Each Christmas season, TV replays a movie that has now become a classic—“A Christmas Story,” a story about a kid Ralphie and his wish for a BB gun that his parents were sure would shoot his eye out.
The author and narrator of this story is Jean Shepherd (yes, a man) who died a few years ago. Writing was only a sideline to his main career as a radio humorist.
I first became a fan in high school when he had a daily late night show on KYW from 1951 to 1953. A few others of our class were also fans. He then returned to Cincinnati for a year or two before finding his niche at WOR in New York City where he had a daily hour-long show for about thirty years. I could pick up WOR if the weather was just right. It was a stretch, but God knows I tried. I credit, or blame, his program for my skeptical view of life from the outside.
As part of his radio show, he was the inventor of “trivia” as a social contest. (Example:What was the name of the comic strip character that was a fireman who wore his fire hat backwards and rode around in a tiny fire truck with only two wheels? Too easy? What word was on the license plate and what
was his wife’s name?)
He also invented “hurling invectives,” opening your window at night and yelling out to society. This was famously copied in the movie “Network” where the news anchor yelled, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Pure Shepherd.
His radio program opened and closed with the theme music Bahn Frei by Eduard Strauss that depicted a horse race, and this was just what his program was about—the horse race that we are all a part of, running like crazy, but getting nowhere.
The first part of his free-form program was reading short pieces from the newspaper, such as, “A woman in England was arrested for hitting her husband with a frozen cat,” and deriving from the pieces a general discussion of common human follies. He would also sing along to an instrumental piece, such as “Hindustan,” or “The Bear Missed the Train” (as he sung it), or join in with a kazoo, Jew’ harp, or a nose flute.
All this took about the first ten minutes, but then he would settle in with one of the stories from his past—of his childhood, or working in a steel mill, or his life in the army. All of the parts of “A Christmas Story” were originally developed in these monologs. His nightly story would draw to an end as the final theme music came up, the last syllable that drew everything together ending precisely on the full-volume musical climax.
How do I remember all this? Because each week radio station WBAI in New York City plays one of his old shows and posts it on their web site, http://www.flicklives.com/Mass_Back/mass_back.htm, where you can listen to it anytime. I’ve been doing this for years and have heard more of his shows than I ever did in high school.
If you go to the site soon, real soon, you can hear his radio version of the bunny slippers Christmas present that appeared in the movie. You should be able to listen even if your connection is a dial-up. Or, you can go directly to http://www.flicklives.com to read more about Jean Shepherd. Flick, by-the-way, was one of Shep’s childhood buddies.
Despite their age, his shows are surprisingly current, and I don’t listen out of nostalgia. Only when he mentions the price of something are you jarringly aware of their age. Amazingly, he was doing this alone—no team of writers— for one hour every day, day in, day out. And in every show there are some absolute gems.