July 26, 1921|
Chicago, Illinois, USA
|Died||October 16, 1999 (aged 78)
Fort Myers, Florida, USA
|Pen name||Shep (nickname), Frederick R. Ewing|
|Occupation||Writer, raconteur, radio host|
|Spouse||Joan Laverne Warner (1950–1957; divorced)
Lois Nettleton (1960–1967; divorced)
Leigh Brown (1977–1998; her death)
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1942 - 1944|
|Rank||Technician Fifth Grade (T/5)|
With a career that spanned decades, Shepherd is best known to modern audiences for the film A Christmas Story (1983), which he narrated and co-scripted, based on his own semi-autobiographical stories.
Born in 1921 on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, Shepherd briefly lived in East Chicago, Indiana, and was raised in Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. The movie A Christmas Story is loosely based on his days growing up in Hammond's southeast side neighborhood of Hessville. As a youth he worked briefly as a mail carrier in a steel mill and earned his Amateur Radio license (W9QWN) at age 16, sometimes claiming he was even younger. He sporadically attended Indiana University, but never graduated. Shepherd was a lifelong White Sox fan.
After his military service, Shepherd began his broadcast radio career in early 1945 on WJOB (AM) in Hammond, Indiana, later working at WTOD in Toledo, Ohio, in 1946. He began working in Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 1947 at WSAI, later also working at Cincinnati stations WCKY and WKRC the following year, before returning to WSAI. From 1951 to 1953, he had a late-night broadcast on KYW in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after which he returned to Cincinnati for several shows on WLW. After a stint on television (see below), he returned to radio. "Shep," as he was known, settled in at WOR radio New York City, New York, at the end of February 1955, and on an overnight slot in 1956, where he delighted his fans by telling stories, reading poetry (especially the works of Robert W. Service), and organizing comedic listener stunts. The most famous of the last involved creating a hoax about a non-existent book, I, Libertine, by the equally non-existent author "Frederick R. Ewing", in 1956. During a discussion on how easy it was to manipulate the best seller lists, which at that time were based not only on sales but demand, Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of I, Libertine which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors. Fans of the show eventually took it further, planting references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to it being claimed by some to have been listed on The New York Times Best Seller list. Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon and Betty Ballantine later wrote the actual book, with a cover painted by illustrator Frank Kelly Freas, published by Ballantine Books. Among his close friends in the late 1950s were Shel Silverstein and Herb Gardner. With them and actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd performed in the revue he created, Look, Charlie. Later he was married to Nettleton for about six years.
When he was about to be released by WOR in 1956 for not being commercial, he did a commercial for Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor, and was immediately fired. His listeners besieged WOR with complaints, and when Sweetheart offered to sponsor him he was reinstated. Eventually, he attracted more sponsors than he wanted—the commercials interrupted the flow of his monologues. Ex WOR engineer, Frank Cernese, adds: The commercials of that era were on "ETs"—phonograph records about 14" in diameter. Three large turntables were available to play them in sequence. However, Shepherd liked the engineer to look at him and listen when he told his stories. That left little time to load the turntables and cue the appropriate cuts. That's when he started complaining about "too many commercials". He broadcast until he left WOR in early 1977. His subsequent radio work consisted only of short segments on several other stations, including crosstown WCBS, and occasional commentaries on NPR's All Things Considered. His final radio gig was the Sunday night radio show "Shepherd's Pie" on WBAI in the mid-1990s, which consisted of his reading his stories uncut, uninterrupted and unabridged. The show was one of WBAI's most popular of the period. In addition to his stories, his shows also contained, among other things, humorous anecdotes and general commentaries about the human condition, observations about life in New York, accounts of vacations in Maine and travels throughout the world. Among the most striking of his programs was his account of his participation in the March on Washington in August 1963, during which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the program that aired on November 25, 1963—the burial day of President John F. Kennedy. However, his most scintillating programs remain his often prophetic, bitingly humorous commentaries about ordinary life in America.
Throughout his radio career, he performed entirely without scripts. His friend and WOR colleague Barry Farber marveled at how he could talk so long with very little written down. Yet during a radio interview, Shepherd once claimed that some shows took several weeks to prepare, but this would probably have been in the thinking and outlining stage rather than in anything like a script. On most of his Fourth of July broadcasts, however, he would read one of his most enduring and popular short stories, "Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb that Struck Back," about a neighborhood drunk and his disastrous fireworks escapades. In the 1960s and 1970s, his WOR show ran from 11:15 pm to midnight, later changed to 10:15 pm to 11 pm, so his "Ludlow Kissel" reading was coincidentally timed to many New Jersey and New York local town fireworks displays, which would traditionally reach their climax at 10 pm. It was possible, on one of those July 4 nights, to park one's car on a hilltop and watch several different pyrotechnic displays, accompanied by Shepherd's masterful storytelling.
Shepherd wrote a series of humorous short stories about growing up in northwest Indiana and its steel towns, many of which were first told by him on his programs and then published in Playboy. The stories were later assembled into books titled 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. Some of those situations were incorporated into his movies and television fictional stories. He also wrote a column for the early Village Voice, a column for Car and Driver, numerous individual articles for diverse publications, including Mad Magazine ("The Night People vs. Creeping Meatballism", March/April 1957), and introductions for books such as The America of George Ade, American Snapshots, and the 1970 reprint of the 1929 Johnson Smith Catalogue.
When Eugene B. Bergmann's Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd was published in 2005, Publishers Weekly reviewed:
This prismatic portrait affirms Shepherd's position as one of the 20th century's great humorists. Railing against conformity, he forged a unique personal bond with his loyal listeners, who participated in his legendary literary prank by asking bookstores for the nonexistent novel I, Libertine (when publisher Ian Ballantine had Shepherd, author Theodore Sturgeon, and illustrator Frank Kelly Freas make the fake real, PW called it "the hoax that became a book"). Storyteller Shepherd's grand theme was life itself... Novelist Bergmann (Rio Amazonas) interviewed 32 people who knew Shepherd or were influenced by him and listened to hundreds of broadcast tapes, inserting transcripts of Shepherd's own words into a "biographical framework" of exhaustive research.
Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, almost three dozen of Jean Shepherd's radio stories about the army, transcribed, edited and introduced by Eugene B. Bergmann, is a book of stories by Shepherd, never before in print. (Opus Books, August 2013)
Television and films
Early in his career, Shepherd had a television program on WLW-TV in Cincinnati called Rear Bumper. He claimed that he was recommended to replace the resigning Steve Allen on NBC's Tonight Show. Shepherd was reportedly brought to New York City by NBC executives to prepare for the position, but they were contractually bound to first offer it to Jack Paar. The network was certain Paar would hold out for a role in prime time, but he accepted the late-night assignment. However, he did not assume the position permanently until Shepherd and Ernie Kovacs had co-hosted the show.
In late 1960 and early 1961, he did a weekly television show on WOR (channel 9) in New York, but it did not last long. Between 1971 and 1994, Shepherd became a screenwriter of note, writing and producing numerous works for both television and cinema, all based on his originally spoken and written stories. He was the writer and narrator of the show Jean Shepherd's America, produced by Boston Public Television station WGBH for PBS, in which he visited various American locales, and interviewed local people of interest. He used a somewhat similar format for the New Jersey Network TV show Shepherd's Pie. On many of the Public TV shows he wrote, directed and edited entire shows.
He also wrote and narrated many works, the most famous being the 1983 MGM feature film A Christmas Story, which is now considered a holiday classic. Shepherd narrates the film as the adult Ralph Parker, and also has a cameo role playing a man in line at the department store waiting for Santa Claus.
Ten years later, Shepherd and A Christmas Story director Bob Clark returned to the same working-class Cleveland neighborhood to film a sequel, It Runs in the Family (later known as My Summer Story), released by MGM in 1994 and featuring an almost entirely different cast from the previous film.
PBS aired several television movies based on Shepherd stories, also featuring the Parker family. These included The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976), which aired as part of the anthology series Visions; The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) and The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1985), both as part of the anthology series American Playhouse; and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss (1988), a co-production with The Disney Channel. All were narrated by Shepherd but otherwise featured different casts.
Live performances and recordings
On Saturday nights for several years, Shepherd broadcast his WOR radio program live from the Limelight Cafe in New York City's Greenwich Village, and he also performed at many colleges nationwide. His live shows were a perennial favorite at Rutgers to wildly enthusiastic standing room only crowds, and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities (he often referred to the latter as "Fairly Ridiculous University" on his WOR show). He performed at Princeton University for over 30 years, beginning in 1956 until 1996, three years before his death. He performed before sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. He was also emcee for several important jazz concerts in the late 1950s. Shepherd's first known recording featured his short comments interspersed with jazz pieces. The title: Jean Shepherd—Into the Unknown With Jazz Music (1955). Shepherd improvised spoken word narration for the title track on jazz musician Charles Mingus's 1957 album The Clown. Eight record albums of live and studio performances of Shepherd were released between 1955 and 1975. In 1993, Shepherd recorded the opening narration and the voice of the Audio-Animatronics "Father" character for the updated Carousel of Progress attraction at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom.
On some of his broadcasts he played parts of recordings of such novelty songs as "The Bear Missed the Train" (a parody of the Yiddish ballad "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen") and "The Sheik of Araby". Sometimes Shepherd would accompany the recordings by playing the Jew's harp, nose flute, or kazoo, and occasionally even by thumping his knuckles on his head.
The theme song of his show was "Bahn Frei!" by Eduard Strauss. The particular version Shepherd used was a recording by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, with arrangement by Peter Bodge, released in April 1946 by RCA Victor-Red Seal. This arrangement recast the 19th-century polka from one relating to travel by train to a fast-tempo piece directed to horses and a race track, principally achieved by opening with a well-known bugle call named "Call to the Post."
Shepherd kept most of his personal life secret – from his radio audience as well as from most of his friends. He was married a total of four times, though listeners would not have known that. He lived in several New York City locations during his WOR days, and for a time in New Jersey in New Milford and Washington Township. In 1984, he moved to Sanibel Island, Florida, with his wife Leigh Brown. He died in a hospital in nearby Fort Myers, Florida, in 1999 of "natural causes."
Shepherd maintained his interest in amateur radio throughout his life. After leaving Hammond, he obtained the call signs W4QWN (Kentucky), W8QWN (Ohio) and W3STE (Pennsylvania). Upon his arrival at WOR in New York in 1955, he obtained the call K2ORS, with which he would often be heard speaking to other ham radio operators for the remainder of his life.
Fact and fiction
It is unknown to what extent Shepherd's radio and published stories were fact, fiction or a combination of the two. The childhood friends included in many of his stories were people he claimed to have invented, yet high school yearbooks and numerous other sources confirm that many of them, including school buddies "Flick" and "Schwartz," did indeed exist. His father was a cashier at the Borden Milk Company. Shepherd always referred to him as "my old man." During an interview on the Long John Nebel Show—an all-night radio program that ran on WOR starting at midnight—Shepherd once claimed that his real father was a cartoonist along the lines of Herblock, and that he inherited his skills at line drawings. This may well have not been true but Shepherd's ink drawings do adorn some of his published writings, and a number of previously unknown ones were sold on eBay from his former wife Lois Nettleton's collection after her death in 2008.
The 1930 Federal Census Record for Hammond, Indiana, indicates that Jean's father did work for a dairy company. His actual occupation reads "cashier." The 1930 census record (which misspells the last name as "Shephard" when searching) lists the following family members: Jean Shepherd, age 30, head; Anna Shepherd, age 30, wife; Jean Shepherd Jr, age 8, son; and Randall Shepherd, age 6, son. According to this record, Jean Sr, Anna, Jean Jr, and Randall were all born in Illinois, and Jean Sr's parents (Emmett and Flora) were born in Kansas. However, all other decennial federal and state census records, as well as other official documents such as death certificates, indicate that Emmett and Flora were born in Indiana. Anna's parents, August and Katherine, were born in Germany.
Jean Shepherd had two children, a son Randall and a daughter Adrian, with his second wife Joan but he publicly denied this, including in his last will and testament, executed some five months prior to his death. Randall Shepherd describes his father as having frequently come home late or not at all. Randall had almost no contact with him after his parents' divorce.
Shepherd's oral narrative style was a precursor to that used by Spalding Gray and Garrison Keillor. Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media wrote that Shepherd "regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly." In the Seinfeld season six DVD set, commenting on the episode titled "The Gymnast", Jerry Seinfeld said, "He really formed my entire comedic sensibility—I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd." Furthermore, the first name of Seinfeld's third child is "Shepherd." On January 23, 2012 the Paley Center for Media (formerly The Museum of Television and Radio) presented a tribute to Shepherd. Seinfeld was interviewed for the hour and discussed how Shepherd and he had similar ways of humorously discussing minor incidents in life. He confirmed the importance of Shepherd on his career.
Shepherd's life and multimedia career are examined in the 2005 book Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd by Eugene B. Bergmann.
Shepherd was an influence on Bill Griffith's Zippy comic strip, as Griffith noted in his strip for January 9, 2000. Griffith explained, "The inspiration—just plucking random memories from my childhood, as I'm wont to do in my Sunday strip (also a way to expand beyond Zippy)--and Shep was a big part of them".
Though he primarily spent his radio career playing music, New York Top 40 DJ Dan Ingram has acknowledged Shepherd's style as an influence.
An article he wrote for the March–April 1957 issue of MAD magazine, "The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism", described the differences between what he considered to be "day people" (conformists) and "night people" (non-conformists). In the opening credits of John Cassavetes' 1959 film Shadows the credits read "Presented by Jean Shepherd's Night People".
- on YouTube.
- Jean Shepherd in Boston's Fenway Park discussing his childhood vis-a-vis baseball, October 14, 1969
- Works by or about Jean Shepherd at Internet Archive (radio shows from the 50s-70s)
- The Brass Figlagee — Nightly podcast of Jean Shepherd shows
- Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service (1975) at Smithsonian Folkways
- Insomnia Theater — Free 24 × 7 stream of Jean Shepherd shows
- Shep-A-Day — What was Jean Shepherd talking about on this day in history? Podcast updated daily
- I, Libertine (1956, co-written by Theodore Sturgeon as "Frederick R. Ewing")
- The America of George Ade (1960, edited and introduced by Jean Shepherd)
- In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966)
- Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters (1971)
- The Ferrari in the Bedroom (1972)
- The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1978)
- A Fistful of Fig Newtons (1981)
- A Christmas Story (2003, posthumously)
- Jean Shepherd--Into the Unknown With Jazz Music (1955)
- Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles (1959)
- Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd? (1960)
- Declassified Jean Shepherd (1971)
- Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service (1975)
|1959||Shadows||Man at Party||Uncredited|
|Summer Incident||Narrator||Documentary short
|1970||NET Playhouse||Episode: "America, Inc."
|Jean Shepherd's America||Himself||TV Series
|1973||No Whistles, Bells, or Bedlam||Narrator||Short film|
|1976||The Phantom of the Open Hearth||Narrator/Ralph Parker||TV Movie
|1982||The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters||Narrator/Ralph Parker||TV Movie
|1983||A Christmas Story||Narrator/Adult Ralphie||Co-Writer|
|1984||Jean Shepherd on Route 1... and Other Major Thoroughfares||Himself||TV Short
|1985||The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski||Himself||TV Movie
|The Great American Road-Racing Festival||Himself||TV Movie documentary
|1987||Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait||Himself||TV Movie documentary|
|1988||Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss||Ralph, the Man/Scott||TV Movie
|1988–1991||Sesame Street||Himself||2 Episodes: "Cowboy X" segments|
|1994||My Summer Story||Narrator/Adult Ralphie||Co-Writer|
|1997||Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas||Himself||TV Movie documentary|
|1998||Babe Ruth||Himself||TV Movie documentary|
- Clavin, Jim (2007). "Who Is Jean Shepherd?". Flick Lives!. Retrieved 2007-11-09.
- "Famous Hammond Personalities: Jean Shepherd". HammondIndiana.com. Retrieved 2006-11-26.
- Phillips, McCandlish (August 13, 1956). "400 Hold A Wake For Radio Cult". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-09.
- Wilcock, John (August 1, 1956). "The Book That Wasn't". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2007-11-09.
- Lortie, Arthur (17 December 2012). "All I want for Christmas is my name on the Bestseller's List". The Herald News. Retrieved 2013-07-08.
- Tricked You: Great Literary Hoaxes Good Reading magazine June 2008 Pg 22
- Ramirez, Anthony (October 17, 1999). "Jean Shepherd, a Raconteur Of the Radio, Dies in Florida". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-25.
- Bergmann, Eugene (November 1, 2004). Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. Winona, Minnesota: Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-55783-600-7.
- Publishers Weekly, vol. 252, no. 4 (2005), p. 233.
- Dezern, Craig (July 26, 1993). "Work is scheduled to start...". Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. Archived from the original on March 29, 2015. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- Lafferty, Mike (November 24, 1993). "Around The Worlds". Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. Archived from the original on March 29, 2015. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- Kelley, Bill (April 7, 1985). "Jean Shepherd's Great Escape". Sun-Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- Ramirez, Anthony (October 18, 1999). "Jean Shepherd, a Raconteur And a Wit of Radio, Is Dead". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- Shepherd, Randall (2006). "One More Hat on a Man". Shep's vast file of dynamic trivia: People in Shep's Life. Jim Clavin. Retrieved October 25, 2015.
- McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw Hill. ISBN 81-14-67535-7.
- Jerry Seinfeld (November 22, 2005). Running With the Egg (Seinfeld season six DVD). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
- Peterson, Todd (August 25, 2005). "Jerry Seinfeld & Wife Welcome Third Child". People. Time Inc. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- "Remembering Master Storyteller, Jean Shepherd: With Jerry Seinfeld". Paley Center for Media. January 23, 2012. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
- Flick Lives: "Zippy"
- Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia web page Accessed 12-07-2013
- Jean Shepherd at the Internet Movie Database
- Works by or about Jean Shepherd in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Jean Shepherd Historical Preservation Website
- Jean Shepherd Festival in Hammond, Indiana
- Jean Shepherd Quest, a blog about Shepherd's life and work.
- The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism Mad 32 (March–April 1957) article by Jean Shepherd, illustrated by Wally Wood
- Jean's ham call on QRZ.COM
- Ralph Gardner's One Ralphie to Another
- Leigh Brown at the Internet Movie Database
- Zoot Radio, free old time radio show downloads of 'Jean Shepherd.'