Sunday, March 15, 2015

Brush With Celebrity: Jean Shepherd

[purchase a book by Jean Shepherd]
[purchase some recordings by Jean Shepherd]

The inspiration for this theme was a bit that David Letterman used to do when he was on NBC, and his show was stranger (and Dave was nastier) than when he moved to CBS and the earlier timeslot. He called it “Brush With Greatness,” and they would have audience members discuss encounters that they had with celebrities, usually ending with a “writer’s embellishment,” that took the mostly prosaic events to some weirder place. For example—this brief story about selling Ted Koppel classical records, embellished to end with a heavy metal jam with the newsman.

My subject today, Jean Shepherd, would have, I think, appreciated the concept of the writer’s embellishment. Shepherd, who passed away in 1999, was hysterically funny, but he was really more of a humorist than a comedian. He was a raconteur who made his name telling stories on the radio. He was an author, TV personality and worked in movies. There is, if you look online, a pretty large cult of Shepherd lovers who maintain websites devoted to his work, and books have been written about him. If, though, he is remembered broadly today, it is as the writer and narrator of the movie A Christmas Story, which I have to admit, I didn’t really like.  The video above is an early version of the story that later became the movie.

Shepherd’s life story is shrouded by mystery and obfuscation, so although there are many sources for information about him, it probably pays to take much of it with maybe a whole shaker of salt. For example, his obituary in the New York Times, noted that he was “believed to be at least 70.” The obituary, strangely, ends with a statement from a “friend and business advisor” that Shepherd had no survivors, followed by a quote from Shepherd’s living son Randall, mentioning that Shepherd also had a living daughter. He may or may not have been considered for the job hosting the Tonight Show after Steve Allen, but instead the job went to Jack Paar. He might have been the model for the radio host in Kerouac’s On The Road. And he occasionally made public statements that were confounding. He was a man with a huge ego, who seemed to resent the fact that perceived lesser talents were more appreciated by the public. Donald Fagen has written about his conflicted feelings about Shepherd.   If this has piqued your interest about him, and I hope it has, just start Googling.

For 31 years, from 1966-1996, Jean Shepherd performed at Princeton, typically during Reunions, as a fundraiser for WPRB. As a freshman from the New York area, I was aware of Shepherd, was not really knowledgeable about his work. I guess that I considered him more of interest to my parents’ generation. But as second semester started to come to a close in 1979, people at the station started to get excited about “Shep’s” annual appearance. I was planning to stay for Reunions to perform (among other things) with the marching band, so I agreed to help out with the show, which, I was guaranteed, would be amazing.

If anything, it was better than that. Playing to a packed house of about 1,000 in Alexander Hall, in the heat, Shepherd spoke, for about 2 hours without a break, without notes. He told a long, involved story, with digression piled upon digression, before tying up neatly. And, did I mention that it was funny? Not only “ha ha” funny, but poignant, clever and thoughtful. The story was certainly based on things that happened to him, but were embellished just enough to make them amusing. It was really mindblowing.

After the show, we walked over to Holder Hall, and into our basement studio for pizza and beer (sorry, FCC), and conversation with an open mic. Shep, which I now called him, was friendly, interesting and engaging to the staff and people who called in. This was repeated at the end of my sophomore year (where I moved closer to the mic), and again, my junior year, where as program director, I was one of the discussion leaders.

By this time, it was clear to me that Shep had a photographic memory, which explained how he could deliver his shows so perfectly. He remembered my name each year and asked me about the Mets (he was an avid White Sox fan), despite the fact that I was probably one of hundreds of people he met while performing.

As a senior member of the WPRB staff who also had a car, I was tasked to take Shep to his hotel after the show and studio session (so, I didn’t drink that much beer. Really.) If you are familiar with Route 1 near Princeton, you know that it is lined with hotels of various quality, and back in 1981, it was the same, if somewhat sparser. There are nice chain hotels, and independent motels of various reputability. If the place I was supposed to drop Shep off with actually charged by the hour, I wouldn’t have been surprised. He looked at the place, looked at me, and shook his head, saying, in his sonorous voice, that he wouldn’t stay there. Instead, I drove him north on Route 1, to a nicer hotel near Newark Airport. I never heard that he sent the station a bill.

Now, if this was the old Letterman show, I’d tell you that Shep also paid for a room for me, and the next morning, the two of us flew to Vegas for a weekend of fun and excessive drinking. But it isn’t. Instead, I shook his hand and drove back to Princeton, to finish Reunions, for a weekend of fun and excessive drinking.

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