Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rediscovering Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd
A lot of people know who Jean Shepherd was or at least know about his best known work, A Christmas Story, which is by now a seasonal classic. The film features the exploits of a little boy in the Midwest, Ralph Parker, during the Depression, who wants nothing more than to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) wrote this feature film and provided the voice of the adult Ralph. It's one of my favourite holiday movies, something I won't miss at that time of year.

Fewer people are likely aware of other works by Shepherd, who worked in radio, television, and film, wrote books, and did his own version of stand-up.

In fact, when A Christmas Story first aired in 1983, I was very proud to tell anyone within earshot that I had been a fan of Shepherd's since at least the early 1970s when I began listening to his nightly radio program on WOR Radio in New York City.

Obviously by then television was the thing, and though I was barely in my teens, my father suggested I actually turn on a radio to listen to Shepherd's quasi-factual tales of growing up in Indiana in the '30s and '40s. Much to my surprise, I loved it. He just talked. In a lot of ways the stories were really about nothing, so I wasn't surprised to read that Jerry Seinfeld credits Shepherd as one of his most significant influences. You know, Seinfeld's sitcom focused on, as the Wiki entry states, "minutiae, such as waiting in line at the movies, going out to dinner, buying a suit or dealing with the petty injustices of life." I suppose one could say Shepherd did much the same. I even recall one radio program from years ago in which he talks about how much his father loved traffic jams or at least loved to brag about the longest ones he had been in.

I guess you'd call them "slice-of-life" vignettes. I don't know. But he was so good at painting a picture of that time and place that it grabbed me.

I mention this only because this past weekend I happened to take a book off my own shelf, something by Shepherd given to me by a friend probably twenty years ago that I read at that time but hadn't looked at since. It's a collection called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which was originally published in 1966.

Some of the short stories from this book like "Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid" and "My Old Man and the Lascivious Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop" provide source material for The Christmas Story. And, if I am not mistaken, Grover Dill in the book morphs into Scott Farkas in the movie. No matter.

It was some of the best time I have spent on the couch with a book in a while.

I don't know if the old radio programs are still available, but if they are they would be well worth finding. I remember the theme song that introduced each show and while I'd like to tell you I didn't have to look up the title, that would not be true (it's "The Bahn Frei Polka" by Eduard Strauss). When that song began, played by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, it was time to settle in for 45 minutes of radio bliss. Great stories about growing up with his friends Flick and Schwartz and his brother Randy and his old man and mother with her Chinese red chenille robe. Hard to explain, but it really is great stuff.

Other books by Shepherd, which still seem to be in print, are Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fist Full of Fig Newtons.

I also came across a reference to a biography by Eugene B. Bergman called: Excelsior, You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, which was published in 2005. I may have to pick that one up.

If you are not familiar with Shepherd's work, I think it's pretty clear I'm recommending it. If A Christmas Story is all you know, there is so much more to enjoy.

Here's a clip of him doing some stand-up work at a 1972 concert, just to give you a flavor, though there is something about the radio experience that I actually prefer. 

(Just a little footnote and a question: I notice the short story about the Red Ryder BB gun takes place during the Depression, though the movie about the same episode is supposed to take place in the '40s. I'm not sure why that was changed, but it seems to have been. If anyone can enlighten me, please do).

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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