Jean Shepherd’s Rally


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives

May 8, 1957, Vol. II, No. 28

Jean Shepherd’s Rally

By Alan Bodian

Dawn broke innocently over Washington Square last Saturday. It was a gray, quiet day until 1:30, when several hundred young people, mostly in their teens, filled the circle yelling to one another cryptic slogans like “Excelsior!…They’re only engineers!…Let’s mill!”

[Shepherd, the WOR radio talker who would later turn his memories of growing up in Chicago into the screenplay for the 1983 film A Christmas Story, was known for his battle cry, “Excelsior!,” and his outings with fans, in which he encouraged them to “mill” quietly, and in this case, fly small kites.]

Tension filled the circle by 2 o’clock. It was now very clammy, and rain seemed imminent. Some of the more adventurous raced through the restive crowd, with small kites about 3 by 5 inches in size, but nature refused to cooperate and the kites hung limp.

“EXCELSIOR! EXCELSIOR!” The chant gained momentum…

Finally, Jean Shepherd, in sports coat and open collar, appeared and mounted the ledge, and the throng, at least a thousand strong, closed in on him. Shepherd raised his hands and exhorted his followers to calm down…

A police radio car came screaming into the Square and a police sergeant approached Shepherd. The mob moved in, and now there were at least 2000 people…

“Now I told you that all we were going to do was gather here in Washington Square, mill around a little bit, and fly our kites. Now let’s start to mill.”

The sergeant, seizing this moment of silence, shouted coarsely: “All right, break it up!”

He was greeted by a roar of boos.

“If Shep says to mill, I think it’s only fair to do what he says,” a boy about 15 yelled earnestly.

“Cremate that kid!” a tall boy shouted.

“Let’s strip the police car!” another shouted.

“Let’s strip the sergeant!”

Shepherd started to walk rapidly across the circle and turned west on Washington Square North. A phalanx of the faithful followed. At the corner of MacDougal Street, Shepherd stopped next to a flaming red Isetta, and in a farewell address told his disciples that he had promised the police to disband the meeting.

“NO! NO!” the faithful shouted.

Shepherd opened the plastic front of the Isetta and pleaded for sanity. He and an unidentified lady — a total stranger to him, Shepherd later told The Voice — disappeared under the plastic bubble.

“Let’s lift the car!” A few of his muscular followers straddled the plastic-turreted car and started to lift it. Shepherd and his uninvited hitchhiker sat rigid and pale. The police car was seen coming down the street. Finally Shepherd started the motor and squirmed through the crowd. As the Isetta disappeared southward down MacDougal Street the faithful began to scatter.

“The art of milling is dead,” said one, and sadly put his kite to rest in a briefcase.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]