|Al Shaw, pipe smoker and master Sherlockian|
Al Shaw, BSI, is the new Master of the Hounds (i.e., leader of the pack) for the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), founded in Chicago by the legendary Vincent Starrett in 1943. He is also Sir Hugo of another Windy City group of Sherlockians, Hugo’s Companions. And on March 28, he will be one of the presenters at the Holmes, Doyle, & Friends conference in Dayton, OH. Al is a great friend of mine, and one of the wittiest people I know. You should know him, too.
How and when did you first meet Sherlock Holmes?
Ahh, the implication here is that there is some seminal moment when we bump into the master detective coming out of a yellow Victorian fog and exclaim, “Who is this guy?! I must know more.”
I suspect the reality is not that simple. Growing up in the 20th century I, like all of you, have always known of Holmes as he is part of our culture. When we are kids, we see Mikey Mouse, Goofy and even Popeye sporting deerstalkers, smoking a pipe, and being “detectives.” When we are older, he is still there in Classics Illustrated and even Batman comics. In school, the odds are one of the first pieces of literature we read will probably be a Holmes story.
Still, there was one encounter that motivated me to read all the stories, to take that Doubleday volume of complete stories and read it through. I was 16 years old and working till closing time at a drug store on weekends. When I would come home, I was too wired to go right to sleep. I would turn on the TV for a while and there were late night showings of Sherlock Holmes films each Friday night. It should be noted that this was the same year that I had begun smoking a pipe. That was how Basil Rathbone went, for me, from Guy Gisborne to the quintessential Sherlock Holmes.
How and when did you become a Sherlockian?
First, for me, being Sherlockian means the desire to revel in the Canon and the Victorian setting therein. There are moments when one transitions from “a guy reading the Sherlock Holmes stories” to being a “Sherlockian” – a student of the canon.
The 1960’s had just ended. My brother was in the Peace Corps in Africa. He took only one book with him – The Complete Sherlock Holmes. In those days, the Peace Corps (and sometimes the government) would open your mail. So, my brother wrote to me in the dancing men cypher so that our letters would not be understood by others. This rekindled my interest and Sherlock Holmes.
My interest in Holmes was further sparked by another event. In 1971, Hugo's Companions, a Scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars, was featured in an article in the Chicago Tribune. They posted a notice that they were hosting their annual birthday party for Sherlock Holmes. I decided to attend and my reservation was graciously accepted. The dinner was a very formal affair, with everyone in jackets and ties or dresses. This was my first experience with a large group of people with a common interest. It was also my first experience with a group of Sherlockians “playing the game.” The members, recognizing me as new, greeted me warmly. It was then that I became aware of the term “Sherlockian” and realizing that I had been one for quite some time.
What has it meant to you to be part of the Sherlockian community?
The interaction with various scions and Sherlockians has been a golden thread woven throughout most years of my life. The first time my son, as a child, was invited to a costume party, he decided we should attend as Sherlock Homes and Sherlock Jr. (not Buster Keaton for the erudite among you). It has been there for me through multiple marriages, moves, and jobs. As I have stated elsewhere, during those years, I have had the privilege to walk among Sherlockian Giants.
You’ve been a Sherlockian a long time. What are one or two of your fondest Sherlockian memories?
My first meetings in 1971 of Hugo’s Companion, when I formed my “Theory of Determining the age of a Sherlockian by their Choice of Favorite Sherlock Portrayal.” I mentioned to someone sitting next to me that I thought Basil Rathbone portrayed the quintessential Sherlock Holmes. The retort was, “Ellie Norwood was the best homes in film.” Who the hell was Norwood? I was to find out that Sherlockians in every generation chose their own Holmes as portrayed on film or television, and, if you knew who their favorite Holmes was, the odds were that you could guess their age better than a carnival conman could.
In those early meetings, one would little suspect the day-to-day identity of the person you sat next to. Some examples:
John Nieminski. John, I later discovered, was manager of the Midwest Regional Office of the U.S. Civil Service Commission offices. He authored The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic): A History of Chicago’s Senior Sherlockian Scion Society, 1943-1983. He twice co-chaired the annual Bouchercon (the national Anthony Boucher Memorial Mystery Convention). Mystery scholars prized his notable bibliographies of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (1974) and The Saint Mystery Magazine (1980), He co-founded the quarterly Baker Street Miscellanea. (He was primarily responsible for publishing my previously referenced paper in said Miscellanea). John also compiled histories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to Chicago in 1894 and the 1920s. He authored “Sherlock Holmes in The Tribune.”
Dick Olberg was a French Horn player in the Chicago Symphony.
Ely Liebow. He was Chairman of the English Department at Northeastern Illinois University. It turns out that Ely took part in the historic 1965 Selma Alabama march! In 1982, Ely presented me with one of the first copies of his book Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes.
Dave Stevens was an editor for Playboy! (A magazine, which at the time, to which I faithfully subscribed for the fine articles).
Jay Marshall from his TV show, “The Magic Ranch. Jay appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” fourteen times.
Nieminski and Liebow came up to me after my first meeting. John said, “Let me buy you a drink. We expect you to sit with us at the next meeting.”
What Sherlockian groups do you belong to?
The Baker Street Irregulars, Hugo’s Companions, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), The Criterion Bar Association, The Torists International, and 140 Varieties of Tobacco Ash. Any others that I may have omitted are strictly due to failing memory.
Your topic for the Dayton conference is pipes in the Canon. Tell us a little about your fascination with pipes and your involvement in the pipe-collecting community.
On my 16th birthday I am known, in some circles, as not only the guy who reads, but the guy who reads Sherlock Holmes. My dad comes into my room with the box and he says “You’re 16 years old now. I would rather not have you smoke cigarettes.”
I open the box and inside is a pipe. It is a “Yellowbole Thorn.” There is a box of tobacco called “Cherry Blend,” a particularly nasty blend available in drug stores at the time. My dad says, “When you smoke a pipe you do not inhale.” My dad, himself was “Kaywoodie” pipe man as was his father before him. This was the most expensive brand of pipe sold at Walgreen’s drug stores. I have related in articles and monographs elsewhere, many of the shapes and materials that we associate with Sherlock Holmes are available today or were indeed available to Holmes during his time. I have endeavored over the years to acquire many examples of these pipes both modern and antique. I belong to the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors. We put on the largest pipe collectors show in the country each spring. Holmes just seems to read infinitely better when smoking a pipe and creating my own “Yellow Fog.”
Besides Holmes, Doyle, & Friends, what other major Sherlockian events are on your calendar this year?
It is actually my plan to cut back a bit this year. In the past I have gone to the Norwegian Explorers event, BSI in NY of course, and numerous events hosted by The Illustrious Clients in Indiana. This year it is my intention to limit myself to mostly local Chicagoland gatherings.
What question haven’t I asked you that I should?
Pizza… Chicago or New York?
You can still register here to take part in Holmes, Doyle, & Friends on March 28,with an opening reception on March 27.