Friday, December 23, 2005

Nada-Feengah! Jazz-speak for A Christmas Story

If you haven’t seen it, I’ll set the scene for you.

Inside the home, it is holiday time. Dad is downstairs, busily tinkering with a misbehaving furnace in the basement. Suddenly, there is the sound
of a loud crash coming from the main floor.
It brings the old man vaulting up the stairs where he finds that his prized possession — a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg — has been shattered.

He removes his soot-battered gloves, takes a bended knee as if in mourning and cradles the wounded trophy as if it were a precious babe in swaddling clothes.
Then, in his grief, he unleashes one of the great curses heard in the
past quarter-century:


It should rank up there right alongside other classic lines from the yuletide
canon like “Mankind was my business!” and “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

Actor Darren McGavin plays “The Dad” in the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” where the funny line, the furiously, stammering “Not a Finger!” is spoken.

The words come from the pen of the late Jean Shepherd, an American renaissance man of the 20th century.
Shepherd wrote columns for periodicals like the Village Voice and
Playboy and performed hundreds of live shows at colleges across the
country. He wrote books, made appearances on television and recorded six
albums, including one with jazz legend Charles Mingus.

It was his work on radio for more than 20 years however, where he performed some of his greatest work.

A true “radio personality” of 1950s America, Shepherd was an on-air
philosopher and satirist.

He was the hip character in leather boots, crumpled chinos and a black turtleneck whose improvised monologues would be broadcast late into the night, live and in person from the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village.
Slang dictionaries credit him for coining the phrase “night people” for his fellow non-conformists, and beat historians insist he was the late-night radio host who Jack Kerouac used as the model in his book “On the Road.”

For more than 20 years, Shepherd entertained listeners with his first-person stories, poetry, and music. He wrote a novel, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” then turned it into a screenplay for the 1983 film “A Christmas Story.”

It is Shepherd’s wit that conjured Ralphie — a boy who dreams of owning
an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle,
that is at the center of the movie.
And it is Shepherd’s care for his characters and his humor that delivers lines like: “Fra-gi-ley. That must be Italian,” and the congregation of dream-killing adults who nag at every turn: “You’ll shoot your eye out kid!”

Shepherd’s role in the film is also as narrator.
It is his voice you hear when a grown-up Ralphie looks back and wonders aloud exactly how his father would kill him:

“What would it be?
The guillotine? Hanging?
The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture?” he ponders after unintentionally letting fly with The Word: "the big one, the queen-mother
of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word.”

You can also hear snippets from Shepherd’s lifetime of skills as a prose
stylist when the film’s narrator leads in with jazz-speak rambles.
“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of
unbridled avarice,” he announces at one point.

Kerouac would have been proud.

The most fun comes when Ralphie critiques the old man’s verse. It is a
colorful language delivered under extreme duress, the boy explains,speaking
in strange tongues with a steady torrent of obscenities pouring out of him.

“My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay,” Ralphie said. “Weaving a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

This would be usually followed by the clanking sound of a soot-blasting
furnace and a fatherly skein of holiday epiphanies:

Shepherd died in 1999 at the age of 78. For all his lifetime accomplishments, he will most likely be best remembered for “A Christmas Story.”
It is an enduring legacy of his, to which no other accomplishment comes close. For sheer fun, you can’t touch it. Nadafeengah.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Then one foggy Christmas Eve: remembering Johnny Marks

This is Johnny Marks’ time of year.

From the upper reaches of the North Pole to the shores of the Orient, boys and girls gather to celebrate the season and sing Marks’ songs.

I was in high school and working my first real job when I got to know Marks. And although nearly 20 years have come and gone since Marks passed away, he will be forever remembered for his accomplishments that one day in 1947.

The then-aspiring songwriter sat down at a piano and banged out seven notes to match the syllables of the poem ‘Ru-dolph the Red-nosed Rein-deer.’ Marks’ actions on that day guaranteed that he and Santa’s beaming navigator would go down in his-to-ry.

Marks was in his early 70s when I first met him. He was a regular customer where I worked -
in a smoke shop/magazine store in Manhattan.

Shaped like a long, thin shoebox, the store sat on a northeast corner of a Greenwich Village street. And small as it was, every inch of the joint was packed with eclectic periodicals,
from high fashion to underground fetishes that reflected the diverse tastes of the Village.

This was a neighborhood where Oscar Wilde had lived in the 19th century;
where the radical Weathermen group accidentally blew themselves up in the early 1970s; where the smallest cemetery in all of Manhattan held Spanish and Portuguese markers
from 1805.

Artists, musicians and models whose images would stare back from the covers of the magazines were among the regulars. Occasionally, you would spot Cher, leafing through a copy of Billboard magazine, Elizabeth Taylor glancing at the glossy magazine covers, Lou Reed reading about motorcycles.

Cramped as it was, the shop had a small space allotted for a coffin-sized humidor. This was filled with dark, leaf-wrapped stogies labeled with south-of-the-border names.

Johnny Marks, with tufts of white hair on an otherwise balding scalp, smiling and rosy-cheeked, came in for the cigars. Of all the celebrities who paraded through the narrow aisles on a daily basis, the one who provided the most awe was Johnny Marks. Celebrity fame was temporary,
fleeting. Marks was immortal.

Marks was born in November 1909 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., just north of Manhattan. He went to college at Columbia University, then headed to Paris to study music. His brother-in-law, Robert May, lived in Chicago at the time, and worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

When asked to create a Christmas character for a holiday brochure, May came up with the story of a reindeer whose bright nose made him into a hero.

After dabbling with names that ranged from Rollo to Reginald, the young copywriter decided on Rudolph, and the reindeer was born in time for the holiday season of 1939.

Marks, meanwhile, returned home and worked as a radio producer after a stint with the Army in World War II. He was approached by his brother-in-law, who introduced Marks to his fictional reindeer, Rudolph.

The reindeer was a popular figure in department store holiday brochures,
but he held higher aspirations.

In 1947, Marks reworked May’s original lyrics and set them to music. Twoyears later, Gene Autry was brought in and recorded Marks’ tune.
In 1964, NBC premiered a TV version that featured Burl Ives, and added a number of Marks-penned tunes.

Marks went on to a career as a songwriter of holiday songs. ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ was his. So was ‘A Holly, Jolly Christmas.’ His ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ has
sold more than 30 million copies.

The last time I saw Marks was just before his passing in 1985. He collected his cigars and,
with a rosy-cheeked smile, walked out the door, and into history.
Just like Rudolph.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Hanging of the Lights

It has been a time of learning since moving into my new neighborhood, a few months ago.
And the spirit in this season of grace is competition, I discovered one recent evening when visited by a neighbor.

‘Look at that house across the street,’ he said, pointing to a decorative landscape
of red-and gold-draped evergreens, lighted reindeer and ribbon-wrapped wreaths
festooned with bows that were topped with a big yellow bell.

‘Whatever they put up, we have to put up more,’ the neighbor said.

That was two weeks ago.

I can tell you after some diligent planning and careful execution, today you can see our side of the street from the mountains of Vermont. Not that we’re competitive or anything.

This all began sometime during the long Thanksgiving weekend, with the sun setting early
and the lights of the neighborhood starting to come alive.
Leaf-raked lawns suddenly began sprouting lit designs of horn-blowing angels and reindeer pulling sleds, 4-foot tall candy canes and 6-foot high Santas who wave mechanical arms while singing ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’

Impressive stuff.

There are also scores of nativity scenes with mangers stocked with wise men and farm animals, oversized Marys and small plastic Jesuses.
Even bigger is the village skyline whose starry nights were hidden behind rooftop designs of belly-lit Frostys, menacing Yetis and grinning green Grinches.

There was only one thing to do: Get lights. Lots of them.

Sufficient consideration has been given to achieve a look that is bold, yet not brassy.
Elegant and classy, as opposed to trashy or tacky. There is a very thin line that separates the look of a palace from a dump.

I will also tell you there is not enough attention paid to those miniature caution labels.

Hold a strand of lights in your hand, and you will find three warning labels.
The first is stamped with a UL label, printed on silver-reflective paper which makes
reading the words similar to finding a needle on a very large mirror.

The second, with text affixed to a plastic bag boldly labeled SPARE BULB, cautions about how many of these wire gizmos you can plug into one another. (Seven, by the way, is too many).

The third warning sticker is glue-folded onto the wire and is impossible to make any sense of without much manipulative handling of the product at which point you can make out the following: ‘Caution! Handling of this product is known to cause reproductive harm. In the state of California.’


Now some poor newlywed couple trying to start a family in Monterey will forever dwell in a house that knows no children, destined to grow old the rest of their days alone.

Eventually, after a few fits and sparks and electrical alterations, things started shaping up. Lighted ‘nets’ were strung across barren trees. Green wreaths adorned with red ribbon wrappings and gold-leaf tidings adorned a winding wonderland of glittering garland that line
both handrails and illuminate a path from the front stoop right down to
the street.

Across the broad avenue, St. Nicholas recently led a parade of lantern-carrying children to a ceremony lighting the town tree. This was followed by a tradition older than anyone alive
today, as Santa Claus comes zooming down a hill on the back of a fire truck, waving to the crowd.

Bright as it was, it still seemed that something was missing. A neighbor who I did not recognize offered advice.

‘You could use some icicle lights up there,’ came the passer-by’s helpful suggestion.
‘Those would work like a charm,’ he said, although secretly I wondered whether he was from across the street and trying to trick me into screwing up.

I may be new in the neighborhood, but I’ve been around the block a few times.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian