You may have seen the new movie on Netflix. Now, read the book…
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.
Josh Karp is a journalist and writer who teaches at Northwestern University. His first book, A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, won best biography of 2006 at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. See more about Josh at JoshKarpBooks.com.