Monday, June 02, 2014

My own brief story about Jean Shepherd

This was originally written and published in Fall 1999 on a website I owned at the time (pre-blogs). It was composed shortly after the death of Jean Shepherd (who died on Saturday, October 16, 1999) and I suspect, in writing this I was reconciling the loss. 

Over the years I have edited and added some additional comments. Today as I post this, I did a little more editing for accuracy and the occasional typo. I apparently didn't have a very good spellchecker in 1999.

The original web location of this reflection is long gone so I thought this was essentially lost. However, I found it today on an old backup drive hidden away in an sock drawer. I wonder what else is on there...

My purpose for re-publishing this is in response to a series of wonderful articles written by our friend and official Jean Shepherd biographer,Gene Bergmann. These recent posts on his blog provide a rich backstory of one of Jean Shepherd's greatest "fans." After you read this, you'll want head over to Shepquest and get "the rest of the story."

Jean Shepherd
It was 1971 and Shep had begun a tradition of holding a "press conference" for college newspaper and radio reporters at the Overseas Press Club in Manhattan. At the time, I was a freshman at Pratt Institute and a devoted follower. I also had two small radio programs on the campus based station WPIR which had a broadcast range of about three feet. Actually, it was a "closed circuit" system intended to only be played in the dorms and cafeteria. Good thing. My Barker Bill Show, which featured popular folk rock music and my occasional banterings, news clips and movie reviews, was probably pretty bad. I was known to mix Janis Joplin with the sound track from the movie, The Wizard of Oz back-to-back. Hey, it was the 70's.

Anyway, as per the directive, I sent off, on "official letterhead," a request for an "official press pass" to the Jean Shepherd's America Press Conference scheduled for April 8, 1971. In preparation, I "acquired" my sister's fairly new Norelco cassette tape player and planned to record the whole event (I still have, and just listened to the tape and will see about making it available to download). See info in the Notes at the bottom of this as to the status of the recording...

When the important day arrived, I made my way by subway from our apartment in Brooklyn to the Overseas Press Club on West 39th Street, adjacent to the main branch of the New York City Public Library. The OPC, an ornate Victorian style building, had a small clunky, funky elevator that was not too fast. Since the conglomeration of "reporters" all arrived at about the same time, and all had to take the same elevator to get to the upper floor where the press conference was to be held, it was pretty wild scene. As I was stuffing myself into the small, sardine-can like conveyance, a small, rather extremely attractive woman approached and begged to be allowed to squeeze in. Being the gentleman that I was, and noticing the stunning quality of this auburn haired beauty, I elbowed the kid behind me and pressed back making room for the latest fan.

In the creaky trip up to the fourth floor, I tried, somewhat in vain, to strike up a conversation with my brown-haired friend. It was obvious that she was significantly older than the median pimply-faced kids on the elevator, but not all that old. Maybe thirty? But, boy was she one fine-looking lady with a dark colored outfit and all that luscious brown hair.

The conversation I tried to initiate was not very memorable. She did respond briefly and admitted to being a "big fan" and looking forward to seeing Shep. I tried to find out where she was from, thinking that she too was a college student somewhere -- perhaps a graduate student. But, when the elevator door opened a few minutes later she quickly disappeared into the large throng of student reporters milling around and crowding into the small, humid room. Oh well, such is life.

Now, anyone who has listened to the Jean Shepherd radio show on WOR has heard Shep mention his producer, "Lee" Brown. In fact, during many programs, Shep would literally talk to the off-microphone Lee who was obviously in some sound-proof control room nearby. Since Jean's style was so often rhetorical, and almost conversational, it probably helped to have someone in the control room who could at least give the semblance of an audience.

Well, up until that memorable day in April, I assumed that "Lee" was some paunchy, middle-aged guy with a cigarette butt handing out of his mouth, thick glasses and perpetually wearing a set of old-fashioned radio headphones. I mean, what else could you expect. What kind of person would spend five nights a week working in a cramped control room listening to Shepherd's rants and raves. It had to be some guy!

As fate would have it, during the next hour of the press conference, which by the way was quite entertaining, Shep took occasion to explain, in detail, the production staff of his new TV series on PBS called, Jean Shepherd's America. And, one of the Associate Producers for that show was Lee Brown. Except -- it wasn't Lee Brown, it was Leigh Brown. A woman. A woman?

And then, before my very eyes, he brought Leigh up on the stage to introduce to the crowd.

My God, it was my auburn-haired mystery woman from the elevator. Holy Smokes! I had ridden up the elevator with Jean Shepherd's Associate Producer. And she had TALKED to ME. I'd been blessed!

Now, if you have made it this far on this page you are probably figuring -- this guy is totally wacky. Like, who cares! Big deal! Well, what I didn't know then, and only learned later, was that Leigh and Jean -- were "an item." That's right. They were more than just "professional colleagues." And in fact, in 1978, according to my spies, Jean married this old flame (his third, at least her second).

Sadly, I learned today that Jean had out survived Leigh. According to Jean's obituary, Leigh died last year after 21 years of marriage. I guess they are now just hanging out together in Heaven, talking about that goofy kid who called himself Barker Bill.

BTW, I suspect that Shep would be a bit amused at the outpouring of affection. He could at times be a bit vain, but I think he was also a realist and would encourage us all to get on with it and not to dwell on his passing. I understand a memorial service is being planned in NYC. Maybe then we can find out more about his final wishes.

Jean Parker Shepherd lived a long, full life and seemed to have fun doing it. He will be immortalized in his writings and his other crafts and I will always remember him.

Additional Comments: March 4, 2001

Shep was a self-described, personal friend and colleague of Jack Kerouac, the rather infamous author of the book, On the Road. Ironically, there was a story in this past Sunday's Maine Sunday Telegram about Kerouac, a native of Lowell, MA. The article begins with a reminder that Kerouac died 30 years ago this month. I remember that night. Shep devoted the whole 45 minutes of his show talking about Kerouac and claimed that one of the characters in the book, On the Road, was based upon him. And, as I remember it, the character was called the "angel-headed hippy." Perhaps some one knows more about this, but it sure seems fitting.

Additional Comments: January 2004

As a Christmas present to myself this year I purchased a copy of the 20th Anniversary DVD of The Christmas Story. Shep devotees should drop everything and run out and get this DVD today because it has some real treats. In addition to lots of memorabilia regarding the film, the filming process and many of the players involved (including Shep), there is a section with some original recordings of some of his radio shows.

One should make sure they listen to the Director's Commentary version of the playback. There are some interesting highlights and insights which I never knew. The biggest surprise for me - and I think this is fitting given the discussion above - was that in addition to Shep playing a cameo (you all know the scene), the woman standing with him is in fact his real-life wife and co-producer, Leigh Brown.
So gang, hang by your thumbs, write if you get work. And remember,

Flick Lives!

Original: circa October, 1999
revised: January 5, 2004

revised and re-posted: June 2, 2014


At some time in the mid-1990s a fellow Shep devotee offered to convert the ancient cassette recording from this Overseas Press Club event into digital format on the condition that he be able to post it on his website. I readily agreed, the posting made and the tape returned. I thought that devotee was Jim Clavin of the FlickLives website, but I cannot seem to find the recording on his site (although he has others listed as Overseas Press Club, the year is wrong).

I also checked web sites by Jim Sadur and Bob Kaye, but alas, no recording. If you know what happened to it, please contact me. Otherwise, I will see about finding the original and re-converting it. That is, if it has not already decomposed.

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