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Jean Never Looks Back To 'Good Old Days'
Airdate: Thursday - August 1, 1985

Last Update: 05-24-2015

Show Description
Try to pick a word to describe Jean Shepherd and he'll no doubt argue that you're wrong. Actor, writer, humorist, comic, story teller, satirist, philosopher - all these terms come to mind during an evening with the performer who gave a one-man show before 1,000 people at the Clinton Historical Museum Saturday, July 20. One image Shepherd is trying to shake is that he is trying to invoke nostalgia. That label is applied to him only by older people, he said. Young people identify his themes with their own time. "I'm not about the old days," Shepherd said Saturday, as he relaxed before his show with several museum trustees in the Clinton House. "My good work is not nostalgic. Good work surpasses time. Every one of my stories is anti-nostalgic. I think that's one of the great American sicknesses, by the way. Today is the only day we've got. If you believe in the old days, you live in the past." It galls Shepherd that people refer sentimentally to his one-man radio shows on WOR and ask him when he is going back on the air. "You might as well ask Bob Hope if he wants to go back to vaudeville. Radio is a minor medium," he said. He has performed five times in Carnegie Hall, entertained 5,000 people in Central Park, acted in Broadway plays, appeared in nightclubs and, in recent years, played the college circuit. He has produced two American Playhouse comedy-dramas for public television and a weekly series entitled "Jean Shepherd's America." In addition, he has written 47 short stories and five novels, and is in the midst of writing a sixth novel. His movie, "A Christmas Story," opened simultaneously in 1983 in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris and Brussels. It was a box office success and he is working on a sequel about summer camp. On stage, as Shepherd talks about his mother in her curlers and his father, "the old man," drifting out of sight on Lake Michigan, he weaves a story that is almost too real. People think he is telling stories from his boyhood and are astonished to hear him say that the neighborhood kids like Schwartz and the runny-nosed kid brother in his tales are not real at all. He invents the characters and writes his own material, appearing to wander from his narrative with side stories and parenthetical quips, all the while building up to a sardonic ending. He punctuates his tale with eloquent gestures, graphic descriptions, literary allusions and that gravelly laugh. It's theater and he wants people to know it. "I'm an actor! I don't ad lib!" he stressed. "Almost everything I write about is something I saw around me and put in the first person. It's a literary technique. My technique is so good that people think I'm telling the truth!" "My'mother was a CPA. She never recognized one single character in my stories. She never understood why people kept asking if she had a Chinese red chenille bathrobe." His real old man was a cartoonist with the Chicago Tribune who never went around in an undershirt and kid's baseball cap. Instead, he always wore a tie and looked more like a dapper Clifton Webb. Unlike the kid brother in his stories, his brother lives in an elegant suburb in the midwest and collects Rolls Royces. Shepherd did grow up in Chicago, an area he recreates in some of his most popular stories, but he says the rest is fiction. "I never grew up with those kids. I never listened to the radio or went to the movies." The Ovaltine incident - told as an episode in his youth when he sent in labels to get a secret decoder ring as a kid and waited in suspense to decode the message: "Drink Ovaltine" - that incident never happened." He insisted that he never depicts real friends or even his own experiences in his stories but deals with what he sees as the "Universal American experience. Americans always assume there is no such thing, but I think there is." Everywhere in the country there's a Jersey Turnpike or a building shaped like something else, like the flagship on Route 22, he explained. Shepherd changes the symbols, depending on what part of the country he is in, but the idea is the same. A worldwide traveler, Shepherd says myths spring up about him wherever he goes. "The power of myth is much stronger than truth. People think I'm lying when I say it isn't so." The wanderer calls no one place home. He has a Manhattan apartment and houses in Key West, Fla., and Oakland, Me. He is not married and has no children. "Show business is not the kind of business where you have a HOME in capital letters and crabgrass." Things like gunfire and crowd demonstrations are so common near his New York apartment that "I get jumpy when I'm out here," he said. He is always surprised to realize his fans don't know that he was a "Leading light on the Hippy Beat scene in the 1960s." For awhile, he wrote for the Village Voice and wrote profiles for the Beatles. He marched on Washington in support of the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King. Asked if it was true, as we had heard, that he once played the kazoo in Hopewell for that famous local jazz band called the Sons of the Whiskey Rebellion, or that he had once lived around here, he just laughed. "I do play the kazoo. I played it very well on the radio, but never with the Sons of the Whiskey Rebellion." As for Hunterdon County, he said he'd been here eight nights for eight museum concerts and never once stayed overnight. From what he had seen on his rides from the airport, did he think Hunterdon highways were turning into new versions of the New Jersey Turnpike? He laughed again. "No, turnpikes only go to important places. That's like talking about putting a jetport in Bean Blossom, Indiana." Shepherd said he is continually amazed at how people confuse the performer with the person. "I started to note a change in the mid-'60s. That's the time the kids started to believe singers were not singers but philosophers. We're the first generation when you can immerse yourself 24 hours a day in fantasies - it becomes reality. We've gone from a juvenileaucracy to a show bizaucracy. People have to be constantly entertained." Sometimes he is devastatingly cynical. He truly believes that the west is in an advanced stage of decline; that the Broadway stage is dead; that classical music is only being preserved, not created; that reading, although he is a writer, is fast becoming a lost art. He tells of the English teachers in his graduate class at NYU who are woefully unread. Despite his success on public television, he is not enamored with its "preachy" style, and dubs it the "Salvation Army of TV!" Later that night, drained after carrying on a monologue for nearly two hours, Shepherd returned to this theme talking to a group of fans lingering on the darkened museum grounds. "I have no nostalgia! The idea of going back to something clean, pure and simple just isn't real - you'd have to back to neolithic times." People forget the polluted rivers of Dickens' time and little annoyances like the bubonic plague, he chuckled. "Time moves on. I don't think it does you any good to reject your own time - it's a form of suicide." Standing there on the grass, Richard Phoenix, 39, and his wife Carla, 26, are waiting for Shepherd to sign his 1964 Playboy Magazine with his short story, "Hairy Guru and the 47 Crappies." Richard has 20 tapes of Shepherd's radio show, a collection he began at Kent State College. Peter Glenn, 40, of Boonton, who started listening to the Limelight nightclub shows Shepherd broadcasted in New York City, asked for a signature on his copy of Shepherd's book "In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash." As the crowd disperses, it is clear that Jean Shepherd was correct in his assessment that he appeals to all ages. From Bud Young and Lou Bender, the museum hosts who might be categorized at "mature' to the eager 17-year-old fan at the concert who boasted that he has every one of Shepherd's shows on VCR tapes, people of all ages seemed to claim him for their own time. "He's like a 20th Century Mark Twain," remarked Richard Phoenix, tucking his Playboy under his arm. "Our grandparents had Will Rogers. We have Jean Shepherd."
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