Jean Parker Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999) was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor who was often referred to by the nickname Shep.
With a career that spanned decades, Shepherd is best-known to modern audiences for narrating the film A Christmas Story (1983), which he co-wrote, based on his own semi-autobiographical stories.
Death of Jean Shepherd
Jean Shepherd died on Sanibel Island in 1999 of "natural causes." at Lee Memorial Hospital near his home on Sanibel Island, Fla. Jean Shepherd was 78 years old at the time of his death.
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Jean Shepherd – "Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss"
Born on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, Shepherd was raised in Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. As a youth he worked briefly as a mail carrier in a steel mill and earned his Amateur radio license when he was 16. He later attended several universities.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Shepherd then had an extensive career in a variety of media:
America, Inc. NET Playhouse (1970) (TV)
Jean Shepherd’s America (1971) (TV)
The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976) (TV)
The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) (TV)
The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983) (TV)
A Christmas Story (1983)
The Great American Road-Racing Festival (1985) (TV)
Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988) (TV)
My Summer Story (aka It Runs in the Family) (1994)
Shepherd began his broadcast radio career on WSAI-AM in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1948. From 1951 to 1953 he had a late-night broadcast on KYW-AM in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after which he returned to Cincinnati for a show on WLW. After a stint on television (see below), he returned to radio. "Shep," as he was known, settled in at WOR radio New York City, New York on an overnight slot in 1956, where he delighted his fans by telling stories, reading poetry (especially the works of Robert W. Service), and organizing comedic listener stunts. The most famous of the last involved creating a hoax about a non-existent book, I, Libertine, by the equally non-existent author "Frederick R. Ewing", in 1956. Later co-written by Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon and Betty Ballantine, this Ballantine Book is now a collector’s item. Among his close friends in the late 1950s were Shel Silverstein and Herb Gardner. With them and actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd performed in the revue he created, Look, Charlie. Later he was married to Nettleton for about six years.
Shepherd wrote a series of humorous short stories about growing up in northwest Indiana and its steel towns, many of which were first told by him on his programs and then published in "Playboy." The stories were later assembled into books titled "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," "Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories," and "A Fistful of Fig Newtons." Some of those situations were incorporated into his movies and television fictional stories. He also wrote a column for the early "Village Voice," a column for "Car and Driver" and numerous individual articles for diverse publications, including "Mad Magazine."
Television and films
Early in his career, Shepherd had a television program in Cincinnati called "Rear Bumper." Reportedly he was eventually recommended to replace the resigning Steve Allen on NBC’s "The Tonight Show." NBC executives sent Shepherd to New York City to prepare for the position, but they were contractually bound to first offer it to Jack Paar. The network was certain Paar would hold out for a role in prime time, but he accepted the late-night assignment. However, he did not assume the position permanently until Shepherd and Ernest Kovacs had co-hosted the show.
In the early 1960s he did a weekly television show on WOR in New York. Between 1971 and 1994, Shepherd became a screenwriter of note, writing and producing numerous works for both television and cinema. He was the writer and narrator for the show "Jean Shepherd’s America," produced by Boston Public Television station WGBH in which he told his famous narratives, visited unusual locales, and interviewed local people of interest. He used a similar format for the New Jersey Network TV show "Shepherd’s Pie." On many of the Public TV shows he wrote, directed and edited entire shows.
He also wrote and narrated many works, the most famous being the feature film "A Christmas Story," which is now considered a holiday classic. In the film, Shepherd provides the voice of the adult Ralph Parker. (This narrative style was later appropriated, without acknowledgment, in the popular television sitcom "The Wonder Years.") He also has a cameo role playing a man overseeing the line at the department store waiting for Santa Claus. Much to Ralphie’s chagrin, he points out to him that the end of the line is much further away.
A 1994 movie sequel, "My Summer Story," was narrated by Shepherd but featured an almost entirely different cast from the previous film. The PBS series "American Playhouse" aired a series of television movies based on Shepherd stories, also featuring the Parker family. These included "Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss," "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters," and "The Phantom of the Open Hearth."
Live performances and recordings
Shepherd also performed for several years at The Limelight Cafe in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and at many colleges nationwide. His live shows were a perennial favorite at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities. He performed at Princeton University annually for 30 years, until 1996. The Limelight shows were broadcast live on WOR radio.
He also performed before sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. He was also emcee for several important jazz concerts in the late 1950s. Shepherd improvised spoken word lyrics for the title track on jazz great Charles Mingus’s 1957 album The Clown. Eight record albums of live and studio performances of Shepherd were released between 1955 and 1975. Shepherd also recorded the opening narration and the voice of the Audio-Animatronics "Father" character for the updated Carousel of Progress attraction at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom.
Many of his broadcasts were accompanied by novelty songs such as "The Bear Missed the Train" (a parody of the Yiddish ballad "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen") and "The Sheik of Araby", or by Shepherd himself, playing the Jew’s harp, nose flute and kazoo.
On radio as well as on his WOR-TV show, he frequently used his own head as a musical instrument, knocking the top of his skull with his knuckles while changing the size of his open mouth to produce different notes. Shep facetiously claimed that his "Head Thumping" (as he called it) spanned about an octave.
Jean held the Ham Radio call K2ORS. He was very active on ham radio until his death. Jean is also credited as the voice for the ARRL’s tape series ‘Tune in the world with Ham Radio’. This series of tapes helped many young people become ham radio operators.