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OPINION: Jean Shepherd and 'A Christmas Story'

Jean Shepherd on the air at WOR-AM, circa 1970. Wikipedia photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

It’s Christmas time, and once again we’re treated to showings of the holiday favorite “A Christmas Story.” The film has become so much a classic that it’s been turned into a Broadway play, and the house in Cleveland that was used as the Parker family’s house has been turned into a museum. Characters like The Old Man, bully Scott Farkas and the hillbilly Bumpus family, not to mention inanimate objects like the leg lamp, have become part of American folklore.

Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the author of the story—Jean Shepherd. Many of the millions of people who have seen the film, perhaps most, are only familiar with him through “A Christmas Story.” And that’s sad, because as good as it is, it only represents a small portion of Shepherd’s work.

Jean Shepherd was born in the early 1920s and grew up in Hammond, Indiana (called “Hohman, Indiana” in the film). The late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt, who lived there during part of his youth, knew Shepherd and his friends, although they were older than him. While the film takes place around 1940, the real events upon which it is based took place about seven or eight years earlier.

Like most of his generation, Shepherd served in the military during World War II (his Signal Corps stories have recently been collected as “Shep’s Army”). Afterward, he drifted into TV and radio, but he didn’t become famous until the mid-1950s, when he began broadcasting one of the first talk shows on WOR-AM. About half of his show was dedicated to tales of his Indiana childhood and his Army days. The rest consisted on his observations of the passing scene. He commented on advertising, popular music (he loved jazz, disliked rock), sexual mores, suburbia, all-night diners, beer and almost everything else. He avoided politics, but at times he “got serious,” as he did after JFK’s assassination and again after Martin Luther King’s assassination. In between it all, he played hokey Dixieland jazz songs, accompanying them on the kazoo and Jew’s harp, and recited old-time folk poetry like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

In one of his best-known pranks, he began to talk about a non-existent sexy book, “I, Libertine,” supposedly written in the 18th century. He told his listeners to ask for it in bookstores. Eventually, the demand was so great that a publisher hired several authors (including Shepherd himself) to ghost-write the book.

Shepherd continued on, broadcasting every weekday at 10:15 p.m. and on Saturday nights from the Limelight in Greenwich Village. Thousands of young New Yorkers listened to Shep on their transistor radios under their pillows when their parents thought they were asleep. In 1977, he quit his radio gig. By this time, he was becoming known nationally. He wrote stories for Playboy and published several short-story collections. He also had a public television show, “Jean Shepherd’s America,” in which he visited different parts of the country. There was even an unsuccessful follow-up to “A Christmas Story,” called “My Summer Story.”

Shep died in 1999. After his death, his dark side was discovered: He had two children from an early marriage, neither of which he had seen for 30 years. In fact, he often denied that he had children at all. Still, I prefer to celebrate his contributions to American culture. Quoting Shep’s most famous catch phrase, I proclaim to everybody concerned, “Excelsior, you fatheads!”

December 16, 2013 - 10:00am


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