NEW YORK — The Narrator once spoke of "the great inverted bowl of darkness . . . the Midwest." There he "learned to dream the American dream--of the beautiful future, the glorious past and the crummy now."
The Narrator was, and still is, Jean Shepherd. He spoke those words in the mid-1970s, in PBS' acclaimed "The Phantom of the Open Hearth," a sardonic slice of Americana. It concerned life, being a teen-ager and worse.
He now continues in that vein with "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss." It is a teen-ager's saga of life in a blue-collar family that plans for and finally takes what is for many both a great American ritual and ordeal--the annual summer pilgrimage to an ancient lakeside summer resort.
With a cast that includes James B. Sikking, late of NBC's "Hill Street Blues," as head of this clan, "Bliss" bows tonight at 7 p.m. on the Disney Channel, where it will have eight more plays, then air later on PBS.
The dual showing is due to the fact that it is a co-production of Disney, public TV's "American Playhouse" and Boston public TV station WGBH. The Disney money is why it got made in the first place.
Shepherd, who hails from Indiana and draws from the Hoosier tradition of oral history and Pabst Blue Ribbon, did two other slice-of-Americana dramas for PBS after "Phantom"--"The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters" and "The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski."
In 1984, he wrote his first theatrical film, "A Christmas Story." It did well at the box office. Money started pouring in, he said. The movie kept popping up in theaters and also on TV at subsequent Christmas times.
It was a turning point, he said:
"I realized that this is the medium and I was not going to do any more television . . . it's too temporary. You work a year or two years, writing a damn script. You want it to have a little life, not just show it one night, and that's it."
Be that as it may, there came a call from public TV emissaries about doing another drama. He told them no--then, "I don't come cheap." This led, he said, to public TV emissaries talking co-production with Disney.
A deal was struck, he said, with one basic condition: "That they have nothing to do with the production." And work began, with Boston-based Fred Barzyk, producer of his previous PBS ventures, heading the new one.
The satirist, writer and actor spoke of all this by telephone from Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, Fla., where he and his production partner, Leigh Brown, now live and work. They keep a Manhattan apartment for brief stays there.
Shepherd's history is varied. It includes perhaps 15 years as a legendary late-night monologuist on WOR-AM here, where he spun tall tales of growing up in Indiana, Army life and matters under the general category of various and sundry. Some nights, he also would play a record.
He also has done time off-Broadway as an actor, even starring in one show he wrote about the history of the pratfall. He did stand-up comedy and appeared in revues.
He twice checked in, in 1972 and in 1979, on PBS with a pair of 13-part, stream-of-consciousness ruminations on this nation called "Jean Shepherd's America," in which he visited various places and memories.
(In one early chapter, Shepherd, a pilot with 4,000 hours logged, recalled that when his old man went up for his first plane ride, then landed, he swaggered a few steps, then threw up. Observed the son: "He was one of the eagles.")
Shepherd tried network TV, too, in the mid-'70s after the acclaim for his "Phantom." ABC sent him to Hollywood, he said, to work on a sitcom pilot that was akin to his show. But that went awry, he said, mainly because the pilot wound up with slapstick, which was not akin to his show:
"The fact is, I was green out there, and I let 'em get away with all kinds of stuff. I didn't assert myself, I didn't say, 'No, you don't do this kind of thing with this kind of humor.'
"And when they turned out the pilot, it was terrible."
Despite that experience, despite his already broken vow never to do any more TV because months of work goes poof in one night, his new "Hopnoodle" is not his swan song in TV, public or otherwise.
"No, not necessarily," he said. There may come an incredible offer, and "I don't want to close any doors." However, he said, he prefers theatrical films and in fact is working on a sequel to "A Christmas Story."
Feature films, he said, have a far longer life than any TV show, and they're "far more lucrative . . . . I mean, every three months we get a giant royalty check." Shepherd chortled.
"So when you tap into that mother lode, you realize why people like Steven Speilberg can own a castle."