Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Memories of Jean Shepherd by -Lorraine McConaghy, Professor of Museum Studies, University of Washington

Jean Sheperd. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah (above)

As a girl my transistor radio – a pale beige plastic box with rounded edges – first opened nighttime worlds to me. My Uncle Charles, a dashing bachelor, drove out to our tract house in northern New Jersey each Christmas from his New York apartment. Even as a child, I saw his sophistication, his polished and urbane contrast to my parents. And he always gave me Christmas gifts I really wanted. One year, it was a subscription to Seventeen magazine. Another year, a gift certificate to Bloomingdale’s. Each year, each gift, my mother frowned and shook her head. But finally, in 1959, I unwrapped my own transistor radio, with the batteries already installed, and took my transistorized Nutcracker to my little pink bedroom and closed the door. In the Christmas afternoon’s deepening twilight, with snow drifting past the window, I began to explore the world through my radio. Those parts of the world, at least, that boasted a strong enough signal. It was great. I learned that there were alternatives to our drab suburban life of meatloaf, layoffs and property taxes.
I especially liked listening to the radio after dark, in my bed – the house was still, my imagination worked better and so did the reception. I pressed my face to the transistor radio on my pillow, so that my mom wouldn’t hear that I was still awake, listening to “that damn thing.” Occasionally, I could get stations from Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Wheeling, West Virginia – I’d hold my breath so I could hear better. I heard my first gospel, my first jazz, my first folk music. But radio was much more than music. I also heard my first John Birch Society member, my first Marxist, my first holy roller. And, boy, did I listen. My transistor radio opened the world for me.
My first great AM radio love was Jean Shepherd, who broadcast out of a New York studio on WOR. I stumbled on him, just cycling through the stations, and after that, I listened to Shep’s show every night. He seemed to be speaking just to me, in the dark, over the transistor radio, creating an extemporaneous and magical story. I thought of him much differently as a kid than I do now. Jean Shepherd was a brilliant American humorist and writer, a gifted monologist, an uncompromising social critic and a Renaissance man of many skills and interests. But back then, he was just Shep. He had grown up in Hammond, Indiana, and remembered the town, its people and himself with penetrating insight.
Shep began so many radio stories, “So I’m this kid, see…,” and his voice was warm and confiding. And then he would weave a story before the eyes of my imagination – his mom stirring a pot in the stove wearing her rump-sprung chenille robe, his dad doing battle with the coal-fired furnace, his kid brother sobbing quietly under the kitchen sink, his teacher Miss Shields, the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus, and his pals Flick, Bruner and Schwartz. Shep invoked Ovaltine promos, a guy’s batting average, freezing your tongue to a metal pole on a triple-dog dare, gazing at the allure of a lamp modeled as a woman’s leg, ads from Popular Mechanics – “Do you really know any popular mechanics?”, he would ask, “I mean, really? Are there any, anywhere?” And then he would chuckle, a deeply amused and knowing rumble. He moved easily back and forth between being a kid and being a grownup, exploring the mutually incomprehensible terrain. Shep could convince me that a Red Ryder BB gun was a kid’s holy grail, and that grownups just didn’t get it. “You’ll shoot your eye out!”, they all said, foolishly. But there it was, under the Christmas tree. As a kid myself, I felt liberated by Shep’s triumph but, after all, his dad did buy the gun for him and he nearly did shoot his eye out. Life, I learned from Shep, was nicely complicated.
Jean Shepherd was a satirist who mined his own life to develop his art, and his humor was benevolent and wise, endearing and enduring. And so we are drawn to the gentle satire of “A Christmas Story,” which Shep was working on in his monologues when I began listening to him in 1959, on my little transistor radio. For all of us, Jean Shepherd is the voice of our childhood and somehow, also, the voice of our adulthood. We see both, through his eyes, and we just have to smile and shake our heads.

Adapted from “Waves and Signals: Greenwich Village and Jean Shepherd,” originally published in Humanities Washington’s Port, 1999, with many thanks to Humanities Washington.

1 comment:

Eugene B. Bergmann said...

Hi Professor McMonaghy,
I enjoyed your article about Jean Shepherd, because I'm a fan, and because I wrote the only book about his creative life: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD (Applause Books, 2005).Indeed he was a genius--especially of radio, and also of writing, TV, theater, and performance. In fact, I've got enough new stuff about him, I'm now looking for a publisher of my new book manuscript about him!

I'd love to read your entire article, “Waves and Signals: Greenwich Village and Jean Shepherd.” I consider myself a Jean Shepherd historian. Any way I can get a copy?

Eugene B. Bergmann
(retired Senior Exhibit Designer, AMNH, NYC)