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3:AM Cult Hero: Jean Shepherd

By Robert O’Connor

jean-shepherd

Jean Shepherd (WOR, 1966.  Flicklives.com)

When writing the profile of George Ade, I came across a collection of his stories with an introduction by Jean Shepherd.  In it, he writes well of Ade, but the highlight of it is how he writes of the Midwestern United States.  Shepherd has many beautiful descriptions of the region like “between these major metropolis lie countless hamlets whose only ambition is to become incorporated and to beat the County Seat at softball,” and “The thing about the Midwest is that hardly anybody really feels part of something.  Everyone is always leaving.  No one ever comes except on business or to see ailing relatives.”

Shepherd also pokes fun at Chicago’s pride – “one newspaper calling itself the World’s Greatest Newspaper and they believe it” and the city’s ambition to build the world’s first mile high skyscraper.  “No one quite knows what will go into it.  Or cares, for that matter.”  Shepherd wrote that in 1961, 13 years before the Sears Tower came to dominate the city skyline and almost 50 before the Burj Khalifa was finished.

Shepherd, like Ade, grew up in northwest Indiana in the town of Hammond, in the northwestern corner of the state.  He was in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, but afterwards got a job in the media, first in Cincinnati, then Philadelphia and in 1956 he landed a job at New York’s WOR.

Shep’s show had humorous anecdotes, commentaries and he’d organize wild stunts.  The most famous of them was a protest against the New York Times bestseller list and how they calculated their list – by including in their calculations the number of requests for the book.  He asked his listeners to walk in to bookstores and ask for a book called I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing.  The book didn’t exist.  After seven weeks of promoting the imaginary book and winning the condemnation of the Archbishop of Boston, the book appeared on the list.  Shepherd, along with friend Ted Sturgeon wrote a real book with the same name under the same pseudonym and it became a bestseller again.

By the early 1960s, Shepherd was known nationwide for his humorous anecdotes and commentaries about ordinary life in America, much like George Ade had done.  In 1964, media scholar Marshall McCluhan said in his book Understanding Media that Shepherd “regards radio as a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.”

Like Garrison Keillor after him, Shepherd would tell humorous stories about the Midwest and play novelty songs.  But unlike Keillor, Shepherd would accompany himself on folk instruments like the Jew’s harp or the kazoo.

In 1971, Shepherd moved into screenwriting and giving live performances of his show.  He also collected stories he told on the radio and published them in Playboy, and again in books.

For those who weren’t around during his WOR days (which he later dismissed, oddly enough), Shep’s most famous work is the film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated (and had a cameo in).  It’s the story of Ralphie, a kid in 1940s Indiana and what he wants for Christmas – an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle – and how he is told by everyone – his mother, his teacher, even a Santa at the mall – that he’ll shoot his eye out.

There are also a lot of great Christmas moments like when Ralphie’s parents just stare out the window and watch the snowfall at night.  And being the 1940s, there’s plenty of things from Christmas Past like the Ovaltine decoder ring Ralphie gets in the mail.

The movie got mixed reviews and didn’t do well at the box office when it first came out.  It then came out on video and became a perennial Christmas favorite, to the point that TNT shows the film continuously in a 24 hour marathon on Christmas eve.

MORE: Flick Lives // A Christmas Story: Excerpt, Excerpt, Excerpt // Other screen credits // I Libertine (article on the scandal and another) // Archived shows on WOR (Clipmarks, Internet Archive) // Books of stories told on the show // Amateur radio sound bites (scroll to Jean Shepherd)

First posted: Sunday, December 26th, 2010.

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