Shepherd’s on-air persona combined a Midwestern kid’s aw-shucks patriotism with the cynicism of a guy from a rusty steel-mill town and the free spirit of a beatnik poet. It was a complicated, volatile and not entirely happy mixture.
Off-the-air, Shepherd was just as wild, drinking hard, staying out late and driving fast. (Many Shep fans came to him through his column and feature articles in “Car and Driver” magazine in the 1970s. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a guy who was so avant-garde, Shepherd also was an avid ham radio buff.)
Shepherd regularly clashed with WOR management, usually over his disrespect for sponsors and his crazy stunts and hoaxes, like the mysterious, non-existent novel “I, Libertine” that he promoted for several weeks, driving New York City bookstores crazy in 1956 until finally the book was concocted to meet the demand.
As stations became more stringently formatted, Shepherd’s flights of fancy no longer fit commercial radio (he didn’t play enough music to be a disk jockey, and he didn’t talk enough about the news to fit on talk stations), and he drifted into public broadcasting.
In the 1980s, Shepherd contributed regular commentaries to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and in 1971 and 1985, presented a TV series called “Jean Shepherd’s America” on PBS. Shepherd died in 1999, just as the “Christmas Story” cult was reaching the mainstream.
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Married three times, Shep didn’t particularly like children (according to his obituary in the New York Times, he was estranged from the son and daughter he had by his first wife) or childhood, and was somewhat ambivalent about people who embraced “A Christmas Story” as what he called a “warm, fuzzy” depiction of a simpler time.
“The story was originally written as an anti-war parable,” he told an interviewer from the St. Petersburg Times in 1989. “I’m not nostalgic. I think nostalgia is one of the great sicknesses in America. I really do. I think future historians are going to write about this period in which we live where people think only about the past and think it’s wonderful.”
All of this shouldn’t detract from “A Christmas Story,” and if anything, it should inspire you to pick up one of the collections of Shepherd’s short stories currently in print. The stories that led to “A Christmas Story” are collected in the books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, but A Fistful of Fig Newtons is also wonderful.
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The website “Flick Lives” (named after Shep’s mythical childhood friend, famed in the movie for sticking his tongue to a frozen flagpole) collects many stories and excerpts from Shepherd’s broadcasts. You can also hear classic Shepherd airchecks at 2 p.m. on Sundays over Monticello, Maine, based shortwave station WBCQ, either via shortwave at 7.415 mHz or streaming Internet audio.
And although Shepherd wasn’t from “PBRTV-Land,” his tales of growing up in a gritty mill town will sound awfully familiar to anyone from Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Wheeling, Johnstown and Erie.
For more information about Shepherd’s life, work and influence on everyone from Jack Kerouac, Bobby Fischer, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein, Norman Mailer and Billy Collins, read Excelsior, You Fathead!, a 2005 biography by author, poet and fan Eugene Bergmann, a museum curator from Massapequa, Long Island.
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Now, for your listening and dancing pleasure, here’s an excerpt of the beginning of Jean Shepherd’s WOR radio show of Nov. 18, 1963, from my own small collection of airchecks.
It starts a little slow and for those who haven’t heard Shepherd’s radio shows before, this clip may seem a little eccentric, disjointed or slow.
Like red cabbage and kohlrabi, both of which are mentioned during this clip, Jean Shepherd is an acquired taste. But once you acquire it, it’s deliciously complicated and hard to pass up.
Keep your knees loose, gang, and don’t shoot your eye out!
Download: Jean Shepherd, WOR, New York, Nov. 18, 1963 (9.2 MB, MP3)
The “holidays” have now firmly been thrust upon us. I’ve already heard “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and “Here Comes Suzy Snowflake,” and “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas” can’t be far behind.
I’m not sure if the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” has run on TV locally yet, but it will soon enough, and according to WTBS’ website, the cable TV superstation will air the movie continuously on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
There are probably few people alive in the United States who haven’t seen the film. For the benefit of any unthawed cavemen reading PBRTV today, the comedy, set in a rundown northern Indiana mill town during the Great Depression, stars Peter Billingsley as a young boy named Ralph Parker who desperately wants an air rifle for Christmas. Irascible Darren McGavin plays his father and Melinda Dillon is Ralphie’s long-suffering mother.
The film was only a modest success when it was released 24 years ago this month. A quiet little film about the 1930s, lacking a big-name cast, stood little chance at the box office against “Scarface,” “Terms of Endearment,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Big Chill.”
But cable TV, which badly needed content in the mid-1980s, showed the film repeatedly, creating a faithful audience that has now attained mythical proportions.
The film’s script has been adapted for live productions by community theaters and you can now buy your very own leg lamp like the one that Mr. Parker wins in a contest. (Say it all with me: “Fra-jee-lay. It must be Italian!”)
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Indeed, “A Christmas Story” has become indelibly linked in the American psyche with Christmas.
No one would be more surprised, I suspect, than the late Jean Shepherd, the curmudgeonly, cantankerous, occasionally profane and often profound radio and TV personality who wrote the short stories that were adapted into the movie. Shep narrates the movie as well.
It might surprise fans of “A Christmas Story” to learn that Shepherd wasn’t a cornball, misty-eyed nostalgia buff. A few acerbic asides during the movie only hint at the subversive, off-the-wall personality that informed his earthy writings (many of which originally appeared in “Playboy” and other men’s magazines).
Shep began his radio career in high school at WJOB (now 1230 kHz, then at 1200) in his hometown of Hammond, Ind., a city along Lake Michigan not far from the steel mills and oil refineries of Gary. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he worked at WCKY, WKRC, WLW and WSAI in Cincinnati and KYW in Philadelphia before arriving at WOR (710) in New York in 1955.
For most of the next 22 years, late-night listeners up and down the East Coast could tune in WOR’s powerful 50,000-watt signal and listen to Shep’s quirky broadcasts, a mix of old records, original stories and commentaries on events of the day …