Old Time Radio Thursdays – #021: The Radio Origins Of A Christmas Story (1983)

The short intro: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Old Time Radio is the phrase generally used to refer to the time when radio was (mostly) live, and was full of a variety of different shows, as opposed to simply being a means for record labels to use robots to promote the top records of the day. Old Time Radio Thursdays is my chance to explore some of those old radio shows, their connections (both old and new) to movies, and hopefully to encourage some of the rest of you to take a look at a probably unfamiliar source of entertainment that I truly love. If you want more info on OTR, and some examples of the variety of shows that were made, be sure to check out this introductory post.

ChristmasStoryPosterSomething a little different this week.

For some, this post may seem a bit out of the purview of this feature, but let’s be honest: there are a lot of kids out there today for whom 1974 might as well be 1944. It’s all ancient history. And anyway, my playing field, so my rules, right?

Anyway, the movie A Christmas Story has become something of a staple the past few years, with many people watching it over and over again during the holiday season. However, in discussing it with those very same people I often find that they have very little knowledge of the story behind the story and how it relates to the way radio used to be.

Here, let’s take a quick look at one of the climactic scenes from the movie:

There, you hear that voice? No, not the voice of Ralphie shouting obscenities as he continues beating on the bully, the other voice. The narrator. The voice of the grown-up Ralphie who guides us through the story.

Yeah, that’s the voice of Jean Shepherd. Who’s Jean Shepherd you ask? Why that’s simple. He’s Ralphie. No, literally. He is Ralphie.

You see, Jean Shepherd was both a writer and a radio personality. Though he began his radio career in 1948 on WSAI in Cincinnati, Ohio, it was during a long overnight stint from 1956 to 1977 on New York’s WOR that Shepherd really came into his own. In order to fill the time slot, Shepherd would spin yarns from his past, comment on the happenings of the day, discuss American culture and the changes that were going on, and read stories that he had written. In many ways, Shepherd was a precursor to the likes of Spalding Gray, and over the years in his stories he built up his own little world based partially on facts from his earlier life and partially on his ability to simply tell a good tale. Probably the most prominent modern comparison one could make would be to Garrison Keillor and his “Lake Wobegon” segments on A Prairie Home Companion.

As it turned out, over the years one of the most popular stories that Shepherd would read and at times expand upon was a short story which he originally called “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder nails the Cleveland Street Kid”, and which was originally published in, of all places, Playboy magazine in 1964. It became something of a tradition on WOR for Shepherd to re-read the story each Christmas eve.

And it was this story and others (plus some unpublished anecdotes which Shepherd told over the years) upon which Bob Clark and Shepherd based the movie.

Anyway, as you tune into the movie this year, give an extra listen to the voice of the narrator and a thought to Jean Shepherd and how, without radio, the movie might have never gotten made, and certainly wouldn’t be the same.

I couldn’t find a good single embeddable telling of the story, but here is the 1974 broadcast broken up into 5 parts from YouTube:

(By the way, one of the other famous scenes from the movie, which you won’t find in the above reading, is based on another Shepherd story, “Flick’s Tongue”, which he also would tell/read about once a year on his show, and which was the story that Bob Clark says first brought Shepherd to his attention.)

Oh,, and one final note: As is quite often the case, a great resource for those interested in listening to more of Shepherd’s radio broadcasts over the years is the Internet Archives. I’d say begin your search right here.

Until next time, Happy Listening!

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