Researching for his full-feature documentary film which will cover the life and career of Jean Shepherd, New Millennium Productions owner Nick Mantis has become quite knowledgeable about his subject.
“I have titled it ‘Shep’ because that was Jean’s nickname he had from his many fans,” Mantis said. “The documentary will be very unique because Jean Shepherd broadcast his popular radio show on WOR in New York for over 21 years and many of the topics he spoke about were social and personal issues. It has given me the opportunity to actually use Jean Shepherd to narrate his own documentary film interspersed with interviews from many of his friends, colleagues and fans whom I have been interviewing.”
Shepherd, who grew up in Hammond, was a well-known author and television and radio personality. He is best known for writing and narrating the 1983 MGM feature film “A Christmas Story,” which is now considered a holiday classic. The movie is based on Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash.” The book is based on Shepherd’s childhood experiences. Shepherd narrates the film as the adult Ralph Parker and also has a cameo role playing a man in line waiting for Santa Claus in the department store scene.
“Jean Shepherd was a great storyteller and a humorist,” Mantis said. “He brought that gift to radio in the late 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. He often talked about his childhood memories and other items many times overlooked or taken for granted by people or society. He wanted to open people’s eyes and ears to the world around them and not to get stuck living a regimented life.”
Some interesting facts about Shepherd, Mantis said, are that he was a self-made man and an artist, and was always right about many, many issues.
“He was a self-made man in a sense that out of the Army he went right into radio in Cincinnati and was constantly getting fired from every station he worked at because he kept talking too much in between the records management wanted him to play,” Mantis said. “He would often cite that radio was such a powerful commodity that it was wasteful to do the same thing everyone else was doing. He did the same thing at WOR later in his radio career by not pandering to his sponsors. He would often tell Barry Farber, his fellow WOR associate, to quit pandering to the sponsors because it lessened him as an artist.”
Shepherd was an artist in the sense that he would tell incredible stories on the radio with great detail.
“As he was on his way to make a point or highlight his theme, he would take the listener all over the map by weaving other subjects or other incidents and connected them at the end of his stories to prove his point or highlight his theme,” Mantis said. “He did that for over 25 years in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New York with only a piece of paper that had a basic outline and the rest was improvised. He never gave the same show twice in all those years.”
Mantis finds many aspects of Shepherd’s life fascinating.
“First he went against the grain and became very popular for it especially at the times when he could’ve been better off just going with the flow of everyone else,” Mantis said. “Secondly, his fan base was people of all ages, school students to rocket scientists and from all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds. Third, he would often root for the average guy and didn’t waste his or his listener’s time by talking about what or who was popular.”
Shepherd’s stories were about the common man. He never had guests on his show nor did he ever take call-ins, Mantis said.
“Fourth, he was successful in various forms of art that included radio, literature including books and magazines, live performer and cinema,” Mantis said. “Many other artists have copied him and been influenced by him to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Hugh Hefner, Donald Fagen, Dee Snider and even Howard Stern.”
Mantis said Shepherd didn’t go to New York to become popular.
“He wasn’t that kind of guy,” Mantis said. “As Steve Jobs was to the computer, Jean Shepherd was to the human conscience. Jobs created the computer to empower people with a tool to compete with big companies. Jean Shepherd empowered people with knowledge to enable them to think for themselves. He was somewhat a philosopher but used stories to make his statements.”
Many people think Shepherd made up his stories that are mentioned in his holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” Mantis said.
“For instance, people still think that Jean Shepherd made up the fact that he went to a school named after arguably one of our worst presidents, Warren G. Harding, but he really did,” Mantis said. “Many people think that he made up kids daring each other to stick their tongue on a frozen flag pole but they did according to one of the neighborhood kids Jean hung out with back in the 1930s. Jean did take artistic liberties with his stories but he didn’t just make them up. He got them from actual events and sprinkled them with a little more drama for the entertainment purpose. What artist doesn’t do that?”