Friday, December 10, 2004

A CHRISTMAS STORY... not likely to ever be written by me, for reasons too obvious to mention. And you can keep all the seasonal music, which, by the time The Big Day rolls around, makes me want to scream. But the movie A Christmas Story is one Christmas-themed movie I never get tired of watching.

That’s because it was written by one of America’s great humorous essayists: Jean Shepherd.

Jean Shepherd has not walked this planet for five years, and I do sorely miss him.

As a high school student, I would listen to his late-night radio show on WOR, 710 on the New York AM dial. Shep would spin the most fascinating stories, always heading in twenty different directions but always coming right back to where he started at the end. Listening to him talk, with tales of his childhood in Indiana interspersed with loony stuff (imagine “The Sheik of Araby” accompanied by Shep on the Jew’s harp), was the perfect nightcap. And it was a treat to read his written pieces. Often, they were published in Playboy magazine, a rare case when I really would buy the magazine for the reading matter.

The day in March, 1970 when he gave a mass interview in New York, I was there, along with about 200 other devotees. I still have the letter of invitation, signed by Shep himself, tucked into my copy of In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. This collection of essays eventually formed the basis of the screenplay for A Christmas Story, which Shep also wrote.

Some of Shep’s work had been put on the small screen, notably in a series of four hour-long PBS specials. “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories,” in particular, was hysterical - it starred Matt Dillon as an adolescent Ralphie negotiating the shoals of the Senior Prom. A very different image of Ralphie than the one so indelibly captured by Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story.

Jean Shepherd was a raconteur of the first water, a true American original in the tradition of Mark Twain. It’s nice to see that at least a part of his work has entered the pop culture’s Christmastime canon. You can get a brief glimpse of him in the movie - he has a cameo appearance in the department store scene as the man who tells Ralphie that “that’s the end of the line, over there.” But there’s so much more. Read his books, and you’ll never look at the Army, or at growing up, the same way again.

And when you watch A Christmas Story this year, raise a glass to Shep, the man who shared his childhood with us and made us laugh.

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