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The Snark, Hunted

You may recall that a while back, I wrote a post about a failed attempt to do a “dramatic reading” of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” Nevermind; you don’t recall that. Nor should you.

Regardless, the reason I made that failed attempt is because Jean Shepherd used to read this poem on his radio show, and his recitations of it were one of my dad’s favorite things. He would attempt to recreate the effect by repeating certain lines in his best Shepherdian low. For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I could only guess at what Shepherd’s own version sounded like, because even though he reportedly read the poem on the air many times, there were no examples readily available. I scanned the darkest depths of the interwebs for months until I decided that alas, all of Shep’s readings were lost to the mists of time.

And then this morning, a man named David Director emailed me. He had a college roommate who taped many Shep shows in the early 1960s, as Shep fans often did back in the day. He had the foresight to make copies of some of his roommate’s tapes, including a series of shows from January 29-31, 1963, during which Shepherd read “The Hunting of the Snark” in its entirety.

David was kind enough to send me an mp3 of Shep reading the introduction to the poem (“Fit the First”) and to also give permission to share it here. So now, thanks to David (and his erstwhile roommate, David Singer), I present to you Jean Shepherd reading the opening to “The Hunting of the Snark.” Enjoy.

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Jean Shepherd: Strange Tales of New York

shep2I have often waxed at great length about my love of Jean Shepherd’s radio show, here and elsewhere. I’ve written about and shared many kinds of programs of his over the years: nostalgic, anti-nostalgic, childhood tales, army tales, philosophical meanderings, and various combinations of the above.

Another thing he did well on his shows—something I haven’t really touched on before—is his ability to convey a mood of eeriness, of creeping, unnameable terror. Around Halloween, he loved to dedicate shows to stories about the Jersey Devil (and occasionally its lesser known cousin, the Kentucky Devil). He did many other shows about the pull of the supernatural and the fear of ghosts. But more often, he would talk about the terror of the everyday, the weird, creepy things happening right under our noses.

For no good reason at all, I want to share one such show, which aired on April 14, 1970. It starts with Shep sharing a bone-chilling news story from New Orleans, where creepy things tend to happen with some regularity. But then he shifts into a tale from the days when he first moved to New York, and his somewhat desperate attempts to find friendship in a city that can make newcomers feel crushingly alone. The story starts out amusing, involving wild parties, random encounters, and lapsed drunken monks (really), but it quickly deteriorates into a sad and chilling arena. Shep closes out the show with another story, this one about helping a friend investigate an apartment he’s interested in renting. Finding a place to live in New York is terrifying enough, but this story goes beyond even the usual level of terror and into a special, weird place.

Though Shep’s stories in this show refer to things that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, there’s something eternally New York about these stories, a very New York brand of loneliness and sadness and squalor that few people wrote about then and even fewer write about now. I found it genuinely unnerving to listen to because it all felt so real to me, and I find it amazing he was able to convey this feeling with only his voice (although a creepy Stockhausen composition helped, I suppose).

Enjoy (if that’s the word). Just don’t listen to it with the lights off.

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Jean Shepherd, “Christmas Cards”

Last year, I shared a few Christmas-themed Jean Shepherd shows as part of my Holiday Triumphs (the counterpart to my Holiday Horrors). If you don’t know who Jean Shepherd is or my continued obsession with him, check this out. I’ll wait here.

Back with us? So, despite sharing several of his Yuletide stories with you last year, this one eluded me, perhaps because it’s not really a story at all. It’s a show from Christmas Eve, 1964, in which he talks about trends in Christmas cards, comparing ancient cards he has to the cards he received for this holiday. His basic premise, one he often hammered on in his shows: “I submit that you will find more about a public in its attitudes toward its great rites, whatever they might be, than in any amount of pious editorials.”

It’s fascinating to listen to this show from nearly 50 years ago and hear what has changed since then, and how little hasn’t, and to get a glimpse of how Christmas cards reflect each era in which they were produced. If you listen to his descriptions of the Christmas cards he received just prior to this show, you can hear the faint echoes of the cynicism and delusion of the decade to come. Especially as the show closes, when Shepherd relates a very dark conversation he had with a junior high-aged kid about his view of the universe.

As you listen to what this kid says, keep in mind that even The Beatles had barely happened at this point in history. The 1960s weren’t quite yet “The Sixties,” but Shep was adept at recognizing a faint note of something in the air that had eluded everyone else so far. (A straw in the wind, he used to call it.)

It’s one of Shepherd’s more philosophical entries (as opposed to his “I was this kid, see…” tales). The audio picks up mid-show, and the sound quality is not fantastic, but I think you will enjoy it nonetheless. Yes, you. Don’t look at me like that.

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Pointless Nostalgia: Steampipe Alley

Steampipe Alley 2.jpgWhile searching through the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives, looking for something I hope to digitize and post to the site very soon (shh! it’s a secret!), I ran across not one, not two, but three full episodes of Steampipe Alley. They’re like the Dead Sea Scrolls of kids’ show camp!

Once I made this discovery, I did a quick tour of the interwebs and discovered–TO MY HORROR–that there is virtually no online record of Steampipe Alley‘s existence. THIS ENDS HERE!

If you didn’t grow up in the Tri-State Area and/or you aren’t of a certain age, you may have never heard of Steampipe Alley. It aired on WWOR, channel 9. Nowadays, it’s a “My” station whatever the hell that means, but back then, it was an independent station with Superstation aspirations that broadcast out of Seacaucus, NJ.

Once upon a time, every local TV channel had its own self-produced kids’ show with a goofy host, contests, sketches, and cartoons. By the 1980s, almost none of them did. In fact, by that time, there were very few independent stations left at all. Channel 9 was a rare outpost for ultra-local programming (and a budget to match), wedged in between Cosby Show reruns, old movies, and other syndicated fare.

In 1988, for some anachronistic reason, WWOR decided to produce its own kids’ show called Steampipe Alley. Info on the interwebs about the program’s origins (or anything else about it) is spotty at best. Here’s all you really need to know: it was hosted by Mario Cantone.

You may know Mr. Cantone from Sex and the City, or you may have seen him on a Comedy Central Roast or two, or you may have seen him do his standup act. But if you’ve seen him in any form, you know that he’s high energy, to say the least. And he loves campy, old timey references that he’s way too young to namecheck. He’s equal parts Robin Williams, Rip Taylor, and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Did he tone it down a bit when he hosted a kids’ show? I think you know the answer to that question already.


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