Friday, August 21, 2009

A fond farewell to Al Shea

Some kids dream of becoming baseball stars or basketball champs. Others want to become cops or firefighters. Me? Well, I have to admit, for a goodly portion of my youth in New Orleans, I wanted to grow up to be Al Shea. Seriously.

For a decade or so in the 1960s and ‘70s, Shea was the exuberantly gregarious entertainment reporter for Midday, a live noontime variety show that aired on NBC affiliate WDSU-TV. Whether he was reviewing new films – I vividly recall his politely dismissive WTF response to The Illustrated Man – or appraising local stage productions, or smoothly interviewing showbiz celebrities either in town or on the road, he came across at once informed and accessible, well-connected and down-to-earth, thoroughly professional and ingratiatingly easygoing. I didn’t fully appreciate at the time that, as New Orleans TV historian Dominic Massa points out in his on-line tribute, Shea was one of the first people to do on-the-air reviews of movies and plays on American television. And I made only a sporadically effective effort to tamp down my profound jealousy of the guy. But that’s only because I wasn’t merely a fan of Al Shea -- I wanted to be Al Shea. Because, geez, he had such a cool job, and he looked like he was enjoying every moment of it.

Long after Midday signed off for good, Al remained a fixture in New Orleans media, covering arts and entertainment for the Guide weekly newspapers and, for 23 years, serving as an influential theater critic for Steppin’ Out, the long-running and enduringly popular weekly roundtable program dedicated to local entertainment on PBS station WYES. He also appeared on other television stations in various other capacities -- indeed, he was a New Orleans TV staple for some 50 years -- and fully qualified as the local hero equivalent of a living legend.

Early in my career, while I was a fresh-faced free-lancer for various small N.O. papers as an entertainment columnist, Al was unfailingly gracious and sincerely encouraging whenever our paths crossed at local theater premieres or New York movie junkets. (He also was a generous benefactor when, during a Big Apple junket for Lenny, he lent me cab fare to the airport after my wallet had been rifled by, ahem, a passing stranger.) Our paths ultimately diverged, of course, and I lost track of the guy for about three decades. But when we met again last spring, during my return visit to N.O. for a guest spot on Steppin’ Out, I was greatly pleased (and, yes, more than a little honored) that he greeted me as an old chum from way back when.

And when the time came for the actual taping, and I found myself actually sitting near Al alongside the other Steppin’ Out regulars, and actually swapping quips with him throughout the show… Well, let me put it like this. Years ago, I found myself seated next to Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell on a film festival panel. Years before that, Judith Crist called on me from her podium to supply her with a movie title she couldn’t remember while lecturing at Loyola University of New Orleans. How did I feel on those occasions? Pretty much how I felt during the Steppin’ Out taping.

Al died Thursday of cancer at age 80. On Saturday, I will turn 57. If I can remain as involved and enthusiastic as Al was the last time I saw him, and I’m still able to express my love for film as intelligently and joyfully as he expressed his love for local theater during that Steppin’ Out episode, for another 23 years… I’ll probably ask for another 23, or more, of the same. And I'll still be thanking Al Shea for being one of my early inspirations.

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