Some official sources of information about the history of radio do not mention Jean Shepherd, or only give him inadequate coverage. And references to Shepherd have at least a few errors and/or misinterpretations, so that it’s very hard to get the “truth” about him, and from what I know of his MO, that’s the way he wanted it. Sometimes he lied, sometimes he manipulated, sometimes he innocently misremembered information about his own life and works, and sometimes informants just got it wrong. In my own writings about Shep, I’ve tried mightily to avoid all those swampy mazes of error—but no one’s perfect. So it’s good to be given an encyclopedia entry written by someone who actually knew him and worked with him back in the good old days when he was still improvising his way through the last days of his own radio broadcasts.
Laurie Squire was his radio producer during that final year while Leigh Brown, Shep’s producer during many previous years, was busy keeping his other creative projects in fine fettle. Shep, in those pre-women’s-lib days, called his producers “Little Leigh,” and “Little Laurie,” both referred to with an innocence of malice—with heartfelt affection. Laurie and her husband Herb Squire, Shep’s favorite engineer, were also essential parts of the operation that organized and ran one of Shepherd’s syndicated radio projects (International Jawbreaker), before the current era of mass syndication. They not only worked with Jean but were his friends.
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The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of RADIO
Edited by Christopher H. Sterling, Volume 3
(Fitzroy Dearborn, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, New York and London, 2004)
Contributing writer…Laurie Squire, Shepherd friend, partner (International Jawbreaker) and WOR Radio producer(1976-77)
SHEPHERD, JEAN 1921 -1999
American humorist and radio monologist
His fans called him “Shep”. Media guru Marshall McLuhan hailed him as the “first radio novelist.” Like a modern day Scheherazade, Jean Shepherd was a master storyteller who, with wit, tempered irreverence and a gimlet eye for the minutiae of growing up, spun an inexhaustible supply of tales to a loyal following of late night radio listeners.
He was born Jean Parker Shepherd 21 July 1921 in Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town just outside Chicago. During World War II Shepherd served in the Army Signal Corps (an experience which provided fodder for a number of his stories) and briefly attended Indiana University. He began his career in entertainment as a performer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
Between 1950 and 1954 Shepherd was a deejay at WSAI in Cincinnati, doing live remotes from a restaurant called Shuller’s Wigwam and hosting a nightly comedy show, Rear Bumpers, on WLW. In 1956, he moved to New York’s WOR where the Jean Shepherd Show broadcast for the next 21 years to an audience that swelled to as many as 100,000 listeners all along the eastern seaboard, courtesy of WOR’s 50,000 watt clear channel signal.
The 45-minute show opened with the familiar racetrack bugle call that heralded his theme song (the Bahn Frei Polka by Edouard Strauss). Working without a script, Shepherd embellished tales of his boyhood years hanging out with pals “Flick”, “Schwartz” and “Brunner,” and of time spent in the Army. Sometimes an entire show would be built around an absurd news story, and on occasion he read selections from favorite literary figures, like poet Robert Service. No Shepherd tale ever proceeded in linear fashion: there were detours everywhere. He’d go off on a tangent, digress, interrupt himself with an overlapping story and then, even as his closing theme started to play, easily and logically tie all the loose ends together.
The narratives combined nostalgia without cloying sentiment, they were cynical without being destructive. Shepherd spoke of the ordinary, the remembered things–his mother standing at the kitchen sink in her stained chenille bathrobe making a meal that was always red cabbage, meatloaf and Jell-O…the perpetual whining of a younger brother…his father’s Blatz Beer burp. His delivery was conversational, punctuated by the occasional staccato burst of laughter, a chortle, conspiratorial whisper, a musical interlude which included anything from a kazoo solo to “kopfspielen” (musical sounds created by tapping on one’s head) to recorded selections (most requested was The Bear Missed the Train, a parody to the tune of Bei Meir Bist du Schoen). And as expression of the very apex of human triumph, he’d utter the word “Excelsior!” (“excellence!”)
The stories were richly detailed. Walking to school during an Indiana winter meant wearing “a sixteen foot scarf wound spirally from left to right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing told you that a kid was in the neighborhood.” The exaggerated anticipation of waiting for the mailman to deliver a coveted radio premium (the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder) described as “At last, after at least 200 years of constant vigil, there was delivered to me a big fat lumpy letter. There are few things more thrilling in Life than lumpy letters…Even to this day I feel a wild surge of exultation when I run my hands over an envelope that is thick, fat and pregnant with mystery.” Many of the tales were written later as short stories for a variety of magazines, several were collected into books.
Shepherd described himself as a humorist rather than a comic. “A humorist looks outward and sees the world,” he said, “a comic looks inward and sees himself.”
His familiar manner combined with the intimacy of the medium encouraged almost cult-like devotion, prompting Shepherd to observe, “I had five million listeners and each thought he was the only one.” Fans felt like they had a secret pact with him, as if he and they were the only ones in on a big joke…and sometimes they were. More than once he’d tell his audience to crank up the volume on their radios and shout along with him, “Drop the tools, we’ve got you covered!” One evening, Shepherd encouraged listeners to leave their radios, go to a street corner in Manhattan and just mill around. Thousands showed up…and so did the police, who had gotten reports of a mob gathering. But the WOR listeners had been advised to simply and quietly mill…and then go home.
The greatest prank ever played by Shepherd and his devotees was the celebrated “I, Libertine” hoax in which he told listeners to go into their bookstores and ask for a nonexistent book called “I, Libertine.” Prompted by the sudden demand, booksellers frantically tried to locate the book. Articles began appearing about the publishing sensation—the New York Times Book Review even included the book in its list of newly-published works. “Friends would call to tell me that they’d met people at cocktail parties who claimed to have read it,” Shepherd recalled. When the hoax was finally revealed, one of the publishers who had been pursuing paperback rights to the ‘sensation’ persuaded Shepherd to actually write it.
A WOR staffer once commented, “nobody at the station worked with Shepherd, instead they tried to work around him.” His working relationship with WOR tended to be scornful, even antagonistic, and Shepherd made little attempt to soften this contempt: when giving the station ID he’d say “speaking of relics, this is WOR Radio,” and he was annoyed by the necessary interruptions imposed by the commercial break, instructing the engineer to “hit the money button.” His 21-year run on WOR Radio ended in April, 1977.
In the 1970s, the Jean Shepherd Show was syndicated nationwide to public radio and college campus stations and for the next two decades Shepherd made a series of personal appearances, including Carnegie Hall and an annual Princeton University show. He also began a longtime collaboration with the Public Broadcasting Service and eventually became involved in feature films. The film, A Christmas Story, which he co-wrote and narrated, has become a holiday classic.
Jean Shepherd. Born Jean Parker Shepherd in Hammond, Indiana, U.S.A., 21 July 1921. Married: 1) Joan Warner, 2) Lois Nettleton, 3) Leigh Brown. Served in US Army Signal Corps, World War II. Briefly attended Indiana University. Deejay, WSAI, Cincinnati and host, Rear Bumpers, WLW, Cincinnati, 1950-54; own radio series, Jean Shepherd Show, WOR, New York, 1956-77 and nationwide syndication (International Jawbreaker), 1975-77; radio and TV voiceovers for major sponsors; television series Jean Shepherd’s America, 1971, 1985 (PBS), Shepherd’s Pie, 1978 (New Jersey Network); writer/narrator, the American Playhouse series, 1976, 1982-83, 1989 (PBS/WGBH); co-writer/performer, New Faces of 1962; one-man shows at the Limelight Café, NYC, 1962-67, Carnegie Hall, NYC, 1971-75, Princeton University, NJ, 1966-96; co-screenwriter and cameo appearance in film A Christmas Story, 1983; author, In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash, 1966, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, 1971; contributor, Village Voice, New York Times, Playboy Magazine, Mad Magazine. Four-time winner, Playboy Magazine Humor/Satire Award; Honorary doctorate, Purdue University, 1995. Died near home at Sanibel Island, Florida, U.S.A., 16 October 1999.
1950-54 Rear Bumpers
1956-77 The Jean Shepherd Show
The Phantom of the Open Hearth, 1976, The Great American 4th of July and Other Disasters, 1982, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, 1983, Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss!, 1989 (American Playhouse, PBS/WGBH); Jean Shepherd’s America, 1971, 1985 (PBS); Shepherd’s Pie, 1978 (New Jersey Network)
The Clown, Atlantic Jazz, 1957 (reissue 1984); Jean Shepherd Reads Poems of Robert Service, Folkways, 1975; Shepherd’s Pie, Dorset Audio, 1988; audio cassettes of Jean Shepherd reading several of his stories are available from Barnes & Noble
The Light Fantastic, 1964; Tiki Tiki, 1971; Lenny Bruce without Tears, 1971;A Christmas Story, 1983; My Summer Story, 1994 (aka It Runs in the Family), 1994
Goodman Theatre, c. 1949; Voice of the Turtle, 1961; New Faces of 1962, 1962; one man shows at Limelight Café, Greenwich Village, NY, 1962-67, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1966-96, Carnegie Hall, NY, 1971-75
I, Libertine, New York: Ballantine Books, 1956; The America of George Ade, 1866-1944, New York: Putnam, 1960; In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash, New York: Doubleday, 1966; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, New York: Doubleday, 1971; The Ferrari in the Bedroom, New York: Dodd,Mead, 1972; A Fistful of Fig Newtons, New York: Doubleday, 1981