Columns / Short Stories Shep was always writing. . .
Remembrance of Things Past Age of Videography
When I got a letter from Brian McKernan, the Editor of VIDEOGRAPHY magazine, I was frankly astonished. I have been in what is now known as Media for all of my adult life, and no one has ever asked me for even a tiny slice of my personal memoirs.
Since we're interested in video here, I won't bother you with my story of how I started in showbiz doing a clog dance for the Warren G. Harding school PTA, although it was a great story in itself, since I made up the clog dance as I went along, and nobody in the PTA knew the difference. It was a smash. Mrs. Bundy, our kindergarten teacher, accompanied me on the Baldwin upright, which was reportedly presented to the school by a niece of Al Capone's cook, and hence an historical person.
I found the applause so heady that I have not turned back since. A couple of years later, I had become deeply involved in amateur radio, a hobby that I pursue to this day. Getting an FCC license in those days was truly tough, and I was part of a tiny band of radio freaks who spent their entire childhood in the basement, developing deathly pale complexions and abnormally high IQs. I was one of the first true Nerds.
We built and tested endless types of high-powered transmitters. Every one of us had survived DC shocks that would have made the legendary hot seat at Sing-Sing proud of its work. This experience alone was good training for my later life in showbiz, which as you know is an endless series of triumphs, followed by thundering shocks as your show is canceled.
To this day, I remember my first glimpse of television. Every Saturday my little cell of nerds would spend the day taking the Magical Mystery Tour of the surplus radio stores on South State Street in Chicago. These were dark caves, each presided over by a short, fat gnome with a White Owl plugged into his trap. Their only known occupation was memorizing the serial number and every spec of every known radio part going back to Marconi.
There was one guy known as Sol the Radar Maven, whose specialty was early surplus radar parts. Often they came booby-trapped, in case they were captured by the Axis powers. Occasionally, one of the Nerds would put voltage in the wrong places, thus blowing up his basement in a thunderous charge of Signal Corps dynamite.
One Saturday, Johnny, the best technician among us, spent the whole day buying obscure parts with no known use from Sol. A couple of weeks later, I am in Johnny's basement, looking at the hulking contraption he had assembled.
"Watch this," Johnny said dramatically, and threw the switch. There was a heavy mechanical hum of vibrating transformer plates. Suddenly a tiny lens on the front panel flickered and lit up. It was a miniature cathode ray tube. More flicker, and suddenly an actual picture came into focus. Microscopic people were running around as a lighted arrow whirled crazily. The assembled Nerds all gasped and cheered. One yelled:
"What the hell is it?"
"They call it TV," Johnny answered quietly. And thus video had come into my life. None of us realized what the whole world would be like because of this itty-bitty tube. Every night we Nerds would squat in the darkness of Johnny's basement and peer at these mysterious little figures with their scratchy piping voices, as they won prizes.
One thing I knew: I had to get into this game. Finally, two years later, I had managed to wrangle a TV show on a local station. My job was to imitate a big-time star named Art Linkletter. One thing I learned quickly, which was the one thing they didn't show on Art's show: how quickly tiny tots would pee on you as you attempted to be funny with the clammy dampness of kid pee-pee trickling down your leg. Art must have had a special waterproof rubber suit. It was my first regular show, and I'd get fan letters addressed to Art Linkletter. So I guess I fooled them.
I should mention that in those days the studio lights were so hot that the cooking thermometer we had attached to the desk always registered DANGER BOILING. You sometimes lost 15 lbs. doing a half-hour show. The TV world was all glamour.
I was present when a huge Midwestern TV station went on the air for the first time. It was so solemn that all of us on the staff had to wear tuxedos. The dedication was delivered by the Governor. He was short and round, and in his tight monkey suit looked like a Muppet penguin. Lights-blazed in the studio as he squeaked out his speech. Suddenly one of the engineers in the control room said:
"What the hell is that noise I'm picking up ?" We all leaned forward to listen. Sure enough, there was a distinct roar every minute or so in the background. The phone rang. Bob, the engineer, picked it up.
"Yeah?" he barked. "No kidding?" He hung up.
"Jeez, you know that sound we're picking up? That's the toilet flushing. Somebody go lock the damn john!"
The Governor droned on:
"What we are seeing today is but a hint of the future of television ... "
Another flush, louder than ever. The Governor had foretold, truly, the future of television.
I moved to the East Coast, where at least they had cool lights - WOR-TV. During that period, I was invited to entertain at a fraternity party on the West Side of Chicago. They even paid my travel expenses from New York. My fame was spreading. A tall, studious-looking guy wearing rimless glasses came up to me at the party. We had a short conversation, which I still remember word for word.
"I like your work, Shepherd. You're funny."
"How do you get in the business?"
"What do you do?" I asked. "Can you dance the Dutch clog, play the guitar, or anything? What do you do?"
"That's the trouble," he said, "nothing."
"Ah," I answered, "you're perfect for the news business. You don't even need your own material. It comes over the teletype."
He looked thoughtful.
"I never thought of that. News, eh?"
I didn't see or hear of him for three years, when he suddenly popped up on the late NBC-TV News, doing a remote from a political convention.
I stared at the TV screen. "My God, he took my advice!"
" ... and reporting for NBC, this is John Chancellor."
I was writing for Playboy at the time, and was even made an editor. But when I'm asked what I've enjoyed most, I must say big-screen movies beat them all. Sitting in a dark movie house, watching your work on the screen and hearing paying customers laugh is one of life's greatest experiences.
Anyway, it's been a great ride, and I often wonder what happened to the primitive TV set that Johnny built in his basement. It would really be fun to light it up some Thursday night and watch a microscopic edition of Friends doing their thing on an ancient Signal Corps surplus cathode ray tube taken from a long-forgotten Sherman tank, teaching you the one great lesson in life: People come and go, but technology goes on forever.
Videography, a magazine for the professional video production industry, was founded in April 1976, and in the 1996 commemorative issue featured possibly the last short story published by Shep called "Remebrance of Things Past"
Brian McKernan commissioned and edited what he believes may be the last published article written by Jean Shepherd. He was the editor of Videography from 1987 to 1999.
Here's his story:
Videography, a magazine for the professional video production industry, had been founded in April 1976, and in 1996 I convinced my boss, Paul Gallo (President of what was then known as Miller Freeman PSN, a trade publisher of such titles as Pro Sound News, EQ, Television Broadcast, and Videography, among others) that we should publish a special commemorative book to mark the magazine's twentieth anniversary.
Paul not only gave me the green light, he enthusiastically increased the budget so we could publish a high-class edition.
Delighted with the opportunity, I asked select writer friends to create chapters on various topics appropriate to their areas of expertise (immersive entertainment, education, video history, etc.).
One writer I didn't know, but had idolized ever since discovering him on my tiny Panasonic transistor radio one cold winter night in the Bronx in 1965 was Jean Shepherd. Fast forward 31 years, and I recalled reading somewhere that he was retired and living on Sanibel Island FL. I called directory assistance for that area, but found no listing for him. Then I got the bright idea to ask for a number for Leigh Brown, and BINGO! I found them. I spoke to Ms. Brown by phone (she couldn't have been nicer), made my request, and she asked me to send a letter for Shep reiterating my request.
A couple of weeks later, there it was, in the mail: a type-written essay titled "Remembrance of Things Past," written by Shep himself and autographed to me at its conclusion! I treasure it to this day. Needless to say, it was published in "The Age of Videography" I even drew a cartoon to accompany the essay, which I feel, is one of Shep's best. I suspect it may also be his last published work. If anyone knows for certain -- one way or the other--please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright: 1996 Miller Freeman PSN, Inc Permission by: Brian McKernan
JEAN SHEPHERD is a multitalented author and performer whose career spans radio, television, magazines, books, personal appearances, and motion pictures. A native of Indiana, he moved to New York as a founding writer of The Village Voice and later gained a reputation as a gifted monologist during his many years on WOR radio. He also appeared off-Broadway, in one-man shows, and in single performances as a stand-up humorist. His TV series Shepherd's Pie and Jean Shepherd's America were widely syndicated on PBS, as were the movies made from his original full-length screenplays The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski. He also wrote the screenplay for, and appears in, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss, an original Disney Channel movie. His theatrical feature A Christmas Story has become a perennially favorite holiday film. Shepherd is also the author of six books and the winner of numerous awards for his print, theater, and television work.
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Made in the USA
"Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you're not even a memory?
Think about it, friends. It's not just a possibility. It is a certainty." - Jean Shepherd - 1975