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Jean Shepherd: Village Raconteur

Jean Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999) is probably best known as the voice of the beloved and relatively new holiday classic, A Christmas Story. But he was a very regular presence on the radio waves in the 1950s and 60s thanks to his program that aired on WOR Radio. While his tales were typically stationed in suburban Indiana, where he primarily grew up, he was very much a Villager for most of his adult and professional life. Some of his most beloved radio programs were broadcast live from the Limelight Coffee House at 91 7th Avenue South, and he spent many of his last years living on West 10th Street.

230 West 10th Street in 1977

On his radio program, Shepherd promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. In this 1960 short film Village Sunday, Shepherd describes life in the Village and around Washington Square Park. It’s an amazing view of the entire neighborhood during the early 50s and offers a lovely taste of Shepherd’s humor and style.

See how many Village places and faces you can identify in the short film! Let us know in the comments section. As a side note, his love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of the young woman strolling along, observing the scene.

As a boy, Shepherd worked briefly as a mail carrier in a steel mill in Indiana and earned his amateur radio license at the age of 16. He attended Indiana University but never graduated. He served stateside during World War II in the U.S. Army Signal Corps., a branch of the U.S. Army that creates and manages communications and information systems for the command and control of the combined armed forces, which trained him even further in electronics and electronic communication.

Following his military service, he studied engineering and psychology at Indiana University. He left Indiana without a degree to take a radio job in Cincinnati, which led him to a series of radio jobs beginning in early 1945 on WJOB in his hometown of Hammond, Indiana. After several stints on radio stations throughout the Midwest and East Coast, “Shep”, as he was known, settled in at WOR radio in NYC on February 26, 1955. He was given an overnight slot in 1956 and delighted his fans for hours by telling stories, reading poetry, and organizing comedic listener stunts.

The most famous stunt was a hoax he created about a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by a fake author he called “Frederick R. Ewing.” During a discussion on how easy it was to manipulate the best-seller lists based on demand, as well as sales, Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of I, Libertine, which led to booksellers attempting to order the book from their distributors. Fans of the show planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to claims of it being on The New York Times Best Seller list. It was all a hoax, but Shepherd finally actually wrote the book along with collaborators and it became widely popular!

Shep became an icon all along the East Coast, especially in New York. For 21 years, he would broadcast on WOR-AM, mostly on the all-night show and, on Saturdays, live from the Limelight Café at 91 7th Avenue South in Greenwich Village.

The Limelight Coffee House, 91 7th Avenue South

Working in free form, seemingly without a script, he spun hilarious tales from his Indiana boyhood and delivered social commentary on the culture of the ’50s and ’60s. He was hailed as “the first radio novelist”; a series of stories from his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” was made into the 1983 aforementioned film, “A Christmas Story” (written and narrated by Shepherd). With his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, he could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser.

He would begin by revving up his audience with his signature banter. Walking back and forth on the stage before the 2-hour show began, he would chat with a radio engineer, puff on his cigar, and sip coffee under the rapt stares of his audience. Shortly before the show began, Shepherd would turn to them, lifts his left hand, and cry:

“At ease. Y’all ready to give ‘em hell?”

“Yeah,” the audience would shout back.

“It sounds like it. Now look, we go on at five minutes after 10. My name is Jean Shepherd. Oh, I can see a little ripple of angry confusion out there. Now, you’re in The Limelight, gang. You’re in Greenwich Village, stretching from Sheridan Square to the river, and then, there it is — America! Lying out there in the darkness. There it is: Trenton, Teaneck, places like Circleville, Ohio. Circleville, Ohio? Think of waking up in Circleville? And here we are. We come on at five minutes after ten and we can all tell Circleville to go to hell.”

The audience would laugh and applaud as he continued:

“Now, when we go on I want you to shout three words. You ready gang? Here they are: ‘Excelsior, you fatheads!’ Now let me hear it.”

The audience repeated the words.

“Oh come on gang. You can do better. Conjure up your own favorite fathead. Maybe it’s your date. Maybe it’s your old lady. Let me hear it.”

“Excelsior, you fatheads,” the crowd would shout.

“That’s it, that’s it, and don’t forget the comma.”

And for 2 hours straight, Shep would keep his audience rapt with attention to his hilarious tales.

Jean Shepherd in action by photographer Fred W. McDarrah

He was also a jazz aficionado and would emcee for several important jazz concerts in the late 1950s. Shepherd’s first known recording, the 1955 Abbott Records album Jean Shepherd… Into the Unknown with Jazz Music, featured his short comments interspersed with jazz pieces composed by Mitch Leigh and Art Harris. It was spoken word in the ‘beat generation’ mode interspersed with jazz. Shepherd also improvised spoken-word narration for the title track on Charles Mingus‘s 1957 album The ClownMingus was a fan of Shepherd’s radio show and outlined a concept for Shepherd but encouraged him to elaborate and improvise.

Album cover for Charles Mingus’ The Clown

Jerry Seinfeld once commented about Shepherd:

“He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

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