What follows is the first part of a chronology I’ve written for a future book about Jean Shepherd. It is an overview that includes much that is known and some newly encountered material. Other parts will follow.
AN ANNOTATED CHRONOLOGY—A ROUGH GUIDE
This Shepherd chronology is focused mainly on his creative activities, with inclusions of a bit of biography, usually as it relates to his professional life. Throughout this chronology, I include some explanation and interpretation. Although many comments by Shepherd (and media reports, based on Shepherd’s comments) are unreliable, some information herein is from objective sources such as military records and published radio schedules. Even some of Shepherd’s own comments seem accurate, because they are borne out by strong circumstantial evidence.
A prominent theme running through Shepherd’s work in many fields is his focus on uniquely American attributes, customs, and themes—mostly unrecognized as such, despite his frequent comments in this regard and the titles of two of his important works: a book he edited and for which he wrote the extensive introduction, The America of George Ade, 1866-1944, and the two-part series of television programs, Jean Shepherd’s America.
1921 Born on July 16 in Chicago to Jean and Ann Shepherd.
192(?) While Jean Jr. was quite young, the family moved across the state line to Hammond, Indiana (Hohman in Shepherd’s published stories) where they spent most of Jean’s youth at 2907 Cleveland Street. In a good example of Shepherd conflating truth and fiction, the title of his BB gun story is “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.” Jean Sr. was a cashier for the Borden Milk Company. Both Jeans were referred to as “Shep.”
(1923—Randal Shepherd, Jean’s young brother, born September 6. Jean often described the brother in his fiction as whining and hiding under the daybed. In 1947 Randy reportedly played in the Cincinnati Reds baseball organization and pitched for the Reds in spring training of 1948. It’s said that some of Jean’s sports stories had their origin in his talks with Randy. Randy reportedly worked for the Borden Milk Company in 1955 and subsequently owned a limousine service. He died in 1994.)
1925(?)-1935 Jean attended Warren G. Harding grammar school in Hammond beginning in the second grade. He seems to have started school in Chicago until the family moved to Hammond. On occasion, Shepherd would mention that he had gone to a school named after the worst president in U. S. history. Many of Jean Shepherd’s stories that people most enjoy were told about the years of his childhood. He attended Morton School for 6A, 7, and 8th grade. Many people feel that these stories are the best things he did. Wait till they read what Shepherd himself said about his kid-stories!
1935-1939 Attended Hammond High School, where he played school football. In the marching band he played the sousaphone and he played bass in the school orchestra. He said that during at least one summer vacation he delivered mail at the local Inland Steel mill, the subject of several of his subsequent stories. His father left the family soon after Jean Jr. graduated from high school in 1939, and Jean surreptitiously referred to this true biographical event in his introduction to the published script of one of his fictional teleplays.
Jean got his ham radio license in his early teens—his age at the time varies according to his telling of it on his programs. His obsession with amateur radio, he said, transformed his life. While in school, in his first radio broadcasting job, he did high school sports commentary for WJOB Radio in Hammond.
1939-1941 It’s unknown what Shepherd did between high school graduation and induction into the Signal Corps in 1941. He claimed that he attended several universities and sometimes said that he had graduated, but there is no evidence of attending or graduating other than the photo noted in 1944 below. He claimed to have studied psychology, among other subjects.
Probably during this period he began what was to become a lifelong enthusiasm for motor vehicles—motorcycles, scooters, and a wide variety of odd and exotic cars. He devoted an entire broadcast to his memorable encounter with a Bugatti. In the 1950s and 1960s he emceed yearly car rallies in Greenwich Village, sponsored by the Village Voice; in the early-to-mid 1970s he wrote over sixty monthly columns for Car and Driver, not all about cars and driving; by the early 1970s he was flying his own small plane.
IN THE ARMY
1942 July 10 inducted into the Signal Corps, where, it’s said, that those who were ham radio operators were automatically assigned. Shepherd, on his programs, frequently described the semitropical climate where he had been stationed. Persuasive evidence locates the secret radar facility in Florida where he trained. His short story told on the air, and then published, in Playboy, “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League,” describes the soldiers playing a baseball game in a jungle setting so hot that they stripped down naked.
He attained the rank of T5, the equivalent of corporal. On a broadcast he commented that he and some other soldiers were put in a special college class. Indeed, records indicate that there were special college classes for some soldiers before their separation from the Service. In a photo labeled as being taken at the University of Maryland in June of 1944, he is shown in uniform. Discharged on December 16, 1944. At least once Shepherd stated that he had served during the Korean War (1950-1953), but he may well have said this to suggest that he was younger than he actually was.
EARLY RADIO DAYS—CINCINNATI AND PHILADELPHIA
1945-1948 It’s not known what Shepherd did during these years after his army discharge. He claimed to have attended Indiana University from 1949-1950. (He was awarded an honorary doctorate from that university in 1995. He started his professional raddio career in January 1947 at WSAI and apparently went to WKRC and maybe WCKY before returning to WSAI in 1949.
Virtually nothing has been preserved on tape of his early broadcast days from 1948-1954, which he referred to as his tadpole days. Informants say they worked with him and/or were avid fans of his programs then, and that he used his unorthodox, improvised style in those early days. He had chosen his rambunctious “Bahn Frei” theme song, apparently because it reflected the racing horse motif of one of his sponsors. He was using some of his familiar ideas and was already being chastised by management for “too much talk, not enough music.” One manager had a light installed in the studio that indicated the need for less talk, but that did not work. Eventually, for too much talk, he was fired, and was later fired again in Cincinnati for the same cause. His obsessive talk on and off the air never ceased.
1948 In Cincinnati, Ohio, Shepherd had a job as an announcer and in part broadcast remotes from Shuller’s Wigwam Restaurant.
1951-1953 In Philadelphia, he did broadcasts from the “Town Room” of the Sheraton Hotel. Recordings of only the last two half-hour shows have so far surfaced. They demonstrate that he was well along in his style of wide-ranging monologs. During this time he probably became familiar with Ernie Kovacs’ work on television. Shepherd, for a short time, had a late-night television show called Rear Bumper, during which, he claimed, he played with the television medium, probably in a manner similar to Kovacs.
1953-1954(?) More radio work in Cincinnati.
NEW YORK CITY—THE EARLY DAYS, 1955 TO 1960