When Radio and your Real Life merge

"Jean"getting ready to do his radio show

“Jean”getting ready to do his radio show

Our youngest child, Kenny the Actor, is currently wrapping up his gig on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas as one of the four featured singers, but last year at this time, he was in Warsaw, Indiana performing in the Wagon Wheel Theater’s production of A Christmas Story, the Musical. This musical is based on the Jean Shepherd movie, A Christmas Story, which in turn is based on several of Jean’s earlier essays, and which has been a long time staple of the D’Elia Family’s Christmas celebrations, thanks in part to TNT’s marathon showings. As a child of the 50s, I had been a long time fan of Jean Shepherd’s nightly radio show on WOR 710 in New York, spending many a night trying to stay awake till the end of his show and the finish of whatever great yarn he was spinning on that particular evening. If you know Jean Shepherd’s voice, you will remember that he narrated the action in the movie, A Christmas Story. In the musical version of the story, the narrator is actually identified as Jean Shepherd and unlike the movie, the premise of the musical is Jean doing his radio show on WOR and telling this particular tale of one of his childhood’s Christmases, on a snowy Christmas season night in New York. Sounded like a great premise, especially since Kenny was playing the Jean Shepard part and would be in every scene narrating the action as it unfolded on stage.

As a life long fan of Jean Shepherd and his radio work, I referred Kenny to some online clips of his WOR show so he could get a sense of who Jean was and the kind of radio he did. As someone who spent about 8 months working at WOR in 1978, I also sent him off to Indiana with a WOR mic flag for inspiration, that had somehow come into my collection. We talked a lot about what it was like to listen to him on the radio, and about how familiar the characters in A Christmas Story were to those of us who grew up listening, and I recalled the following story to him of my own one time interaction with Mr. Shepherd.

imageThe details of time and season are not important, but it was sometime in the 70s, and seems likely it was a warm spring night. It was the occasion of a Jean Shepherd “college concert” at the Dome auditorium on the CW Post college campus, right next to the college radio station. It turned out that Bill Mozer, Director of Broadcasting at WCWP and fellow engineer at WABC, like me had grown up listening to Shep on WOR at night and was a fan. When we heard the announcement about the show, we bought tickets. I really don’t have a clear memory of much of the evening or even Jean Shepherd’s stage presentation, other than to remember that we laughed a lot as he told stories of characters we were all familiar with. What I do remember with great clarity is what happened after the show.

Bill and I returned to the radio station to hang out….nothing new in that as it was a place that many of us gravitated to when we had free time. That particular night, I remember that Bill and I were hanging out in the engineering room, which was at the back of the building, down the hall from the studios. The reason I’m thinking it was spring is that the back door of the station was open, and light from the hall was spilling out into the dark night. We were standing in the hall talking, when we heard a familiar voice call out, “Hey, can you help me…I can’t find my damn car!” Oh my God…could it be? Had we really heard Jean Shepherd calling out from the darkness? For guys like Bill and I, who had grown up listening to that voice night after night, there was no way it could be anyone else. So, he walked into the light of the doorway and we said, “We’d be happy to help you Mr. Shepherd.” He was, I think happy to realize that we knew who he was and told us to call him Shep. Then he asked what this building was, and when we said it was the college radio station, well he was even happier! He proceeded to come into the hall, and stood there probably for 45 minutes telling us stories about his radio life and so many other things. At first, it was just Bill and I, but as time went on, just about everyone in the building but the guy on the air was in that hallway. I don’t know who was having a better time, but it seemed to us that he loved having an audience of young radio folks, and I know that Bill and I could not believe our luck in having a private Jean Shepherd concert! After about 45 minutes, he decided that he’d better take off as he had to drive into the city, and honestly I have no recollection if we helped him find his car or not, but I know I will never forget the night we spent in the hall of WCWP being entertained by our childhood hero, Jean Shepherd!

I also won’t forget seeing Kenny play the part of Jean Shepherd in A

Jean and Ralphie imagining in Higbee's display window

Jean and Ralphie imagining in Higbee’s display window

Christmas Story, the Musical! Just after Thanksgiving last year, Susie and I flew to Chicago and then drove to Warsaw, Indiana. Sitting in that darkened theater the two nights we saw the show, enjoying the music that was added, watching our son play Jean Shepherd on the radio, and being transported back to those nights as a boy I struggled to stay awake till his stories were finished…well, to be honest, it doesn’t get much better than that! Thanks Kenny for giving Mom and I a reason to get to Warsaw, Indiana and see A Christmas Story, the Musical, and for transporting me back all those years to my darkened bedroom in Jackson Heights, NY, and my Zenith bedside radio tuned to 710 AM! One of the benefits of being the father of a talented son!

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