Medium build. Middle-aged. Male. Caucasian. On the stocky side. Thinning light brown hair. A slight trace of Chicago accent. No noticeable scars.
There's nothing to distinguish Jean Shepherd from the run of the mankind mill until the fellow opens his mouth. At that point, look out. The guy could talk an Eskimo out of his parka in the dead of a month-long winter night.
Talking is Shepherd's forte, which no doubt explains why he does so much of it. He's an author, an entertainer and a first class storyteller who, blending a unique sense of humor with a distinctive and warmly personal perspective on Americana, can talk about anything and everything.
He did it brilliantly on public television four years ago in a 13 week series, Jean Shepherd's America, which is currently being rebroadcast on PBS stations as a summer show. He did it for a year on Monitor, the NBC weekend radio program, and he's been doing it on WOR radio in New York since 1958, with a nightly 45 minute monologue on the triumphs and travails, large and small, of living in America.
''I try to celebrate the uncelebrated moments of our lives," Shepherd explained during lunch last Tuesday. "Moments like eating a MacDonald's burger after you've been craving one for days. Or the ecstasy of driving, of being out on the open road with nothing in front of you. The Joys of fishing, of drinking a cold beer on a warm day. It's simple, uncelebrated moments like these that I think are our truly happy moments in life."
Although he approaches his varied topics of conversation like a wide-eyed, talkative tourist from some dusty little town in rural Mid-America, Shepherd for all of his rube-like servings of homegrown philosophy and down-home wit is one of the most keen-eyed, razor sharp humorists to emerge in the last two decades.
He is the author of two collections of short stories ("In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash'' and "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters") and an original teleplay, "The Inverted Bowl of Darkness," which will be broadcast this season as a 90 minute PBS special. He is a regular contributor to Playboy Magazine, a columnist for Car and Driver Magazine, and his feature articles have appeared in virtually every major publication in the country. Not bad for a fellow who once looked forward enthusiastically to working in a factory.
A product of the South Side of Chicago, Shepherd grew up in the blue-collar world of the steel industry. He played football in high school, drank beer, worked in the mills during summer vacations for "great money" and thought the whole world looked like the Hammond-Gary-Calumet City industrial park complex until he joined the Army. That it did not was a great revelation. It changed his life and his lifestyle forever.
"It never occurred to me there was any other world 'til then." he said. "That's what 'Inverted Darkness,' my play, is about ... the industrial world and how secure, what a good life, it is. That's the worst part of it, you know. It's not like a ghetto. It doesn't make you want to escape.
"While I was in the Army those three years," he continued, "l traveled a lot, met all kinds of people and, well, when I got out of the service it just never occurred to me to turn back. I had done some stuff on local radio, football scores, that sort ol thing, while I was in high school. So I was fascinated by the media. I went back to Chicago, went to the Goodman Theater and started appearing at The Gate of Horn and doing a lot of improvisational theater work. I was a storyteller and an entertainer. Then I went to Cincinnati, where I did a 1-man comedy show on TV called Rear Bumper and that show took me East, to New York, where I appeared on Broadway in 'New Faces of '61.'
"I did all kinds of shows after that, on Broadway, off-Broadway, way-off-Broadway. I was doing shows and writing, doing my nightly show on WOR four years ago when somebody from the Ford Foundation heard me, liked me and contacted PBS to see if there was something public television could do with me."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Dividing his time between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a 10-acre farm he recently bought in Pennsylvania ("I needed a place to keep my exotic cars."), Shepherd continues to write, talk and satirize his way to . . . ?
"I don't know," he shrugged. " I guess every artist hopes someday he'll have a wider audience. I'm read more overseas than here because I write about people and people in this country aren't interested in people.
"I guess," he concluded, "that what I really want, what I really hope, is to write something great some day. I think my natural bent is on commentary of the times. I see myself as a recorder of our times, not to celebrate or denigrate them, just to let people know what's here or what was here.
"I enjoy work and do what I do for its own sake and," he added. "If my work will survive me, I'll be delighted." ||
|Not Determined yet|
|Engineer and others in Booth