Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Christmas Story In July

If you mention "Ralphie" and "Red Ryder BB gun" in the same breath, I'd say most people could make an immediate connection with the film, A Christmas Story, and it's famous line that is the title of this entry. On the other hand, most people probably know very little about the remarkable personality behind that story. His name is Jean Shepherd. He was born on this day in 1921 on Chicago's south side and raised in nearby Hammond, Indiana.

Following service in World War II, Shepherd went on to a career in broadcasting, writing, film, and live performance. In radio, he was heard on a late night show for over twenty years - all unscripted - on New York's WOR where he entertained listeners with his humorous stories, interviews, and practical jokes. Shepherd hosted a television show for WOR as well, but he is best remembered in video narrating a number of productions based on his stories of growing up in the Midwest. Many of the scripts were so popular they later appeared in print.

Of course, his best known contribution to American humor is A Christmas Story, a compilation of stories and characters drawn from his earlier work. It was originally produced as a feature film in 1983 and made the transition into a television classic thanks to the persistence of Ted Turner. Almost any man born before 1950 can easily relate to much of Shepherd's/Ralphie's childhood. But many of the rites of passage to adulthood are timeless. The markers are a shared experience for every generation. Jean Shepherd was a genius at capturing them. And his skills as a narrator made him a natural at weaving the common threads into humorous and entertaining listening.

I find Shepherd's personal path - a difficult one - in the American experience a most interesting journey. Although he surely had the talent to become a well-known national treasure, radio did not provide him coast-to-coast exposure available with the new medium of television. He was fiercely independent, a maverick, and one not to take life too seriously. I can imagine he was a threat to the ego of more than one radio executive. Furthermore, he was a "night owl" on radio, broadcasting to a dedicated but smaller audience, and in direct competition with televised local news and the likes of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. In fact, a Wikipedia entry, not verified, notes that Shepherd was in line to take over The Tonight Show with Steve Allen's departure in 1957, but Jack Paar had the right of first refusal with the NBC network. Paar unexpectedly accepted, thus, denying Shepherd his big break on one of television's most popular shows. Finally, from my research, it seems Shepherd maligned his radio work when he moved into writing film for television in the '70s. Indeed, it apparently was a clean break - maybe the execs were happier without him - and he did go on to success with films, including The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Still, I think the fates denied Shepherd the opportunity to become a big television star in the 1950's and much better well-known in his lifetime. At the same time, he understood and appreciated the cost of fame and the value of life outside the studio. Had he pursued a life in television, I doubt he would have produced such an enjoyable series of observations blended from experience and imagination.

Fifteen years ago, Jean Shepherd died known primarily for one film produced in 1983 when he was 62. There's much more creativity to him than that. I hope more people come to enjoy his work as it ages into fine wine expressing one man's harvest of life in 20th century America.

Here is a taste of the raconteur at work:

This is an edited version of an OTR post from 2009.

No comments: