|Those who have seen the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story" know Jean Shepherd as the voice of Ralph Parker as an adult. Others who grew up in the New York Metropolitan area during the 50's, 60's and 70's may recall the nightly radio show he did on WOR 710AM five nights a week for forty-five minutes and the two-hour Saturday night "Live at the Limelight" shows. You may have read one of his books, or one of his short stories in magazines such as Playboy, the Village Voice or Car and Driver to name a few. If you watch the Mets, you heard him doing the Rheingold Beer commercials in the 70's and if you have been to Disney World, it is his voice that takes you on the journey through the "Carousel of Progress".
Born July 26, 1921, Jean Shepherd began his radio career at WJOB in Hammond. It is possible he mave have started during high school when WJOB was WWAE but there is only his word on that. He does however show up in the 1945 Radio at War booklet as working for WJOB. He then went on to Ohio working for WTOD, WCKY, WKRC, and WSAI where he was hired as a DJ, but preferred to spin tales rather than records which often got him in trouble .
In 1951 he moved to Philadelphia and was heard on KYW until 1953 when he returned briefly to Cincinnati's WLW. It wasn't until he moved to New York sometime in 1954 or 1955 that he settled down to a long career on WOR.
Here, he spent the next 22 years talking to "me". Every Jean Shepherd listener will tell you that, as he sat there in front of the radio, or had it tucked beneath his pillow, Shep was talking only to "me". He had a method of talking as if he were sitting in your living room holding a casual conversation, discussing auto racing, or a recent trip abroad.
At first Shep did his show from the WOR transmitter site in Carteret, NJ from 1:00am until 4:30am five nights a week. For three and one half hours, he talked uninterrupted. He played no music and only broke stride for the occasional commercial, which he detested. Many commercials were done live and he would constantly poke fun at the sponsors. Management hated it, the listeners loved it, and the sponsors endured it. Sometime around 1961 he settled into a 45-minute nightly format, which was heard in the 9:15, 10:15 or 11:15 timeslots.
But it was in 1956 that Shep drew attention by having his "Night People" followers go into book stores all over the city asking for the book called "I Libertine" Publicity grew around the book with claims of it being on book review and bestseller lists, and even being banned in Boston. At this point he worked with Ted Sturgeon and Ballantine Books, to come up with the story and write the book.
Another stunt he liked to pull, was the hurling of invectives. He would instruct his listeners to place their radios in the open window of their house and turn the volume way up. He would then yell over the radio things like, "You filthy pragmatists, I'm going to get you!"
Every night the show was different. Often the subject was related to the season, holiday, or a trip he may have taken. Other nights he would tell a childhood or Army story, many of which ended up in written form in Playboy, Car and Driver, or in one of his four books. Some even went on to become movies. He did four for PBS and two for commercial release, the most well known being "A Christmas Story"
He always told a story in the first person, because he felt it was more believable to the listener. He was so convincing that many felt he was telling real stories of his childhood. Shep constantly claimed that it was all fiction, although he did have friends named Flick and Schwarz.
Shep often said that there was 5 to 10 hours of preparation for each of his nightly shows, and yet fellow WOR personality Barry Farber, and one of his engineers, Herb Squire say that it all came from the top of his head. Herb claims that Shep would come into the studio with only a scrap of paper with a few notes, or perhaps an article someone had sent him. He would sit down behind the mike, and as the theme song (Bahn Frei by Eduard Strauss) would play Shep would ease into 45 minutes of non-stop chatter. He would start out talking about a particular subject, and through the course of the show, would side track to other related topics. But as his theme music at the end of the show came to a close he managed to tie it all together and bring the show to an end.
There were serious moments, when he read from Robert Service or George Ade or some poetry often with background music for effect. Other times he could be silly, singing "Yes sir, that's my baby...", playing the Jews Harp, Kazoo, or Nose Flute to "The Bear Missed the Train". In between he told stories or gave us an education in such things as the chief exports of Bolivia, the inner workings of a steel mill, how ham radio works, or he spoke about the aggression of man, King Tut and Antique Cars. Shep touched upon almost every subject, yet managed to stay away from deep discussions involving politics and religion. When he did a whole show about the March to Washington in 1963, he spoke not of the events that took place, but described what went on around him. He spoke of the people that were there, how everyone got along, and the general atmosphere surrounding the day's events.
Shep's radio career spanned the gap between the time when radio shows, such as The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow, were fading into the sunset, and the modern forms of syndicated talk radio came to being. Although he only reached a small market in comparison to today's syndicated shows, there are thousands of people today who will sit up and take notice at the first note of the Bahn Frei theme and remember those days when Shep was talking to them while they lay in bed listening.
Radio was only one of the media in which he worked. His four books, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash", "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters", "The Ferrari in the Bedroom", and "A Fistful of Fig Newtons" were based on many of the stories he told on the radio or wrote for Playboy. He won the Playboy Satire Award for several of them.
He made two commercially released motion pictures, "A Christmas Story" and "My Summer Story" and four movies for PBS, "Phantom of the Open Hearth", "The Great American Fourth of July and other Disasters", "The Star-crossed Romance of Josephene Cosnowski", and "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss".
Through the years, he wrote columns for the Village Voice and Car and Driver as well as single articles for Mad, National Lampoon, Grump, The Realist, TV Guide, and Field and Stream to name a few.
When he wasn't writing he did hundreds of live shows at colleges all across the country such as Rutgers, Fairleigh Dickinson, Seton Hall, Notre Dame, and 30 annual shows at Princeton. He performed at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Clinton Museum, Dayton Hamvention (as in Ham Radio, which was one of his hobbies), the Overseas Press Club and many others.
He also appeared on television on such shows as I've Got A Secret, The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, and Steve Allen. He did three of his own. The first was called "Rear Bumpers" which he did for WLW-TV in Cincinnati. Then he did "Jean Shepherd's America" for PBS for 2 seasons and "Shepherd's Pie" for New Jersey Public Television.
He recorded 6 LPs, "Into the Unknown", "Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles". "Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd?", "Jean Shepherd - Live at the Limelight", "The Declassified Jean Shepherd", and "Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service". He also did "The Clown" with Charles Mingus and a series of audio tapes reading his short stories.
Jean Shepherd passed away October 16, 1999. During his years, he achieved a level of success which many have compared to that of Mark Twain. The books, the movies, and over 5,000 hours of radio in New York alone is an achievement that is not realized in a lifetime by many people, and Shep did it all without missing a stride. Memories of his timeless work linger with those who knew him, like the childhood stories he loved to tell. And even today, as you listen to one of his old shows from the sixties, it's like he's never left.
|A short bio
His wit and humor which has entertained so many of us for so many years will play forever, on those little transistor radios hidden beneath all our pillows.