Hammond native Nick Mantis knew little about humorist and radio legend Jean Shepherd until after the city hired him five years ago to produce a short tribute that commemorated the 25th anniversary of "A Christmas Story," Shep's best known and most enduring work.
The television veteran, who owns New Millennium Productions and had produced the "Around the Region" cable show, first started listening to Jean Shepherd's old radio shows early last year when he was zooming east on the Indiana Toll Road toward a Jean Shepherd tribute at the Paley Center for Media in New York City.
Mantis already had been toying around the idea of following up on his 10-minute documentary with a full-length film. He loaded up on CD recordings of Shepherd's WOR broadcasts at the library, scrambled to take care of loose household and business affairs, hit the open road at about 3 a.m. and let Shep's voice wash over him like warm bathwater while he sped 14 straight hours to the Big Apple.
"His voice was relaxing, comforting," Mantis said. "It was like listening to your own father or a trusted uncle. He was completely entertaining on his radio show. Imagine being able to listen to 'A Christmas Story' every night for 21 years, only with a variety of stories on different subjects."
Mantis had no ticket or invitation to the gala, which featured comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and was told it was too late to get in. Undeterred, Mantis talked his way into an interview with Irwin Zwilling, the executor of Shepherd's estate, and parlayed that into a seat at the VIP table, where he was applauded when he first announced his documentary project.
Since that January 2012 celebration of Shepherd's career, Mantis has since compiled 20 hours of film – including rare footage of a 1984 talk at the Lake County Public Library – for his planned documentary, "Shep."
Mantis hopes to complete the movie by around next Christmas and find a studio that will distribute it internationally.
The 90-minute-long documentary will be narrated entirely by Shepherd, in his own voice. Mantis is culling audio for the voice-over from more than 800 hours of now public domain recordings of Shepherd's late-night show, which was hugely popular on the East Coast during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
He has been interviewing Northwest Indiana residents who knew or had encounters with Shepherd and is trying to line up on-screen interviews with celebrities such as Hugh Hefner, who originally published many of the short stories in "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash." He expects to soon release a trailer online, but is still hunting for any stories Hammond residents can share about the author and radio storyteller, who's best known for the holiday classic, "A Christmas Story."
Mantis also has been working on a screenplay for a biographical film that would concern Shepherd's life and career. He says he feels obligated to tell Shep's story in as many ways as he can.
"Quite honestly, people who aren't Jean Shepherd fans or friends don't realize he did so much more than just write 'A Christmas Story,'" Mantis said.
Mantis has personally gone from never having known much about Shepherd to being obsessed with him, after having collected all his records, vintage magazines he was published in, and an original copy of the "I, Libertine" novel Shep invented out of whole cloth to prove best seller lists were a sham. He can tell you stories, such as about how Shepherd hung out with The Beatles for two weeks in France and Germany while on assignment from Playboy, or how he was the inspiration for Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," which was based on a Shel Silverstein poem.
He can tell you about how much Shepherd used to tell his New York City listeners about Northwest Indiana, whether it was the Whiting Oilers football team, his first touchdown at Hammond High School or fishing in Cedar Lake.
"He was so big in New York City, but there was so much region in him," Mantis said.
Beyond captivating his late-night listeners, Shepherd influenced the work of Seinfeld, Howard Stern, Twisted Sister's Dee Snider and Steely Dan's Donald Fagan, Mantis said. Shep has been credited with inventing talk radio and also was a pioneer of even more modern phenomena, like flash mobs and crowd-funding, he said.
He talked his loyal fans – known as the Night People – into contributing $5 each so that indie film pioneer John Cassavetes could make "Shadows." Shep also persuaded listeners to engage in coordinated activities, such as sticking their radios out their windows and blasting jazz or deluging bookstores with requests for a novel that did not exist.
"He was a bit ahead of the game," Mantis said. "He reformatted the way the radio was used. Every day, he would spend 45 to 50 minutes on mostly unscripted talk. He was just a great, brilliant storyteller – one of America's greatest storytellers."