HAMMOND — "A Christmas Story" scribe Jean Shepherd was recently named one of "Indiana's 200: The People who Shaped the Hoosier State" in a new book put out by the Indiana Historical Society.
Shepherd is enjoying a new height of acclaim, years after his death.
The Hammond native's masterwork, "A Christmas Story," has become a cultural staple after years of 24-hour marathons on cable television. Lines like "fragile, must be Italian" are quoted extensively around the country. There are Internet memes and a Broadway musical that's playing in cities around the country, including at Munster's Theatre at the Center. The book "A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic" came out in 2013. The A Christmas Story House in Cleveland attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and regularly appears on NFL broadcasts in December.
Shep's star is climbing ever higher. Author Eugene Bergmann, who's published two Shepherd books, is circulating a third book proposal among publishers. Hammond filmmaker Nick Mantis is getting closer to finishing a documentary about the "A Christmas Story" screenwriter and recently completed a 17-minute "sneak peek" excerpt that's was shown in the lobby of the Theatre at the Center before the musical in Munster.
The documentary will be narrated in Shepherd's own voice, by splicing together old radio broadcasts. Mantis is interspersing Shepherd's life story with interview scenes.
Mantis set out to interview celebrities Shepherd influenced, including the magicians Penn and Teller, "The Simpsons" voice actor Harry Shearer and actor Matt Dillion, who played a young Shepherd in "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters," a television special that compiles some of the storyteller's other humorous anecdotes.
Mantis uncovered evidence that Shepherd, who still has a loyal East Coast following from his time as a freewheeling radio host on WOR in New York, got his first radio gig at Hammond's WJOB after returning home from World War II. He's planning to go to Boston to study the archives of PBS affiliate WGBH, which produced "Jean Shepherd's America," a television show in which Shepherd traveled around and interviewed interesting people.
"He reached audiences on the radio, on PBS, in magazine, compilations and movies," Mantis said. "He brought his storytelling to different formats."
Shepherd was influential in many ways, Mantis said. He, for instance, became an early pioneer of indie films by helping John Cassavetes line up funding for one of his first films. He pioneered the flash mob concept decades before anyone called it that, by convincing listeners to turn their lights on, wave their towels or scream out the window. That interaction with the listener was partly how he built up such a dedicated audience on the East Coast.
"He was so convincing, it was like a drug," Mantis said. "People couldn't stop listening to him. He did his craft so well, it was an enigma whether his stories were part of himself or all made up."
Shep's storytelling had wide-reaching influence, including on Goosebumps author R.L. Stein, "Bonfire of the Vanities" scribe Tom Wolfe, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, NPR personality Garrison Keillor, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld and musicians Dee Snyder and Donald Fagan, Bergmann said.
"He lives on, and not only in celebrities," Bergmann said. "He affected tens of thousands of ordinary people. He made a difference in their lives through his insight and humor and jaundiced eye. He insinuated himself into the lives of so many people."
Seinfeld, who emceed a 2012 Paley Center tribute to Shepherd in New York City, said he derived his comedic sensibility from the Hammond native. Shepherd's friend Shel Silverstein likely wrote the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue" because of him, Bergmann said.
His late-night radio show had a cult following, and it lives on today on podcasts online and on Lakeshore Public Radio.
"WOR reached 26 states, mainly in the Northeast, but you could hear him in Canada, and some of his shows were syndicated across the country," Bergmann said. "Then New Yorkers moved across the country and shared their enthusiasm for him."
Humor with depth
"A Christmas Story" is a classic that stands on its own, but Bergmann hopes it inspires people to check out what else Shepherd has done in the broader creative world.
"They need to understand an American genius created it," he said.
The thing is, Shepherd's stories were humorous but also had depth, Bergmann said. People don't always recognize how serious "A Christmas Story" actually is. There's a reason why almost every anecdote in the movie is a disaster of one sort or another.
"The narrator says life is sometimes like that, when you're at the height of your revelries, when your joy is at its zenith, and all is right with the world, unthinkable disasters descend upon us," Bergmann said. "He had a serious view of life where the unthinkable could descend on you at any time."