The sound of the opening fanfare of trumpets sends a chill of excitement up the spine of any Shep fan who spent their feckless youth with a radio buried beneath their pillow. It was 'show time' and soon would follow that distinctive voice which would mesmerize us for the next forty-five minutes. Jean Shepherd was on the air and he was talking to 'me'.
Every night for over twenty years Shep would open and close his nightly WOR radio show using Eduard Strauss' Bahn Frei as his theme music. Only one change was made over that time.
How did he begin using the theme? According to Shep, during an appearance on Larry King Live in 1985: "I was doing a TV show in Cincinnati sponsored by the Bayhorse Ale company. They wanted something in the titles involving horses so we came up with the idea of a group of horses in silhouette running along to the Bahn Frei theme with a small silhouette of me running along trying to catch up." The show was the original version of "Rear Bumpers" on WLW-TV. Research has shown that this is not exactly true and he used it earlier. See the essay by Steve Glazer below.
"Variations on a Theme"
On December 10, 1962 something strange happened. Shep and his engineer Bob got ready to go on the air when they suddenly realized that the tape with the theme had been erased! They tried to sneak onto the air without the theme but Shep laughingly told the listeners what had happened. Being a resourceful engineer, Bob quickly found a tape of a previous show and they played the theme from it. They closed the show probably with the same copy cutting it off before it played completely. The next day Shep came on the air without any fanfare with the now famous variation of the Bahn Frei theme. As the final notes played out, a sound like Shep saying "Ahhhh" was added as the final beat. It is uncertain why this was done, but Shep said on an interview with Alan Colmes in 1998 that it was done that way because "it felt right."
On the September 3, 1960 show he quietly said "the end" at the final beat, then went on with the show.
In 1960 the Bahn Frei piece was used in the documentary "When Comedy Was King" based on the early silent movie shorts.