherd appeared in and narrated this half-hour film for The National Technical Institute for the Deaf. I encountered this title on the internet’s IMDB.com, and I emailed Raul daSilva who had written the description of it there. To my surprise he was the filmmaker, and he sent me a copy of it. What delights me is that such a basic attempt at contact led to a positive resolution to this little quest.
Among Shepherd’s media projects that started well but never achieved their hoped-for success was an hour television pilot he wrote and narrated, Phantom of the Open Hearth, with the same title as his earlier PBS TV drama. The pilot, for a weekly series, focuses on Ralph, shown as an incredible klutz, finding out that he was the blind date. Another segment shows his father thinking he is a smart negotiator when buying a used car, but being depicted as an utter fool. These portrayals are quite mean-spirited—not something television in those days wanted in a sit-com. Shep, your sense of “realism” got out of hand and clobbered you!
More to come
“Honey, I think you and I were wrong.”
Allison and I are enthusiasts of much (but not all) rock-and-roll. Beatles, Bruce, Holly, The Who, Stones, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and lots more, but other than “Purple Rain,” we weren’t aware of Prince’s music or what he had accomplished in the world. (We were prejudiced, in part, by what appeared to be the one-dimensional aspect of his sexually explicit self and the lack of sufficient major media attention.) With his death, we know a little more–my favorite (political) television station did four hours straight on him the day he died, my New York Times did major stuff on him (I’ve always said that if the Times didn’t do anything about a subject, it didn’t exist) and now I know just a tiny smidgen. But, though listening to a bit of his music this morning and reading about his wide-ranging genius, I still don’t know about him. But maybe I begin to have an inkling.
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
Joel asked if I intended to post Leigh’s contributions to Shep’s work, so here it is in all its incompleteness. Anyone with more info, please let me know.
What we actually know of specific instances of how Leigh contributed to Jean’s success and well-being is undoubtedly just a small percentage of what she actually did day-by-day and in many particulars that just have not been recorded or encountered.
For example, as I’ve noted, Tom Lipscolm, editor/publisher, who knew her well, indicated that she frequently steered Shep away from negative results and toward the positive–not quantifiable, but nevertheless important. It’s also said that she, along with others, pushed Jean into putting his stories on paper and getting them published in print, beginning with Playboy and then collected in In God We Trust–All Others Pay Cash, etc. One might also remember the rather back-handed compliment Shepherd once gave her, indicating that he valued her judgement as an average person–a litmus paper–in her response to some things he’d been working on.
The listings below are undoubtedly very incomplete,
as many projects Leigh must have also worked on, remain uncredited
as far as we ignorant fatheads would know about them.
(some of this material=thanks to http://www.flicklives.com)
Radio Producer–Leigh’s foremost job for many years was as Jean’s producer of his radio show. Although it now appears that she began at WOR in early 1962, we don’t know when she added new roles to the list.
Gate-keeper–-many people have admired/complained that Leigh protected him from intrusions, thus keeping him able to concentrate and function at his high level.
Assistant–The word “assistant” can mean everything from getting him something he wants to helping with his makeup–to giving suggestions, to who-knows-what important tasks?
in a television production of shorts.
Director Fred Barzyk standing.
(This photo is also in my
Excelsior, you Fathead!)
Leigh is listed as Production Associate for this TV film.
In addition she got her name on the title page of the published text.
In one of the many stills in the book, she appears as “Lovely Arlita.”
Creator/scenic designer–Shepherd credits her on the air for doing a great job in creating the effects for his 1973 Carnegie Hall show.
“Staggerwing Productions”–some if not most/all of Jean’s live shows seem to have been done under this name. Leigh, of course, was part of the action.
“Pholly Productions”--Various Shepherd films?
“International Jawbreaker”–the team consisting of Leigh, Jean, Laurie Squire, Herb Squire in an early syndication of Jean’s radio shows–mostly to college radio stations.
“Snow Pond Productions”–Leigh is listed as a co-producer of both Jean Shepherd’s America series–1971 and 1985.
MORE TO COME ON LEIGH’S WORK WITH JEAN
”Let’s say I have intimations that I’ll never make it—
because I’m on radio.” (Shep, in a 1960 Realist magazine interview.)
Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night. I can tell you that. And I can tell you this—nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night. (Jean Shepherd on the radio, 8/22/1964)
HOW DO YOU GET TO BROADWAY?
Shepherd had his problems with other writer’s characterizations of people in plays (and with films and books, also). He felt that most of the plays he saw were unrealistic—they did not portray people as they really were. His own view was that people mostly live rather mundane lives, but that theater displays its characters doing very unusual things, and that the plots were not true to peoples’ lives.
Shepherd also very much wanted to get into live theatrical performance, even though, at the same time, he wanted to deliver his own words rather than those of another author. As he’d put it in 1960, he was less interested in “reading other guys’ lines” than in doing his own material. His friend Pete Wood remembers that around 1961 “He talked a lot about the fact that he was going to study to become an actor.” One might wonder if another factor was that his wife was the up-and-coming actress Lois Nettleton.
Village Voice Obie Awards dinner, 1959.
Shepherd with Lois Nettleton, who had won an award.
Anne Bancroft, far right,
“Greenwich Village Sunday,” 1960-61 short documentary.
Narrated by Shepherd from script by Stewart Wilensky.
Lois portrays a visitor to the Village.
One might also imagine that his desire to be on the stage had something to do with a perception that radio was losing its driving force to television, a medium he wanted to be a part of, but which he could not break into sufficiently. (Television represented a bigger audience, more celebrity, more money.) Remember that he claimed that Johnny Carson said to him, “Look, Shepherd, forever they’re going to think of you as a radio guy. You better get out of that damn medium.” (Jean Shepherd commenting on the Alan Colmes interview show, 1998.)
In addition he sometimes felt that he was too isolated in the radio studio and thus, did not have an audience with whom he could be in immediate contact. (This is undoubtedly why he enjoyed his Limelight and other live-before-an-audience performances, which were in front of devoted fans.)
Drawing by Herb Gardner Mephistopheles
Shep as “Destry”
In the late 1950s and into the early 60s Shep engaged with live theater, including several multi-person “revues,” for which he wrote his own material. In 1958 Smalltacular, and in his revue with Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton, Look, Charlie. He was especially busy in 1961, playing Mephistopheles in A Banquet for the Moon; acting in The Voice of the Turtle, Destry Rides Again, and The Tender Trap. He featured in New Faces of 1962 (again his own material). He acted in 1963 previews of Arthur Kopit’s Asylum or What the Gentlemen Are Up To Not to Mention the Ladies, which Kopit closed “for rewriting” just before opening night. No subsequent theater work by Shep has been encountered. Fred Barzyk, his main PBS director/producer, quoted Shepherd as having said: “I’m an actor. I’m a good actor.”
LOIS NETTLETON ON ACTING
A letter she wrote indicating her preference for live theater:
In notes to me regarding my book, Lois had several comments, indicating Jean’s desire to act and his troubles accomplishing the feat. Note that Jean and Lois were together during the entire period during which he pursued acting. (Remember to click on the scans to enlarge them.) In a note about my book, she comments that Jean helped her develop a comic character for an unnamed play in which she performed. Lois also mentioned that before performances, in Jean’s dressing room she assisted him in getting ready.
Lois, in parts of each of the notes that follow, refers to aspects of Jean’s acting experience. They depict a sad, yet probably very true image of Shepherd’s frustration in a field that was in conflict with his improvisational nature. He had trouble memorizing the script. I include the entire note in each case because I hope that most people will find all of her words of interest. (I describe Lois’ notes in an objective manner, but writing about them, I am thrilled to have and to hold all of her hand-written comments she wrote for my benefit!)
In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000,
(Just a few months after Shep’s death)
Lois commented that Jean’s improvisation
on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that, but it seems almost–almost, less profound, less important than what he was doing. I mean I think what he was doing was so–it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
This post continues the description of publications in which Shepherd contributed an intro or foreword. (FYI, the books illustrated in these posts are from my collection housed in the Shep Shrine.)
Foreword by Jean Shepherd
This book consists of many hundreds of photocopies of entire news articles about baseball from 1876 through 1974. Of this multitude of high points and mind-deadening trivia, for game seven, the deciding one of the 1955 World Series, a one-half inch by less than three inch box score is the book’s only indicator that, in the Boys of Summer’s entire history as the “wait-till-next-year kids,” the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their only World Series. Unbelievable and inexcusable.
The book’s only text besides the foreword by Jean Shepherd is the “authors'” acknowledgements, so there is no part of the book to which the book’s actual authorship could be attributed. Those listed are not “authors,” they are compilers. Here’s a bit of Shep’s foreword, its beginning and its end:
My very earliest memory of my Old Man is of him sitting in the kitchen, waiting for supper (they always called it “supper” in the Midwest; “dinner” was something that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had), reading the sports page and muttering. My mother, hanging over the sink, knew from long experience that it was time to keep her mouth shut. The Old Man was getting his daily dose of bad news. He was a White Sox fan, who grew up on the South Side in the very shadow of Cominsky Park….
They’re all here in these pages, alive, slugging, booting ground balls, winning, losing, making predictions, getting fired, going off to war, and even sometimes coming back. It is always Summer in these pages, and the Pennant Races of 1924,1932, 1941, 1950 still hang in the balance.
VIC AND SADE
The Best Radio plays by Paul Rhymer
Edited by Mary Frances Rhymer
Foreword by Jean Shepherd
Shepherd loved the quirky, dry humor in Vic and Sade, and on the air sometimes read from its scripts. He was also fond of giving some of the bizarre names of people in Vic and Sade and quoting bits of it. In my Excelsior, You Fathead! I describe the book this way:
Shepherd often referred to a 1930s and 1940s radio show called Vic and Sade that might (inadequately) be referred to as a situation comedy. This fifteen-minute program concerned a small family, talking of everyday small matters in small ways in a small town in the Midwest. It had a dry, unforced wit that required close attention. Shepherd was amused by the program’s focus on mankind’s obsessions–giving disproportionate importance to trivial matters. For example, one of the character’s extensive dishrag collection….his appreciation for Vic and Sade came through in a variety of ways that related to his own work:
…Rhymer created true humor. He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.
…Judging from his scripts, if Rhymer were alive today he would probably snort in derision at the pompous tone of this foreword, but I also suspect he would secretly have enjoyed it. Rhymer was an artist, and no artist who ever lived ever turned down a tribute to his work.
Selected by Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne
Introduction by Jean Shepherd
Now why the heck would Shep have bothered about a book like this? Here’s why–it fits so perfectly into his interest in, as he puts it, “Humanus Americanus (common).” Let him tell it:
Don’t ever let this book, this definitive collection of twentieth-century American folk art, get out of your hands. I say this for two very good reasons. First, it is a touching, true, Common Man history of all of us who grew and lived in America in this century, in addition to being very funny and highly informative. Second, it is a collection that will grow in value, both historically and intrinsically,with each passing year….
They are all of a piece, each piece part of our own lives, and Graves and Payne, George Eastman, and Uncle Clifford or Aunt Mabel have captured that piece of all of us, for all of us, for now and forevermore, like a tiny high school cheerleader frozen for all eternity.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH
A Film For Television
Co-ordinated by Leigh Brown
Introduction to the Film Script by Jean Shepherd
This book documents the first part of a trilogy of 90-minute television films based on some of Shepherd’s short stories. One might wonder what Leigh did to be the “coordinator,” but it’s nice to see her get some credit for all the hard work she obviously did over the years on behalf of Shep’s creative works. The book has many black-and-white stills from the production, interspersed with the script. The intro is about twelve pages long, so Shep seemed to care about it a lot:
Since this was a comedy, director Fred Barzyk and I worked together very closely on every scene. My humor is not the one-line insult-joke style of, say Rhoda or M*A*S*H but rather humor that arises out of inflection, a character’s attitude, the predicament he’s in, and the constant struggle to remain afloat in a sea of petty disasters….
The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously, in communication with the viewer. The viewer then becomes the second half of a dialogue between the Narrator and himself. The Narrator is both viewing the scene as it occurred or as he lived it and commenting to you about it, but never directly.
One will note this Narrator-technique used by Shepherd in 1976 (two years before the script version was published). One will recognize that technique as it was used again by Shepherd in the movie A Christmas Story in 1983, and then by others appropriating it without attribution for the TV sitcom The Wonder Years starting in 1988. More about this in my EYF! Ah, what a sad story that is–but back in 1978 Shep could not know of the malingering distress it would cause him, what internal kerfuffle.
[Side note: The technique of the Narrator that Shepherd used, and the tone of that narrator’s style in The Wonder Years, were essential parts of why the series was so good and why it was so popular. For years enthusiasts, frustrated, longed for its availability on DVD or in some other form. It was said that the many contemporaneous musical clips from the turbulent era depicted (the late 1960s and early 1970s) would cost too much to gain permission to use. Recently, parts of the series appeared on Netflix. Oh joy? No, not quite. 1. Opening musical theme, Joe Cocker’s rendition of The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends,” was mimicked well by another voice, but not quite the same; 2. A majority of the rock and roll musical clips–that were important to set the scene and, indeed, provide a touch of ironic leitmotif–are absent; 3. The original Narrator is gone, replaced by another voice that misses the tone that had contributed so much to the original.]
♥♥♥♥In mid-February a company announced the upcoming production of the complete Wonder Years series that suggests they are fixing all the problems and will produces it exactly as originally broadcast–I hope so!♥♥♥♥
[Another side note: I just encountered a newer sitcom that uses the narrator-looking-back-on-his-childhood–“The Goldbergs.” The one episode I watched was better than most sitcoms, but that’s not necessarily saying much. I have not found any acknowledgement that the narrator-technique comes from Shep.]
NEW JERSEY RESTAURANT GUIDE
by (?) Ruth Alden
Nobody I’ve encountered knows a damn thing about this book. I’ve done some futile research and that’s about it. Why would Shep have been interested in a NJ restaurant guide? Here are two maybes: 1. He often made fun of Jersey and lived for a while in Jersey, so he must have eaten in some restaurants there; 2. Lois Nettleton, his wife from late 1960 to about 1967 says that he was such a gourmet cook that she happily cleaned up after his mess in the kitchen–there’s a surprise talent of our ol’ Shep! (Greatly appreciated would be knowledge of what he wrote for the book.)
A SHEPHERD SITCOM
“What we respond to isn’t merely the foolishness of their personal limitations [of sitcom characters]. It is also, and most essentially, the fact that we can identify with the way they are trapped by their limitations and have to struggle against those limitations to find a measure of wholeness and happiness in their lives. However much we may be fascinated by their craziness, what really makes them interesting is that they want to lead a good life and, like all of us some of the time, and some of us much of the time, they are constantly straying away from their goal even when they believe they are moving toward it.” From an essay on sitcoms by Ken Sanes– http://www.transparencynow.com/sitcom.htm
Remember the popular, late 1970s television sitcom, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” about a radio program’s odd assortment of employees. “Excelsior” will be somewhat like that. It will be loosely based on the life and early New York career of Jean Shepherd. Although most episodes involve some problem of the main character—in his attempts to gain additional intellectual and popular celebrity status–other characters will sometimes intrude their own issues/problems into the mix.
The program will be
comical humorous, as well as address serious issues.
Picture a mix of “Seinfeld,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “All in the Family,”and “M*A*S*H.”
Network executives hope that the show will hold its own
against reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.”
The opening and closing theme music will be Edward Strauss’ “Bahn Frei,” just as it is Shepherd’s. Other Shepherd favorites will sometimes intrude into the program, such as “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “I’m the Shiek of Araby,” “Banjoreno,” “Hindustan,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” Sometimes on the air and sometimes, just around the office to annoy his co-workers, he plays the kazoo and the jew’s harp and even the nose flute—he sometimes makes yucky comments about the messy result of playing the nose flute when he has a cold with a drippy nose.
Even though advised not to, he frequently makes liberal or conservative comments about current events (unlike the real Shepherd). He also sometimes makes lewd comments or says things in bad taste and is cut off with the use of the seven-second-delay-button (which the real Shep did not have to contend with.)
(Some character names will be changed to protect the guilty.)
JEAN SHEPHERD A multi-talented radio monologist/humorist. He aspires to stand-up comedy fame, literary fame, success with women. He is beginning to write short stories for a Playboy-like magazine and go to the Playboy Club. He lives somewhere in the Village but nobody knows where.
In earlier days, he was on very late at night and was an intellectual hero of the world of the hip, jazzmen, artists of various kinds, but recently, he’s now on earlier in the evenings and has become, to his dismay, a mentor of high school and college students. He likes the acclaim and increased audience numbers, but is annoyed by the extent that they fawn over him. He hates rock and roll but is being pressured to play some on his show to retain and increase his young audience.
LOIS NETTLETON Shepherd’s fiancé and then wife (They marry after a couple of seasons), an aspiring actress just beginning to make her way up in theater, television, and movies. Frank Sinatra is trying to date her.
LEIGH BROWN Shepherd’s gofer and aspiring writer, producer, etc. She is enamored of Shepherd’s mind. The suspected affair with Leigh sometimes intrudes but Lois doesn’t really believe it.
GENERAL MANAGER He appreciates Shepherd’s talent but has to defend him, put up with his ego and hostilities toward the ad-salesmen, engineers, and advertising executives who financially support the program.
ENGINEERS Except for one of them (who is Herb Squire-like), are lazy, antagonistic, and don’t understand Shepherd’s style. They feel that “style” is in itself, an abomination. Sometimes “Herb” tries to explain Shepherd’s art to the other engineers, but they still don’t get it.
HIS FRIENDS Some stand-up comedians beginning to have success—making Shepherd jealous; an all-around talented wild man (Shel Silverstein-like)
OTHER BROADCASTERS Like Barry Farber, John Gambling, Dorothy & Dick, all of whom have much bigger audiences but who’s style of programming Shepherd dislikes and sometimes disparages on the air.
ALL THE WEEKLY REGULARS
The regular gang in the “Radio studio,” as they consider
themselves to be chums and rather witty,
have come to call themselves
“The Knees-Loose Irregulars.”
ASSORTED FANS Mostly high school kids who, avoiding security guards, manage to gain access to the studios and who unknowingly do things that annoy Shepherd. They keep popping up almost every episode, and Leigh has to make sure that Shepherd doesn’t alienate too many of them. Maybe a faux-Bobby Fischer makes appearances.
ASSORTED IGNORAMUSES These klutzes of all kinds, from messenger boys to advertisers tend to think that they are about to encounter Jean Shepard, country/western singer–Shep is not amused. Nor does he appreciate it when, as they have not yet met him, they expect, because of the spelling of his first name, that he is of the female persuasion.
PILOT AND OTHER INCIDENTALS
The pilot will give some sense of the themes to come in the series, but, of course, many subtleties will not be possible to include in the opening program. The series is projected to extend for up to four-and-a-half hours, beginning weeknights at one A. M. There will be no commercial breaks. Neither will the network advertise or in any other way promote or acknowledge the program’s existence.
There will be no script for “Excelsior,” but only a few scrawled notes on the edges of yesterday’s New York Times and on coffee-stained Schrafft’s napkins.
All lead characters will be expected to “wing it.” Secondary characters such as office boys, will be carefully rehearsed so that they properly say “Yes sir, Mr. Shepherd,” and “Is it break time yet?” The script writers will spend a lot of time sitting around complaining about Shepherd’s style, and grumbling in general.
The originator of the series expects that it
–in its first season–
will win at least a coupla Emmys.
The radio depicted above is: “Radio SNR excelsior 52 of 1952.”
Happy Valentine’s Day, Fatheads.
SOME COMMENTS OF INTEREST. I place some comments into the main post because I think some may not check the comments section, and at least one comes from facebook, not from the blog comments:
|Kerr Lockhart in facebook group dedicated to Shep||
10:15am Feb 14
My Shep sitcom would show what actually happened in his life, and then have him recount the story and demonstrate how he “improved” the story.
eb comments: Kerr, that’s a really good idea to have Shepherd’s narrative voice describing his take on events in the sitcom episodes. It does bring up issues that would have to be addressed. We know extremely little that’s verifiable about Shepherd’s life. Thus, the sitcom would be based on the kind of person he was, the sorts of things that happened in his personal and professional life—not very much on easily discernable incidents of his real life. For example, we know that he enjoyed the adulation of his young fans and we know that he sometimes found them a bit too much for his comfort, but specific incidents portrayed in the sitcom would be inspired fiction.
No matter the format, there would have to have to be a disclaimer at the beginning of every episode, something like:
NOTICE: THE INCIDENTS THAT OCCUR IN THE EPISODES OF “EXCELSIOR” ARE INSPIRED BY THE LIFE AND WORKS OF JEAN SHEPHERD, AND ARE ROUGHLY BASED ON “FAINT CLUES AND INDIRECTIONS.” BUT THE EPISODES THEMSELVES ARE NOT TRUE TO THE DETAILS OF SHEPHERD’S LIFE. THEY ARE THE PRODUCTS OF THE HOT AND HEAVY FICTIONAL INVENTIONS–THE CREATIVITY–OF THE SCREENWRITERS. PARDON US, SHEP—OUR BAD! EQUALLY, THE NARRATIVE VOICE SEEMING TO BE THE REAL SHEPHERD CORRECTING AND EXPANDING UPON THE EPISODES, APPARENTLY GIVING US THE TRUE GEN, IS PRETTY MUCH ALSO A FICTIONAL CONSTRUCT BROUGHT FORTH BY US SCRIPTWRITERS—AFTER ALL, FROM WHAT WE KNOW OF SHEPHERD, HE WOULD BE INVENTING IT ALL TOO.
–SCREENWRITERS OF “EXCELSIOR.”
Comment from Jack on blog page:
Holy cow, I’d certainly watch that show! What a terrific synopsis! Now we need a producer with plenty of scratch for you to pitch it to. Oh man, this smells like a winner to me.
(Thanks Eugene. Your posts are so entertaining and true to Shep’s legacy.)
eb responds: Jack, thank you very much for the encouragement. I’ve been thinking this idea over for a number of years and it only recently occurred to me to post it on the blog. As one might imagine, my posting it has at least 2 causes: 1. I thought people would find it amusing and worthwhile; 2. it’s a way of hoping to bring forth some enthusiastic producer with scratch and imagination. [eb comment on blog 2/14/2014.]
Joel says: I love this idea. The actor who plays Shep is critical to its success. I can see the WOR offices as the locale, but flashbacks take us to places in Shep’s past that reflect the characters and stories he told. This could be so good.
Jim Clavin writes: The WKRP idea passed my mind once when I was watching reruns on TV. I thought of WOR with Shep and the engineers and a Leigh Brown character. The first part of the show could be all the silly little plot lines and then the last few minutes (right after the ped-egg commercials) would be a monolog by Shep relating to the events of the first part of the show – wrapping it all up.
Nick Mantis suggestion for actor to play Shep:
eb: I like the idea but Leonardo would have to agree to have a deep dimple a la Shep’s sculpted into his chin.
I’ve encountered that the 4th of the 5 parts of the NYC career chart does not enlarge when clicked on and is not sharp (at least on my computer), so it cannot be read. I’d done it exactly the same as the other parts! Here I re-do the whole operation–scan, import to blog media, and input it into this post. I trust it works now for those who want to read and maybe copy it:
Part 4 revise
And why not add the details of where the story parts of A CHRISTMAS STORY and Shepherd’s three long-form TV dramas originated (Most of the following info is derived from Jim Clavin’s http://www.flicklives.com) —
A CHRISTMAS STORY
The Red Ryder BB Gun– “Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid,” Playboy, 12/1965, then in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966 titled “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.”
Wax Teeth, Flick’s Tongue, Writing A Theme
The Leg Lamp– “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art,” in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966. (See PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH below.)
“How Does the Little Piggy Eat?” — in “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss” Playboy July 1968.
Little Orphan Annie Secret Circle Decoder–“The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or The Asp Strikes Again,” in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966.
Changing the Flat Tire – “Oh Fuuudddggge”
Blinded by Soap–“Lost at ‘C’ ” Playboy May 1973
Visiting Santa, The Bunny Pajamas,
The Bumpus Hounds–“The Grand Stand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” Playboy 4/69, then in WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES–AND OTHER DISASTERS 1971.
Christmas Dinner Chinese Style
PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH
(1976 television long-form drama)
Gravy Boat Riot–“Leopold Doppler and the Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot,” Playboy 10/65 then in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966.
Sears Pre-fab House
The Leg Lamp– “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art,” in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966. (Major component of A CHRISTMAS STORY)
Going to the Prom With Wanda Hickey–“Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories” Playboy 6/69 then in WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES–AND OTHER DISASTERS 1971.
Baseball for the United Brethern
GREAT AMERICAN FOURTH OF JULY AND OTHER DISASTERS
(1982 television long-form drama)
Wilbur Duckworth and His Magic Baton–Playboy 12/64“Waldo Grebb and His Electric Baton” and as “Wilber Duckworth and His Magic Baton” in IN GOD WE TRUST 1966.
The Blind Date–“The Endless Streetcar Ride into the Night, and the Tinfoil Noose” IN GOD WE TRUST 1966.
The Wash Rag Pyramid Scheme
Uncle Carl’s Fireworks Stand
The Old Man’s Fireworks Display
Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb IN GOD WE TRUST 1966.
Fireworks on the roof of Roosevelt High
Sack races at the picnic
THE STAR-CROSSED ROMANCE OF JOSEPHINE COSNOWSKI
Going to a Polish Wedding–“The Star-crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski and Her Friendly Neighborhood Sex Maniac” Playboy 1970 and titled “The Star-crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski” in WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES 1971.
Friendly Fred’s used car lot
Randy plays a turkey in the school Thanksgiving Day play
The boys eat at John’s hamburger joint
Scragging for Polish girls*
[*At least one story that never made it into a published Shepherd story he told on the air: On March 23, 1968 he told a tale of Scragging and Bolus’ wedding.] Scragging is what some male teenagers do in a car in summer–they drive by one or more attractive young girls and make adolescent remarks such as “Hey baby! Oh Wow! Holy Smokes!”]
Please report errors and omissions, including exact references if known. –eb