To many, the name Jean Shepherd means absolutely nothing and more's the pity.
Those who have been lucky enough to discover the works of this American humorist, such as "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters," and, most recently, "A Fistful of Fig Newtons," know what joy and wit the man can bring to the printed page.
Now masses of people are discovering his unique humor through "A Christmas Story," a very successful movie playing at Studio 28, the Movies at North Kent and the Movies at Woodland, which Shepherd wrote and narrated.
The film Is a warm and extremly funny reflection of the kind of material Shepherd specializes in;
that is, the world of our youth.
Talking by telephone last week from his summer home on Snow Pond near Waterville, Maine,
Shepherd told of his notion on why a film about a kid trying to convince his parents that an alr rifle would make a wonderful Christmas present is so successful.
"We all had a childhood," he said. "Even Scrooge was a kid once. He may deny it but be was a kld once. The film gets the older people just as much as it gets the klds.
"My humor has always had a great following among kids. That's hard for hard-bitten professional types to understand. Humor does cut across age, economic, racial and 'you name it' backgrounds."
When one reads quotes by Shepherd, It would be wen to know that the maximum effect comes from a most congenial laugh being injected every so often w!thln the quotes. Shepherd isn't just an Interview. He's a performer - something he developed over the years working as a story teller / performer on WOR radio in New York City. He is sometimes bugged by the fact that many people think he is strictly a radio man.
"I didn't spring full blown from WOR's forehead. I had a very successful career before I came there. I haven't done radio for a long time. When you're out doing movIes and books you don't have time to screw around with a little radio show."
And that's a fact. Shepherd was very much involved in the production of "The Christmas Story."
"It's my rum. Tbe usual technlque Is that you sell your b.ook and then they do It Not at all. It was a collaboration between Bob Clark, who directed It, and myself."
Clark, whose "Porky's" and "Porky's II" have been critical disasters but financial whirlwinds, went to Shepherd about doing the film based on portions of "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."
It was after Shepherd had turned down such production companies as Disney which refused to
do the film the way Shepherd wanted It done: that is, with him narrating It He felt that Clark was
the most serious about preserving the Shepherd brand of humor.
Shepherd says be was always a little leery of Hollywood.
"You don't hear many film people say thIs, but I'm going to say l t. I read about a film and I'll see the reviews and I'll say 'I've gotta see this film. Then I go down to the theater and I always come away feeling like somebody's given me a no-cal bourbon."
"A Christmas Story," on the other hand, is different, says Shepherd. "It's a very controversial movie from the standpoint of movie companies, because it doesn't have the conventlonial movie cliches in it. It doesn't have 'the' girl.
"It doesn't have Paul Newman. It doesn't have car crashes. Nobody tries to explore Mars. So It
klnda goes against the graln of a lot of things."
It is obvious that Shepherd was more than pleased with the film and espedally with his cast of kids and adulls. He particularly liked Darren McGavin as the father of the family.
"I cast Darren McGavin. Darren was cast because I had seen him in 'The Night Stalker' and I said, 'That's the father.' I think a tot of people who heard me on the radio didn't realize about the kind of father I was talking about.
"I wasn't writing about Archie Bunker. The father that I created was from Chicago. He's a hard-bitten Chicago smart - who has been transferred by his company to thls town on the south side of Chicago and the worst thing that has ever happened to him In his life is that he got married had these two kids. This Is his secret sorrow."
McGavin may have yet another opportunity to be the man who has to deal with his family, including the Shepherd surrogate Ralphle (Peter Billingsley) and his whiny brother Randy (Ian Petrella), as there may be a sequel In the works which sends Ralphle away from home under duress.
"We've already discussed the sequel and it's in my contract with MGM that they have first call. It's going to be about the kid going to summer camp and that's going to be set in Michigan.
"It's based on a summer camp that I went to in Michigan down by Lake Paw Paw."
Shepherd is also at work on a new novel called "Banjo Butt Meeis Julia Clllld;'' he just completed another American Playbouse show for PBS, and Is In the process or filming his own Public Television series called "Jean Shepherd's America," which is beIng revived after a short hiatus.
"The secret dream of all performers is to inundate everything," says Shepherd. "I'd like to be on
Shepherd has worked in almost every medium, including the Broadway stage where he performed in reviews, among them one of the "New Faces" productions. He then hit it big in radio on New York's WOR where, during the '60s and early '70s, he spent 45 minutes each night, Monday through Friday, telling stories.
In his 12-year stint on that station, he built up a loyal following of fans who consider him to be in the grand tradition of Mark Twain, James Thurber and Robert Benchley as a commentator on the foibles of American life.
During that period, he also seems to have developed a distaste for radio.
"My least favorite medium from the standpoint of the performer is radio. It's such a limited medium for a number of reasons. It doesn't reach many people. Movies are world wide. As an artist I obviously search for the largest audience I can come across. I think every artist does that.
"Radio has such a limited range They only hear you in New York. And when you're doing great work you don't want to have it thrown out into the air free every night.
"Do you realize that if Hemmingway, instead ot writing his stuff in books as novels, had come on the air and told the stories every night ---------------------------------- now. One of the most important
sides of your career Is your longevIty; your ability to be preserved.
"I'm sure that a lot of people that saw Mark Twain at the Chautauqua circuit said, "You're best stuff is on the stage, Mark. I love it. Cut it out with the books.' And we would never have known him."
Radio's loss is surely the movies's gain, and, if Jean Shepherd has anything to say about it, is the medium in whlch he would like to stay along with writing novels.
"I love writing for movies, and being in movies and doing movies. It's an exciting medium. It's the most public medium. We're living in the age of movies and the visual media and I enjoy it a lot." ||
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