Not since the 1971 PBS magazine show, "The Great American Dream Machine" has there been a more creative series, with a distinct pioneering spirit, than "Jean Shepherd's America," which returns tonight to public broadcasting for a 13 week run (Ch 13, 10-10:30)
Shepherd, a performer, writer and raconteur in the Midwestern tradition, has turned storytelling into a visual art form on the home screen. This famed humorist, who held forth on WOR Radio here for two decades (1956-1976), is an inventive maverick, a magician skilledin words and ideas who keeps pulling different colored rabbits out of his bottomless hat.
Tonight in "Mosquitos and Moon Pies," he's a Swamp Man who leisurly travels by outboard motor through Georgia's famed Okefenokee Swamp in search of mankind's roots. He has decided that's where we came from and that's where we'll return. He first heard about Okefenokee while reading about Tom Slade, Eagle Scout, as a young boy in Chicago. Now he's finally traveling up the murky waters of the oldest swamp in North America at 2 a.m., bidding farewell to "TV Guide, traffic jams on the Long Island Expressway and Big Macs."
Alligators and other "creeping, crawling, hissing" creatures surroung him along with "a pickeral so big you don't dare look it in the eye," as he talks to viewers about Walt Kelly and the Pogo gang as their image is superimposed over onimous swamps.
"My work confuses people," commented the bearded writer in an interview, "I have this mystique that suugests everything I do is about the past, and that's not so.I don't evoke the past at all unless I'm doing something specifically involving history. In the case of the Okefenokee Swamp, I mention Tom Slade to pinpoint when I first heard of it. And I'm simply paying homage to Walt Kelly."
"In a forthcoming episode, 'Down in Death Valley,' where I'm a prospector whose enemy is the environment, I'm in the present as I make my way through the salt flats and sand dunes, with the sun beating down, vultures swarming overhead, as I see mirages caused by the heat. In 'Filthy Rich at Last,' I deal with an idea what it must be like to be rich and have no restrictions on you. The show opens up with a picture of a $10,000 bill, the largest in the U.S. Treasury."
It's an actual," bill insisted Shepherd, who claimed there were four men guarding it when it was loaned for the show. "My premise is, money can buy an awful lot of happiness.
Shepherd said he has one rule of thumb: "I want people 20 years from now to look at my show and feel as if it had been filmed that afternoon.
"I'm not sentimental. What I try to do is evoke moods, and that's something TV doesn't do.'The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephene Cosnowski,' vwhich was shown on PBS' 'American Playhouse' and won a silver medal at the New York International Film Festival, was difficult to film for this reason. Essentially it was an idea, not a story."
"That's why music plays such an importants part of a scene.I use it to create an atitude, a mood. Having wrked in radio, I'm very conscious of what sound can do. People have forgotton the importance of it in TV. In 'Hill Street Blues,' I can barely understand what people are saying. They're all mumbling. Sound is essential in good storytelling.
No two episodes in his series celebrating America are alike, Shepherd pointed out. "I'm antiformat," asserted the famed raconteur, who is convinced formula has ruined television.
"You start our with a family show like 'Father Knows Best,'" he pointed out, "and before you know it you have every conceivable version of it. From a mother, father, and children, you go to a divorced mother with two daughters. Then a divorced husband with two sons. Then an all-black family. Then you begin to get variations on the family show - two divorced men living together ("The Odd Couple") and two divorced women living together ("Kate and Allie") an on it goes. The same is true of detective series. We'll soon be seeing a cop with a gorilla as a partner."
What Shepherd likes to do is "surprise the viewer." If you don't like tonight's program, you can tune in next week and expect something entirely different. That's what commercial TV doesn't understand. Everythis has to evolve from something else, or be imitated.
The writer's PBS series first ran in 1971 and was repeated three times. His films, shown as part of PBS' "Visions" and "American Playhouse" series, were all acclaimed, so he can't understand why he has never received a call from a commercial network.
The "Star Crossed Romance" was a splendid mood piece, with visual techniques that commercial TV woul do well to imitate. Shepherd points out that he uses top cameramen, just as in films, not just studio technicians. He calls all the shots and does the editing. That's why one can see his name stamped clearly on everything he does. Each piece is like a miniature work of art. It's this care that's missing from commercial TV, where everything is flat and looks the same.
The original intent of public broadcasting was to experiment, lead and test ideas that commercial television would eventually absorb or imitate. Perhaps it's time to take another look at this man's work and adapt some of his visually exciting methods. "The talent is in television," he said. "The people are simply not given the chance to use it."
Shepherd should create a series for commercial TV - this wonderful storyteller coud recount the great works of literature for young viewers, augmented and enhanced by his visual techniques. The Ford Foundation, which was instrumental in putting him on public broadcasting, knew what it was doing. He's a refresing spirit, someone who dares to be different, asnd that's what television needs. ||
|Not Determined yet|
|Engineer and others in Booth