Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd

Infobox Writer
name = Jean Shepherd

caption = Jean Shepherd at WOR
pseudonym = Shep (nickname), Frederick R. Ewing
birthdate = birth date|1921|7|26|mf=y
birthplace = Chicago, Illinois
deathdate = Death date and age|1999|10|16|1921|7|26
deathplace = Sanibel Island, Florida
occupation = Writer, raconteur, radio host
nationality = American
period = 1948-1990s
genre = humor, satire
subject =
movement =
influences =
influenced = Jerry Seinfeld

website =

Jean Parker Shepherd (July 26, 1921 - October 16, 1999) was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor who was often referred to by the nickname Shep.cite web
last = Clavin
first = Jim
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Who Is Jean Shepherd?
work = Flick Lives!
publisher =
date= 2007
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-11-09

With a career that spanned decades, Shepherd is best-known to modern audiences for narrating the film "A Christmas Story" (1983), which he co-wrote, based on his own semi-autobiographical stories.


Early life

Born on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, Shepherd was raised in Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from Hammond High School in 1939.cite web | title = Famous Hammond Personalities: Jean Shepherd | publisher = | url = | accessdate = 2006-11-26 ] As a youth he worked briefly as a mail carrier in a steel mill and earned his amateur radio license when he was 16. He later attended several universities.Fact|date=October 2007

During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Shepherd then had an extensive career in a variety of media:

Radio career

Shepherd began his broadcast radio career on WSAI-AM in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1948. From 1951 to 1953 he had a late-night broadcast on KYW-AM in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after which he returned to Cincinnati for a show 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 on an overnight slot in 1956, where he delighted his fanscite news
last = Phillips
first = McCandlish
coauthors =
title = 400 Hold A Wake For Radio Cult
work = The New York Times
pages =
language =
publisher =
date = August 13, 1956
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-09
] by telling stories, reading poetry (especially the works of Robert W. Service), and organizing comedic listener stunts. The most famouscite news
last = Wilcock
first = John
coauthors =
title = The Book That Wasn't
work = The Village Voice
pages =
language =
publisher =
date = August 1, 1956
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-09
] 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. Later co-written by Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon and Betty Ballantine, this Ballantine Book is now a collector's item. 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.Fact|date=October 2007

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.Fact|date=October 2007 He broadcast until he left WOR in 1977. His subsequent radio work consisted of only short segments on several other stations. In later life he publicly dismissed his days as a radio raconteur as unimportant, focusing more on his writing and movie work. This distressed his legions of fans who fondly remembered nights with Shep on WOR.Fact|date=October 2007 He once made such comments during an appearance on the "Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder". This contrasts with his frequent criticisms of television during his radio programs.

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 day of President Kennedy's burial. However, his most scintillating programs remain his oftimes prophetic, bitingly humorous commentaries about ordinary life in America.

At the time of the WOR radio show, Shepherd rode a Vespa motor scooter and parked it in the lobby of the WOR building.

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.Fact|date=October 2007 Yet during a radio interview, Shepherd once claimed that some shows took several weeks to prepare. On most Fourths of July, 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 11:15pm to midnight, later changed to 10:15pm to 11pm, 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 10pm. 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.

The theme song used on his long-running radio show was "The Bahn Frei Polka" by Eduard Strauss. The particular version he used was recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.



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 Ian Ballantine had Shepherd and Theodore Sturgeon 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. ["Publishers Weekly", vol. 252, no. 4 (2005), p. 233.]

Television and films

Early in his career, Shepherd had a television program in Cincinnati called "Rear Bumper". Reportedly he was eventually recommended to replace the resigning Steve Allen on NBC's "Tonight Show". NBC executives sent Shepherd to New York City 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 the early 1960s he did a weekly television show on WOR in New York. Between 1971 and 1994, Shepherd became a screenwriter of note, writing and producing numerous works for both television and cinema. He was the writer and narrator of the show "Jean Shepherd's America", produced by Boston Public Television station WGBH in which he told his famous narratives, visited unusual locales, and interviewed local people of interest. He used a 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.Fact|date=November 2007|date=November 2007

He also wrote and narrated many works, the most famous being the feature film "A Christmas Story", which is now considered a holiday classic. In the film, Shepherd provides the voice of the adult Ralph Parker. He also has a cameo role playing a man overseeing the line at the department store waiting for Santa Claus. Much to Ralphie's chagrin, he points out to him that the end of the line is much further away.

A 1994 movie sequel, "My Summer Story", was narrated by Shepherd but featured an almost entirely different cast from the previous film. The PBS series "American Playhouse" aired a series of television movies based on Shepherd stories, also featuring the Parker family. These included "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss", "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters", [cite web|url=|title="The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters" at IMDB] and "The Phantom of the Open Hearth". [cite web|url=|title="The Phantom of the Open Hearth" at IMDB]

Live performances and recordings

Shepherd also performed for several years at The Limelight Cafe in New York City's Greenwich Village, and at many colleges nationwide. His live shows were a perennial favoriteFact|date=October 2007 at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities. He performed at Princeton University annually for 30 years, until 1996. The Limelight shows were broadcast live on WOR radio.

He also 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 improvised spoken word lyrics for the title track on jazz great Charles Mingus's 1957 album "The Clown". Eight record albums of live and studio performances of Shepherd were released between 1955 and 1975. Shepherd also 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.


Many of his broadcasts were accompanied by novelty songs such as "The Bear Missed the Train" (a parody of the Yiddish ballad "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen") and "The Sheik of Araby", or by Shepherd himself, playing the Jew's harp, nose flute and kazoo.

On radio as well as on his WOR-TV show, he frequently used his own head as a musical instrument, knocking the top of his skull with his knuckles while changing the size of his open mouth to produce different notes. Shep facetiously claimed that his "Head Thumping" (as he called it) spanned about an octave.Fact|date=October 2007

Ham radio

Shepherd held the ham radio call sign K2ORS. He was very active on ham radio until his death. He is also credited as the voice for the ARRL's tape series "Tune In the World with Ham Radio". This series of tapes helped many young people become ham radio operators.

Fact and fiction

What is still unknown is to what extent Shepherd's radio and published stories were fiction, fact, 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 confirm that many of them did exist. His father was always referred to as "my old man" who worked in the Borden Milk Company offices. 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 not have been true, but Shepherd's ink drawings do adorn some of his published writings.

The 1930 Federal Census Record for Hammond, Indiana indicates that Jean's father did work for a dairy company. His actual occupation is illegible, but may read "cashier". The 1930 census record 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. Jean, Sr's parents were born in Kansas. Anna's parents were born in Germany.

Jean Shepherd had two children, Randall and Adrien, but publicly denied this. 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.cite web
last = Shepherd
first = Randall
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = One More Hat on a Man
work = Shep's vast file of dynamic trivia: People in Shep's Life
publisher = Jim Clavin
date= 2006
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-03-04

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 (ISBN 0-55783-600-0).


Shepherd's oral narrative style was a 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 6" DVD set, commenting on the episode titled "The Gymnast" Jerry Seinfeld says "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."

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". [ [ Flick Lives: "Zippy"] ]

New Jersey podcaster Frank Edward Nora often mentions Shepherd's considerable influence on his own style of talk show recording and has stated he was the main inspiration for his show, Theovernightscape. On the show's 715th episode he was very excited to discuss a hand-drawn postcard that was sent to Jean Shepherd in 1956, which Nora purchased from his second wife, Lois Nettleton, through an Ebay auction.

Shepherd was an amateur radio operator, with call sign K2ORS. When operating as an amateur, he was known to use his middle name, Parker.Fact|date=October 2007 He was listed in the Amateur Radio Callbook and for a number of years his address was on 57th Street in New York City. His last residence in NYC was on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village where he lived for many years.

Shepherd spent his final years in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, Florida, with his wife Leigh Brown. She was also his producer at WOR, and played many roles in his varied career. As Shep attained a rotund figure in his later years, Leigh would refer to him as "ma pamplemousse," or, "my grapefruit." He died on Sanibel Island in 1999 of "natural causes." In 2005, Shep was posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.


* [ Jean Shepherd in Clinton, New Jersey, in 1977 (The YouTube poster has the wrong date.)]

Listen to

* [ Jean Shepherd rebroadcasts on Max Schmid's "Mass Backwards"]
* [ Jean Shepherd Archive (Streaming/downloadable Jean Shepherd radio shows and live appearances)]
* [ "The Brass Figlagee"] Nightly podcast of Jean Shepherd shows.


* "I, Libertine" (1956)
* "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" (1966)
* "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories" (1971)
* "Ferrari in the Bedroom" (1972)
* "The Phantom of the Open Hearth" (1978)
* "A Fistful of Fig Newtons" (1981)
* "A Christmas Story" (2003, posthumously)


* "America, Inc." NET Playhouse (1970) (TV)
* "Jean Shepherd's America" (1971) (TV)
* "The Phantom of the Open Hearth" (1976) (TV)
* "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) (TV)
* "The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski" (1983) (TV)
* "A Christmas Story" (1983)
* "The Great American Road-Racing Festival" (1985) (TV)
* "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss" (1988) (TV)
* "My Summer Story" (aka "It Runs in the Family") (1994)

ee also

* WOR (AM)


External links

* [ Jean Shepherd Festival in Hammond, Indiana]
* [ "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]

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