One of my childhood fascinations was Jean Shepherd. He is best known to his devoted fans as a radio raconteur. He also worked on stage as an actor and standing-up humorist, and he wrote fiction and non-fiction for print, film and television.
Today, he is known more for being the writer of the stories that became the basis for the A Christmas Story film which is replayed on TBS television to the point of numbness each holiday season.
But I remember Shep from my younger years as a voice on my AM radio on weeknights talking me away from my little bedroom into other places – the streets of New York, a humid, swampy Army camp, the temples of slob art in Jersey and beyond.
He is sometimes compared to Mark Twain and one of his own favorite humorists, George Ade. Marshall McLuhan once referred to him as “the first radio novelist.” He is the model for the character played by Jason Robards in the play and movie A Thousand Clowns, as well as the inspiration for the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.”
Through interviews with his friends, co-workers and creative associates, such as musician David Amram, cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, publisher and broadcaster Paul Krassner, and author Norman Mailer, the book explains a complex and unique genius of our time.”
I had read a few of his short stories in stolen issues of Playboy magazine, but it was when they were collected and expanded in In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, that I realized that he was a really good writer.
That 1966 collection, based on his childhood in Indiana, became the film, A Christmas Story. The main story is his “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and other radio bits like the story of “Flick’s Tongue.”
He spun out his stories on WOR-AM in New York City. The show sounded like it was all improvisation and I imagine that on many nights it was just that. When I tried to get my wife to listen to recordings of his old shows and when I did get her to attend a few of his last stage performances, she would always comment that he never finished the stories he started. But he did. He wove 3 or 4 stories around and somehow they all would end up making sense together. Between the opening and closing theme song (the Bahnfrei Overture, composed for an operetta by Eduard Strauss and sounding like racetrack music), anything could happen.
The programs were unpredictable mixes of stories, commentary, oddball recording used as background or so that he could accompany them on his kazoo or Jews’s harp. “Gimme some cheap sax music” he would tell his engineer, as he dove into a story about G.I.’s on a weekend pass.” Though unscripted, Shep seemed to have some plan for where we were all headed each night.
He was born Jean Parker Shepherd on July 26, 1921 in Chicago, but grew up in Hammond, Indiana. He lived at 2907 Cleveland Street and attended Warren G. Harding Elementary School, in the Hessville section of the city. The town is the basis for the family in A Christmas Story.
As listeners know, he worked for a time as a mail carrier in a steel mill when he was in high school, and he graduated from Hammond High School in 1939.
During World War II, Shep was in the United States Army Signal Corps. he may have hated it but it provided him with a lot of materials for his stories.
He attended Indiana University (I don’t think he graduated.) His career began on stage in Chicago as a performer at the Goodman Theatre and doing his nightclub act at venues on Rush Street.
Shep began his broadcast radio career in Hammond, moved on to Toledo, Ohio, and then Cincinnati. Entering 1951, he moved to a late-night broadcast on KYW in Philadelphia for 2 years, bounced back to Cincinnati for a show on WLW and then finally settled in at WOR radio New York City for his overnight slot in 1956. WOR is where he is best remembered as a radio personality.
He did live shows at the Limelight nightclub in Greenwich Village for 2 hours on Saturday nights, a portion of which was broadcast on WOR.
Shep actually did some early shows from the WOR transmitter site in Carteret, New Jersey and the show ran from 1 am until 4:30am five nights a week. After some on-air issues, the show was put into a 45-minute nightly format that ran at 9:15, 11:15 and then, in the time I knew it best, at 10:15.
Shep was a bit of a name-dropper and talked about hanging out with Jack Kerouac, Jules Feiffer, Herb Gardner and even a meeting with The Beatles. He was hip and hep in the 50s and 60s but as the hippie age told hold he started to seem less cool. I think he sensed that and became grumpier and more the curmudgeon. When I saw him live in the early 70s he even bad-mouthed radio as he was moving into doing some television work.
But his “night people” followers of insomniacs, and kids like me with transistor radios under their pillow continued to idolize him. He was the closest we had to a Howard Stern but without a hint of obscenity.
He had actually done some TV comedy in his early days with a show on WLW-TV in Philly called Rear Bumper. Steve Allen apparently liked it and supposedly recommended Shepherd as his replacement as host of the Tonight show back in the 1950s.
He never made it to big-time broadcast TV but he did have in the mid-1970s a PBS television series titled Jean Shepherd’s America and another series for the New Jersey Public Televison called Shepherd’s Pie that celebrated visually much of the material from the radio years like White Castle hamburgers, NJ’s Route 22, baseball, bumper stickers, traffic circles, and slob art.
Several of his short stories became PBS films for the series American Playhouse that followed an Indiana family much like hos own but called the Parkers. Those films were Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters,and The Phantom of the Open Hearth.
He published many magazine stories in publications ranging from Mad magazine and The National Lampoon, to The New York Times, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driver, and Omni. He wrote a column for The Village Voice newspaper in New York too. Most of his writing is collected in four books: In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, A Fistful of Fig Newtons and The Ferrari in the Bedroom.
His Hollywood film career started with writing the screenplay for A Christmas Story. The 1983 film is based on about five short stories about Ralphie Parker (Parker as in Jean Parker Shepherd) growing up in 1930’s Indiana. It was a hit and revived his career and turned him away from radio and even TV. There was a follow-up film, My Summer Story, that did not do very well.
In the late 1990’s, he was supposedly working on more films but his health was failing. His appearances in public were rare.
Jean’s longtime companion, collaborator and third (or fourth?) wife of 21 years, was Leigh Brown. Radio fans knew Leigh as someone who always seemed to be in the WOR studio. She also co-wrote the film screenplays. Leigh died in June 1998.
Jean Shepherd died the following year of natural causes on October 16, 1999 in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Florida home. He had no survivors.
There are some books that have come out in the past 20 years that tell some of the back stories, collect bits and pieces and capitalize on the film’s success, such as A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film.
A Christmas Story was also staged as a musical on Broadway in 2012 and picked up three Tony nominations.
In the 1960s, Shep had released several comedy record albums that are collectibles and a few are available as downloads (like Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd? as an mp3).
Many of his radio programs are available commercially – Don’t Be a Leaf, Jean Shepherd Live! At Airlie, Life Is (Classic Radio), Jean Shepherd Live, Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service, Jean Shepherd: The Fatal Flaw.
I found hundreds of his old radio shows and interviews online via iTunes and other sources. Shepherd fans were often Ham radio people and audiophiles who recorded the shows on tape and would swap them or pass them on to people in other parts of the country.
A good free collection of Shep audio was at The Shep Archives that allowed you to download mp3’s of old WOR shows, interviews, and audio from some of the television shows. In iTunes, I used “The Brass Figlagee” and podcasts of Max Schmid’s “Mass Backwards” show from WBAI-FM in New York to collect many shows. Bob Kaye’s Jean Shepherd page is a good source too.
As far as reading about Shep, Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd (2004) by Eugene B. Bergmann is the biggest volume.