The movie “A Christmas Story” delights millions of American families each December with its holiday humor, childhood antics and idyllic images of Midwestern winters.
Ralphie Parker’s dogged quest for a Red Ryder BB gun against a gauntlet of adults determined to ruin his Christmas hit the silver screen 40 years ago.
Creative dynamo Jean Shepherd’s family-friendly tale boasts an unlikely origin story.
Ralphie was first warned, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” over bawdy late-night New York City airwaves and in the pages of Playboy magazine in the 1960s.
MEET THE AMERICAN WHO LAUNCHED CABBAGE PATCH KIDS, XAVIER ROBERTS, DOLLS IGNITED CHRISTMAS SHOPPING CRAZE
The man who wrote and narrated “A Christmas Story,” it turns out, was an influential big-city radio shock jock, anti-authoritarian agitator and pop-culture contrarian.
Shepherd’s influences cast a wide net.
“Long before ‘A Christmas Story’ was made, Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station’s powerful transmitter,” musician Donald Fagen, co-founder of Steely Dan, wrote in his 2013 memoir “Eminent Hipsters.”
“Including me,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame artist added. “I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.”
“Long before ‘A Christmas Story’ was made, Shepherd … enthralled a generation of alienated young people.” — Donald Fagen
The man who inspired Fagen to live outside the mainstream and re-imagine rock ‘n’ roll was a humorist, author and one of the more fascinating figures in American media history.
Steely Dan is not the only celebrated band upon whom Shepherd left an imprint.
The iconoclast who created “A Christmas Story” toured with the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania in 1964, claiming he bunked with Ringo Starr on the road.
Shepherd’s landmark interview with the Beatles appeared in the February 1965 issue of Playboy.
“The interview [Shepherd] filed was historic,” late music writer Jim George reported for the magazine in a 2018 retrospective.
FIVE BELOW’S 4-FOOT CHRISTMAS TREES GO VIRAL: ‘CHARLIE BROWN TREE’
“It presented the Beatles in an adult forum, arguably for the first time. Religion, sex, homosexuality, transexuality, money, royalty — the Beatles touched on plenty of mature topics … The language used was hardly the gentle fare found in the fawning teen mags of which the Beatles were a staple.”
Young, aspirational dreamer
Jean Parker “Shep” Shepherd was born on July 26, 1921, to Jean Parker Sr. and Anne (Heinrichs) Shepherd in Chicago, Illinois.
He was raised in Hammond, Indiana.
The city serves as the inspiration for the Parker family’s fictional Midwestern hometown of Hohman in “A Christmas Story.”
It’s where Ralphie Parker’s dream of a Red Ryder BB gun was booted away by Santa Claus at Higbee’s and given poor marks by his teacher at Warren G. Harding Elementary School.
“He’s a dreamer … He has aspirations.” — Peter Billingsley on Ralphie Parker
“He’s a dreamer … He has aspirations,” Peter Billingsley, the actor who portrays Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” said last week in his podcast, “A Cinematic Christmas Journey.”
Billingsley was talking about Ralphie. He might have meant Shepherd, too.
The real-life dreamer from Hammond served in the U.S. Army in World War II, where he reportedly developed his disdain for authority, before embarking on a career in radio.
He made a name for himself on KYW in Philadelphia before bringing his show to WOR.
MEET THE AMERICAN WHO CREATED THE FIRST DEPARTMENT STORE SANTA: IMMIGRANT ENTREPRENEUR JAMES EDGAR
“Shepherd’s improvised routines were … in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist,” Fagen writes in his memoir.
“Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser.”
Shepherd famously savaged two seemingly untouchable cultural institutions.
Convinced the New York Times bestsellers list was contrived, he encouraged people to buy the book, “I, Libertine,” by Frederick R. Ewing.
Shepherd’s fans flooded New York City bookstores demanding the title.
“Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with … the FCC being none the wiser.” — Donald Fagen
“One listener reported a particularly snooty clerk responded to the query with, ‘Frederick R. Ewing? It’s about time people began noticing his work,'” author and historian J. Mark Powell writes on his website of the radio event.
Two problems: “I, Libertine” did not exist. Nor did Ewing.
Shepherd then joined forces with author Theodore Sturgeon to write a book by that name in 1956, credited to Ewing.
“Sure enough it happened,” writes Powell. “By early summer 1956, the book that didn’t exist made the New York Times bestsellers list.”
It was a hoax straight from the playbook of New York City’s most celebrated author, Washington Irving, who launched his own writing career with a similar publicity stunt in 1809.
Shepherd didn’t hide the con. The profits from the book were reportedly donated to charity. But he’d made his point about putting too much faith in institutional approval.
MEET THE AMERICAN WHO CONJURED UP ‘LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW’ WASHINGTON IRVING, FIRST US CELEBRITY AUTHOR
He also had the gumption to criticize the most celebrated act in pop-music history.
He was apparently unimpressed by the Beatles, even after watching the band at the height of its power perform in raucous arenas packed with screaming, adoring fans.
“They were one of the greatest contrived media hypes of the century,” Shepherd told Playboy in a 1982 interview, looking back on his weeks touring with the band in 1964.
“I don’t think they were that special. Brian Epstein is the one that created the Beatles, not the Beatles. He could’ve taken four other guys and made the Beatles.”
‘Disarm the toy industry’
Shepherd was a contrarian, but certainly not a cynic. He appeared to wink at the world.
“To me, life is a vast, cosmic, shaggy dog story,” the Los Angeles Times once quoted him as saying — “a giant, curiously unresolved joke with an infinitely long punch line.”
Proof is found in his lovable boyhood alter-ego Ralphie Parker.
Shepherd’s tales of Ralphie pulled from Playboy and his radio shows were published in his 1966 book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”
The book, like the movie, captures the trials of youth with endearing, humorous hyperbole. Even the most mundane interaction is given soap-operatic drama.
The humorless adults standing in the way of Ralphie’s quest for an “official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle” in the book include one character not found in the movie.
“To me, life is a vast, cosmic, shaggy dog story … with an infinitely long punch line.” — Jean Shepherd
She’s a “wiry, lightly powered, tough as spring steel” old lady sitting across from the boy at a lunch counter.
She wears a “Disarm the Toy Industry” button on her clothes, which Parker has the temerity to ask her about.
“It’s all a government plot to prepare the innocent for evil, godless war!” the angry woman shouts at him.
As the book also says, “Her voice at this point [was] rising to an evangelical quaver, ringing from change booth to coffee urn and back again.”
Ralphie’s dreams were ignited by a magazine ad, which Shepherd in book form compares to the original source of the Parker chronicles.
“I remember clearly, itchingly, nervously, maddeningly, the first time I had laid eyes on the Red Ryder BB Gun,” Shepherd writes from Ralphie’s perspective.
“The toy weapon was pictured in a three-color, smeared illustration, in a full-page back cover ad in ‘Open Road for Boys,’ a publication which at the time had an iron grip on my aesthetic sensibilities,” he writes.
“It was actually an early Playboy. It sold dreams, fantasies, incredible adventures, and a way of life.”
‘Bittersweet nostalgia and piquant observations’
Jean Shepherd died on Oct. 16, 1999, in Fort Myers, Florida. He was 78 years old.
He was reportedly cremated, his ashes spread out into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Shepherd could weave tales and develop a mood like no other and kept his audience hovering near their radios,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in his obituary.
“He worked without a script and conjured tales based on his Indiana upbringing, creating such characters as his alter ego, Ralph Parker.”
He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Shepherd’s penchant for bittersweet nostalgia and piquant observations ultimately led to success in other media as well,” the Hall of Fame notes in its biography, “including a musical collaboration with jazz great Charles Mingus.”
Shepherd, a jazz enthusiast, performs the spoken parts on Mingus’ 1957 jazz masterpiece album “The Clown.”
Shepherd’s words first spoken over the New York City airwaves, now renewed each year by “A Christmas Story,” have entered the American cultural lexicon.
The Red Ryder BB gun is a well-known Christmastime reference in the United States today.
So, too, is the satirically tacky lamp and a woman’s leg in fishnet stockings, over which Ralphie’s father obsesses in the movie.
The schoolyard taunt “triple dog dare” is a common challenge in ordinary American conversation.
“You’ll shoot your eye out!” — the signature line of both the movie and Shepherd’s short story — is an all-purpose warning in any situation of real or imagined danger.
“A Christmas Story” has given Shepherd cultural relevance long after his death. But even at the height of his career, Shepherd realized, and often proved, that relevance is fleeting.
“Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory?” he opined in an often repeated 1975 quote.
“Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It’s a certainty.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.
For more Lifestyle articles, visit www.foxnews.com/lifestyle.
Read the full article here