BY ELENA CRUZ —
“There was just something in the water,” said both David and Jerry Zucker, filmmakers from the classes of ’66 and ’68, when discussing Shorewood High School. Dressed in dark suits and flanking either side of Jerry Harrison, musician and class of ’67, these men answered student questions for two hours in the Gensler Auditorium. They used this expression three times when talking of Shorewood’s talent pool during their upbringings.
The alumni spent Thursday, May 20 at the high school in order to receive their 2016 Shorewood Tradition of Excellence Awards. The Zuckers and Harrison, alongside Jim Abrahams, class of ’62, who was absent from the ceremonies, were honored for their achievements following graduation.
“The Tradition of Excellence Awards are basically a way of honoring distinguished alumni who have made accomplishments in a variety of different areas including science, the arts, public service,” said Ted Knight, advancement director and coordinator of the events.
However, no other group of honorees thus far graduated within the same parameters. That is, these are the only alumni who graduated within the same time period, worked in artistic fields and achieved international success. This is where the Zuckers’ comments that “there was just something in the water” came into play.
As Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, wrote, “People don’t rise from nothing … It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t,” these men’s roots hint that their success could have sprouted in Shorewood. Before Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a band member of The Talking Heads, and before the Zucker brothers and Abrahams joined together to write and direct the comedic box office hit Airplane!, they attended school together at Shorewood in the sixties.
“There was a transition of a whole philosophy of the fifties, like when you think of the movie Grease, when we started high school; that’s what people, what the older kids, looked like,” Harrison said. “By the time you graduated, it had started the movement — the philosophies — of the hippies, and love, and stuff like this. I really feel that with the people of our three classes — and this is definitely true — there was a creativity that came from having gone from one order to another order.”
All three honorees agreed that the era of adolescence impacted their future, along with the region in which they spent their childhood.
“I think that there was a sort of advantage you’d get because you were Midwestern. You would actually do your readings, your work … You knew you were not going to sneak around that,” David Zucker said.
The graduates also cite the localized form of comedy as an attribution of their success.
“There was a Milwaukee self-deprecating sense of humor that was great, and I think that, going to LA and getting into the movie business, served us well actually,” Jerry Zucker said.
To zoom in even further, the honorees and long-term friend Fred Bliffert, class of ’66, guessed that their financial situation was influential.
“It could have been a socio-economic thing,” Bliffert said. “Shorewood, being in the middle between the upper class and the lower class in those days, I think it kind of helped.”
David Zucker, Harrison and Bliffert were also involved with the music scene at Shorewood, and this could have been the final ingredient toward their successes. Not because of the exposure to the arts, but because of the exposure to passion and community.
“We didn’t — none of these guys — started playing to get famous. We did it because it was fun,” Bliffert said. “I mean there’s so much love involved … When you play together, it’s like a communication.”
“I think [being in a band led me to the film industry] because I liked the attention. On the stage, we would get applause — and it’s the same with our jokes now. The gratification is almost narcissistic, but I liked being noticed,” David Zucker said.
This “something in the water” led to an explosion of creative alumni, maybe even offering an unknown motive behind the writing of “Take me to the River.” However, according to Harrison, the given opportunities would not have amounted in anything without hard work.
“Success is not the goal; the art itself is the goal. There’s an awful lot of those kinds of people thinking that when they’re writing songs, and they’ll reach very little success. I mean you understand sometimes when you look back on why something is successful, sometimes you capture the zeitgeist of the moment and you can just say, yeah I can see why they’ve made it. But when you’re in the middle of it all, you’re just thinking, I’m going to try as hard as I can,” Harrison said.