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December 15, 2017

Remembering ‘Shep’ as ‘A Christmas Story’ week approaches

Long before the movie, there was Jean Shepherd and his tales

Are you ready for “A Christmas Story” Week?

You better be, because Sunday launches a seven-day celebration of the 1983 film that today stands alongside such classics as “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” as a celluloid Yuletide totem.

On Dec. 17, Fox will broadcast the musical, “A Christmas Story Live” with a cast headlined by Matthew Broderick, Mya Rudolph and Jane Krakowski. Oscar-and-Tony-winners Benj Pasek (of Ardmore) and Justin Paul, who wrote the score for the Broadway version, have penned new songs—including a Hanukkah tune—for the Foxcast. And beginning at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, TBS will offer its annual 12-showings-in-24-hours film-version marathon.

Listen to Jean Shepherd, read his short story, “Duel In the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” on WOR-AM, Dec. 24, 1974:

All of the elements—from Flick’s tongue getting stuck to a metal light pole, to the lamp in the shape of a women’s leg, to the neighbors’ dogs destroying the family’s holiday meal to the main plot of a kid’s longing for a BB gun as a Christmas present—originated not in the movie, but in a series of short stories by the late Jean Shepherd.

Shepherd, a native of Hammond, Ind. (called “Hohman” in the film) was, from the mid-1950s through the early ‘70s, the host of a 45-minute program that aired weeknights on New York’s WOR-AM, whose signal carried the broadcasts well beyond Gotham’s metropolitan area (including into the Delaware Valley). Both Shepherd and his program were the objects of a fiercely loyal cult, a significant portion of which was comprised of kids 12-18 (mostly boys, presumably, for he definitely had a male—but not misogynistic—perspective on life). Arguably, the biggest lure was Shepherd’s seemingly endless supply of stories about his childhood.

He would deliver them in a folksy drawl soaked in sincerity, and as if he were relating the memories aloud as they spooled through his mind. There was no reason to doubt the stories weren’t 100 percent true, which is why one of the most disappointing and disillusioning moments of my life came when, sometime in the 1990s (Shepherd died in 1999), he told me during a phone interview that all of his most beloved tales were fabricated. 

“Why would anyone believe they were true?” he asked incredulously, while I struggled to hide my shock and dismay.

Many of his stories could also be read in the pages of Playboy magazine, for which he was a marquee contributor. In 1966, they were compiled for the best-selling anthology, “In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash.” Incidentally, in the original version, it’s an Easter dinner the Bumpus’ marauding hounds ruin, not a Christmas feast.

Curiously, “A Christmas Story,” which is narrated by Shepherd (he also makes a cameo as the bearded man standing in the Santa Claus line at the department store) was, at best, a moderate success when it was released in late 1983. It’s doubtful anyone at the time could have imagined it becoming the seasonal icon it is today. That is surely a function of the yearly cable-TV marathon.

But for this Jean Shepherd acolyte, the best part of this particular Christmas tale is not that “A Christmas Story” has become so revered, but that Jean Shepherd’s genius is today enjoyed by exponentially more people—of all ages—than it ever could have been when he was alive—and likely will be for a long time to come.

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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