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"Shepherd's America" Recycled
Original Article

Jean Shepherd's America, where the women style their blue hair in pink curlers and the men wear cruddy baseball sweatshirts, made a sneak attack last night on a banquet hall full of local ad-men. As the crown roared with laughter, Shepherd skewered the "mythical world" of advertising, with its TV Daddy, TV Mommy, and "a TV Dog, a distinguished looking setter who looks like Bertrand Russell." He confessed to the perpetrators of this myth that he finds himself thinking horrible, twisted, thoughts during the late night commercials - such as imagining just how Preparation-H is medically proven in laboratory experiments, or recalling the awful profanity his own father would use instead of the TV Daddy's complaint of "gastric distress." "He worked in profanity," Shepherd recalled, "the way other artists work in marble." Much of the material was already familiar to followers of Shepherd's nightly radio program on New York's station WOR, to those who saw the 13 segments of "Jean Shepherd's America" broadcast last year on channel 21, or to the readers of his numerous magazine articles and books. But the material apparently doesn't suffer in the rehashing. His audience - largely male - was attending the third fall meeting of the Rochester Society of Communicating Artists, composed mainly of art directors, photographers, copywriters, and public relations men. Like shepherd, most of the audience wore long sideburns, patterned shirts and bright ties, mod-tailored suits, and, if they had bad eyes, motorcycle glasses (Shepherd's were tinted green). As the young waitresses in black and white uniforms cleared the remains of English trifle pudding from the tables at the Ramada Inn, Shepherd described what he said was the "real America," where Charlie in Hackensack, N.J. can think of nothing so fine on an autumn evening as to drive down to the Great Eastern store and purchase a $150 cement Mexican for his front lawn, to place in-between the flamingo and the green plastic frog with geraniums in its back. In the non-mythical America, said Shepherd, a famous personality like himself, "a friend of Hef" walks home at midnight after completing his radio program and faces the big thrill of the day - stomping to death about 800 of the 40 million cockroaches asleep in his 3-room Greenwich Village apartment. "Most people measure their lives against commercials and find life lacking. How many of us feel dislocated today because all the others have got scripts and we're just ad-libbing?" Checking to see how many of his audience eagerly scan his favorite Preparation-H commercials on the late-late show Shepherd was dismayed to find there is no television after 1 a.m. in Rochester. "People in Rochester very seriously read the Reader's Digest." He observed, on the general topic of the town's character. "They actually quote it up here." He recalled his last four trips to Rochester for speeches at RIT when each time "the snow was so high the telephone poles were barely poking out of drifts." The jolliest people he met were in a crown catching a plane to Miami. In a monologue - conversation before the speech, Shepherd described how he arrived at his knowledge of the non-mythical America behind the commercial faade. The boy-hood home he calls "Hohman, Indiana," (actually Hammond, Indiana, nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries") exists almost exactly now as it was then, he said. People still swill Nehi orange pop, have Twinkies for desert, shoot up Sherwin Williams billboards with Daisy Air Rifles. "It hasn't really changed. Kids don't read my stuff as nostalgia. They know I'm writing about how childhood life is. . . what I'm writing about is the twentieth century and, basically, 1972 is the same as 1902." His accounts of childhood and Army experiences with pals Flick, Schwartz, and Bruner are not based on total recall, he said, but on "the writer's eye." The "flashback" technique is merely a literary device, and the material he writes about might have been gathered the week before. The Indiana fair described as a childhood thrill in his latest book, "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters" actually took place in 1969 in Flemington, New Jersey. Shepherd digs into the "real America" by traveling around a lot - though very seldom back to his family in Hammond. "I stay away from cocktail parties. I spend my time in diners on Route 3, as a customer, not as a writer getting material. I really dig the Dairy Queen. I enjoy McDonald's. I walk around and dig it. The Shepherd-style free-association monologues on TV and radio are ad-libbed from rough notes - he spoke last night from a few sentences scrawled on yellow legal paper with felt tip pen - and his writing is done with a similar technique. "I'm not a writer, I'm an actor. I stomp around the room, I act out all the parts so the dialogue is real. I have a girl who works with me, a superb speedwriter who takes it all down and I rewrite it. I watch her, and I can tell when she's not with it and getting bored. Then I know there's something wrong with what I'm saying." His work has brought in very prestigious awards and accolades over the past 20-some years, and Shepherd has no false modesty about his success. He has never created, he recalled, a disaster. He compared his work - favorably - to Mailer, Heller, Cheever, and, in his terms of subject matter to Stephen Crane, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, and Homer. "No one else is writing with the same attitude as I am," he said. "Others are writing about American problems, American stresses, but not about America." He quoted one critic as observing that, in 70 years, historians will gain a much truer picture of America from reading Jean Shepherd, than from reading Joseph Heller ("Catch 22") or Norman Mailer. "I'm one of the few American writers today who believes there is something that is American culture, and that it's been the same ever since Fitzgerald wrote about it in 1921." And, as he explained it to the ad-men last night, it has about equal parts of women in pink curlers, Preparation-H, TV dogs who look like Bertrand Russell, and Rochesterians who quote Reader's Digest.

[ Courtesy: Steve Glazer - - ]

Copyright: 1971 Democrat And Chronicle

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