A Futile and Stupid Gesture
How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever
By Josh Karp
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2006 Josh Karp
All rights reserved.
Hayley Mills in Pleasantville
"Doug was Doris Day, a Coke and a hamburger."
— National Lampoon editor Brian McConnachie
In the 1950s, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, was the kind of place where Americans believed that Father Knows Best patriarch Jim Anderson could raise Kitten, Bud, and Princess in a big fine home with total comfort and domestic bliss on an insurance agent's salary.
Chagrin Falls was a town where groceries were purchased at Greenway's or the A&P. Each fall, moms took their kids to Brewster and Church for school clothes and Brondfield's for new shoes, followed by a trip to the marble soda fountain at Standard Drug, where they washed down ten-cent burgers with the best lemon soda in the world. All the stores were closed on Wednesdays and on special occasions everyone dressed in church clothes for dinner at Crane's Canary Cottage.
When the blizzard of 1963 crippled Chagrin, local officials roped off one neighborhood so children could sled down Grove Hill onto Bell Street. During less extreme weather, winter meant skating on the frozen Chagrin River where adults kept a bonfire burning on the banks to warm little hands.
On Saturday mornings in the fall, the Chagrin Falls High School Tigers marching band tromped up East Washington Street to the Fairgrounds stadium, spreading school spirit through town while yards were raked and the sweet, smoky smell of burning leaves filled the air. It really was that kind of place.
"It was like Pleasantville," says Chagrin native Ginna Bourisseau. "I was four years old, walking two blocks to buy penny candy by myself. Everybody watched out for everybody's kids. That's how safe it was."
Being an adolescent in Chagrin meant worshipping the football players and hoping that someday "Firelord" would be listed among your accomplishments in the high school's Zenith yearbook. This coveted title mysteriously signified that you were one of the pranksters who burned the Tigers' winning score on an opposing team's football field in the dark of night, or anonymously painted black stripes on the Orange High School mascot. None of this was lost on Doug Kenney, who lived in Chagrin Falls from 1958 to 1964. His story neither begins nor ends in this midwestern town. Yet it is the place that defined him and by which he defined himself.
"I'm Doug Kenney from Chagrin Falls, Ohio."
It was that place in the middle of the country whose social dynamics, customs, and dreams so influenced and informed his sense of humor, self, and place in the world. It was a community that he came to remember with both great affection and profound alienation.
Despite his normal physical appearance, Doug Kenney was an outsider in Chagrin Falls — in and from the place, but not of it. Rather, he was a quiet observer, cloaked as a normal American kid, soaking in the rituals of prom, homecoming, and lusting aimlessly after the head cheerleader.
"We remember everybody, even if they only lived here for six months," says Jim Vittek, another Chagrin native. "We remember the way they kicked a soccer ball or threw a football. We remember where they sat in class."
Yet in Chagrin Falls, few remember Doug Kenney. It is as if he moved through town invisibly, leaving no fingerprints. They remember The Carol Burnett Show's Tim Conway instead. He is Chagrin's favorite son.
* * *
Doug Kenney's story begins in Newport, Rhode Island, where in the 1920s and '30s his paternal grandfather, Daniel Kenney, was a tennis pro at the Newport Casino Club. Newport, as much as anyplace else, was home to this son of a vegetable cart operator whose parents emigrated from Ireland.
Daniel Kenney and his wife, Eleanor, had five children, the eldest being Doug's father, Daniel "Harry" Kenney, followed by Bill, Frank, Jack (who was killed in World War II), and a daughter, Margaretta. Harry was born in Massachusetts in 1915. The rest were born in Newport.
The Kenney family's existence was an itinerant one common to club pros of the time — the family usually left Newport the day after Thanksgiving for a winter of work in Palm Beach, Florida, and returned north on April 15 every year. Palm Beach was the winter home of Harold Vanderbilt, where Daniel and his sons taught tennis lessons for family and guests each day on specially built courts positioned to keep the noonday sun out of Mr. Vanderbilt's eyes, demonstrating for Harry precisely how the other half lived. In the fall, the Kenneys often found themselves at the Astor estate in Rhinebeck, New York, or Aiken, South Carolina — wherever the wealthy needed a pro to teach them the game. Arriving at either of these locations, Daniel bought the local paper, pulled out the home rental listings, and drove his family around looking for a place to live. They would never own a home.
In Newport, the Kenneys were regarded as the "first family of tennis," with each of Daniel's sons becoming pros and several uncles and cousins teaching professionally. One Kenney or another taught the game to Newport summer residents and wealthy vacationers like George Plimpton, Treasury Secretary C. D. Dillon, Jacqueline Bouvier, and her future husband, John F. Kennedy. Down in Palm Beach, it was more of the same, with Frank Kenney helping Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton learn to serve and volley at an exclusive club, where the pair would have drinks while music wafted from the trees on warm winter afternoons and the sound of members shooting skeet on the beach could be heard in the distance.
Frank and Bill Kenney loved teaching tennis and the life it provided them. Neither man minded lower social status in a gilded world. It was all they knew and they embraced it. Their oldest brother felt differently.
Barely out of his teens, Harry taught tennis in Dark Harbor, Maine; Palm Beach; Newport; Hartford; Cleveland; Philadelphia; and elsewhere, yet he always wanted a different life, one more like the members than their servants. Harry wasn't happy-go-lucky like Frank, who was satisfied with his station in life and amused by the social fissures that placed him in the lesser economic class. By contrast, Harry was serious, ambitious, and aggressive at everything he did — on and off the court. He badly wanted an education. Brooding and quiet, he kept personal matters private. Teaching tennis was an existence Harry desperately wanted to escape.
"One day," Harry told Margaretta, "I'll never go in the back door again. Only the front."
In 1935, during a stint at the Hartford Country Club, Harry met eighteen-year-old Estelle "Stephanie" Karch, the daughter of an Eastern European immigrant iron forger from Chicopee, Massachusetts. Harry quickly learned that she was a good cook and fun to be around, with an unpretentious attitude, a great sense of humor, and an earthy manner. The pair married in Hartford on July 28, 1936, without the presence or knowledge of Harry's family. Yet when the Kenney clan met Stephanie, they loved her. It was hard not to.
Around the same time, Harry's forty-five-year-old father contracted pneumonia and died three days later with no life insurance and little money. Harry and his brother Bill were already out on their own, leaving Eleanor Kenney with three children to feed in Newport. Frank taught tennis to support the family and Harry sent his mother fifty dollars a month.
On July 21, 1939, Stephanie gave birth to a son they named Daniel Vance Kenney, known as Dan. Otherwise healthy, Dan was born with spina bifida, which required surgery and some stressful infant care. This often debilitating birth defect, however, seemed to have little impact on their firstborn, who grew into a handsome, gregarious child.
While he taught tennis all over the country, Harry was always in search of other work that would remove him from the servant class. In Hartford he joined the Governor's Guard, an elite group that protected and traveled with Connecticut's top official. In Reno he became a sheriff's deputy, and he did some personnel management for a magnesium mine in Las Vegas. While teaching in Philadelphia, Harry attended college, probably at night, and got the education he so desired.
Harry and Stephanie's second child, Douglas Clark Francis Kenney, was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, on December 10, 1946, nearly five years to the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered its defining war.
Born in a nation flush with patriotism from defeating evil, he was named for Douglas MacArthur, the legendary pipe-chomping five-star general who commanded the U.S. forces in Southeast Asia and received the formal Japanese surrender that effectively ended the war.
"I was a kind of monument to a general who brought us yellow imperialism," Doug told a reporter years later.
Doug was an uncommonly bright and sensitive child with atrocious eyesight. At the age of seven, Doug told a friend, Stephanie took him to an eye doctor for the first time. Fitted with his first pair of glasses, he recalled the drive home vividly, as every vein in every leaf seemed to be apparent from the backseat window of his mother's car; each blade of grass individual, distinct, and a rich, shimmering green. It was as if he were truly seeing the world for the first time — in Technicolor — in detail so intense that it gave him a headache.
"He was unique from birth," Victoria "Vicky" Kenney, Doug's younger sister by seven years, told Harvard Magazine.
In the early 1950s, the Kenneys settled in Mentor, Ohio, where Harry was a tennis pro at the Kirtland Country Club. Dan was a tall, charming boy at Riverside High School — admired by everyone who knew him. Harry and Stephanie, it seemed, couldn't get enough of their oldest child.
"Dan was really well liked by his parents," says family friend Bill Tienvieri. "I can see how Doug might have resented that a little."
If he did, however, it was hardly apparent, as Doug looked up to his all-American brother when he wasn't devouring books, radio, and comics. Filled with these images, Doug's overactive imagination kept him up late at night, unable to sleep for all the thoughts racing through his head.
Kid sister Vicky was a cute, pig-tailed blond, both very smart and very sweet. Doug adored her. The three children all filled familiar roles: Dan the family hero and golden boy; Doug the most sensitive, thoughtful, and eager-to-please child; and Vicky the mascot. They were, to all who knew them, a model midwestern, suburban family on an upward trajectory.
In the late 1950s, Harry moved the family to Chagrin Falls after a Kirtland member who sat on the board of Diamond Alkaloid in nearby Painesville recommended him for a job in the company's personnel department. Entering the corporate world, he finally left the servant class for good. Dan had just graduated from high school, Doug was twelve, and Vicky was five.
The Kenneys settled in a small ranch home on Bell Road in unincorporated South Russell (considered part of Chagrin Falls). Harry remained serious and quiet, and Stephanie was always charming, a quick-witted woman who loved a party. Their best friends in town were Don Martin, the new pro at Kirtland, and his wife, Ruth. By the time he was in high school, Doug would string rackets for Martin at Kirtland during the summer, soaking in, as Harry once had, the contrast between his life and that of the members.
In fall 1958, Dan headed to Kent State University where he became extremely popular, joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and was known campus-wide as "Dan the Delt." Back in Chagrin Falls, Doug played the role of bookish, well-mannered little brother.
"Doug and I were friends during his brief stay in Chagrin Falls," says Tom Luckay. "We attended eighth grade together [at the Chagrin Falls junior high], and I remember him as a very intelligent and polite young man, which impressed my parents. I don't remember much about his sense of humor. I do remember that as suddenly as he emerged, he disappeared. ... I may have been one of his only close friends during his stay in Chagrin Falls."
In junior high, Doug began to see that he possessed both an innate gift for humor and intellectual capabilities that exceeded those of his peers — and often his teachers. In the cafeteria, he rearranged the letters on the menu board to read "scrambled snails." In the classroom, he showed an aptitude for parroting the precise style, cadence, and expression of the writers he was asked to read. This took the form of papers aboutHuckleberry Finn, written in the manner of Twain, aping his voice and style. Teachers graded him up or down according to whether they thought he was a wiseass or a genius. Perhaps some of them didn't understand what he was doing. Nor, necessarily, did Doug, who may have simply channeled what he read into his writing without any preconceived plan.
During summer 1959, Dan Kenney's car overturned and he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered serious problems with his bladder and kidneys, possibly stemming from his bout with spina bifida. Though he returned to Kent State that fall, joining the Phi Gamma Delta house and ROTC, Dan's diseased kidneys plagued him from that point forward, drawing even greater attention and affection from his parents.
Given Doug's facility with language and academic abilities, Harry and Stephanie concluded that they had "a winner" and offered him the choice for high school between the well-established and very preppy University School nearby or Gilmour Academy, a fifteen-year-old, all-boys, Catholic prep school in neighboring Gates Mill. Doug chose Gilmour.
"University School was full of WASPs and epitomized that culture," says Jim Schuerger, a Gilmour teacher who grew close to Doug and his family. "Doug would have pushed them beyond where he could indulge his wit."
Thus, on the 143-acre Gilmour campus, where the Holy Cross Brothers sought to create a disciplined environment for Catholic youth, Doug Kenney began to come out of his shell. Though neither loud nor boisterous, he was going through puberty and ready to discover his identity as a teenage boy — a smart, funny one.
* * *
Ivo Regan was known as "Mr. Gilmour." Given to wearing berets and leaning on a cane, he was the school's befrocked equivalent of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Regan was an erudite, sophisticated, alcoholic, Holy Cross Brother from a shitty Nebraska cattle town, and likely a repressed homosexual. An extraordinary English teacher, Regan was tall, lean, intense, tortured, and explosive. Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan he was not.
In fall 1960, Doug Kenney was a freshman assigned to Regan's English class, where the teacher frequently stood on the table to dramatically make a point and gave student assignments such as "five hundred words describing the inside of a ping-pong ball" that stopped most of them dead in their tracks.
On the first day of class, Regan asked students to write an essay from the perspective of an apple, describing life as a piece of fruit. Save Doug, it had the desired effect on the entire class, who returned with little more than some incoherent, fearful responses.
When the assignment came due, Regan went around the classroom asking each student to read his piece. Arriving at Doug, he was amazed to hear the skinny, bespectacled boy read a funny, insightful, and well-conceived essay from the perspective of a neurotic apple.
"I didn't even know what neurotic meant," recalls Doug's classmate John Mulligan.
Kenney and Regan became kindred spirits, a mentor and student who would walk across broken glass for each other. Admiring and identifying with the polite but rebellious fourteen-year-old, Regan sought to encourage, push, and protect Doug any way he could, all while exposing him to the wider world. Through Regan, Doug grew to love Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Thurber, and particularly Evelyn Waugh, who would become his idol and against whose work he would one day measure his own. Moreover, Regan taught Doug how to use language economically and for maximum impact. Regan exposed Doug to the idea that the world was not as it appeared and that darkness coexisted with the light pervading the American landscape of Chagrin Falls. Though Doug had likely suspected this, it was not something that Harry or Stephanie was going to teach him. Yet it was squarely in keeping with the opposing forces that battled within his brain.
"There was a poem that Brother Ivo made a big deal out of when we were students at Gilmour," says Jerry Murphy, president of Doug's class. "It was 'Buffalo Bill's Defunct' [by e. e. cummings]. I recall the last line, 'how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death.'"
Beyond the academic teachings, however, Doug gained the respect, trust, and affection of an adult who could see that beneath his nerdy appearance and wiseass attitude was a kid with significant capabilities, sensitivity, and rebelliousness. Rather than destroy these qualities, Regan nurtured them, allowing Doug to see that he was a good, wise, and funny kid — and that that was enough.
Doug returned that appreciation the only way that a teenage boy can — he accepted Regan. Although Regan terrified most students with his explosive and dominating presence, in Doug he found a boy who saw through the bombast and into his tortured educator's soul. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Futile and Stupid Gesture by Josh Karp. Copyright © 2006 Josh Karp. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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