Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters

Most people know Jean Shepherd—if they know him at all—as the writer and narrator of the movie, A Christmas Story. I remember seeing A Christmas Story with a friend in Buffalo, New York, the Thanksgiving weekend it opened. I remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. I remember thinking, “Hey—I know these people!”

The year before, I had recorded PBS’s American Playhouse presentation of The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters on my Sony Betamax VCR. I’m not sure why. I may have seen the promo and thought it looked interesting. Or I might have remembered Jean Shepherd from his earlier PBS series, Jean Shepherd’s America. Whatever the reason, I was very glad I did record it.

The story features the same characters as A Christmas Story: Ralph Parker (this time a teenager, played by Matt Dillon in one of his first roles), whiny brother Randy, pals Flick and Schwartz, Mom and “The Old Man” (James Broderick). It quickly became a Fourth of July tradition and something of a cult phenomenon with members of my family. We watched it at every July Fourth gathering, until we could almost recite our favorite lines along with the characters: “Hey, Kissel, got any wash rags at your house?”

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters never aired again, and it has never been released commercially—most likely due to music licensing issues. (Shepherd makes excellent use of, among other music, the iconic themes from Jaws and Love is a Many Splendored Thing.) My beta copy—as well as my Betamax VCR—long ago bit the dust. Fortunately, a lot of other people recorded the program, and—although the quality is not the best—it’s possible to find copies on the Internet. Someone has even posted it on YouTube. It’s divided into ten-minute segments, but here’s a link to a playlist.

Watch it, and learn all about: Ralph’s life-changing blind date; how Flick sabotaged the sack race; who was responsible for the county-wide power outage; why ballads are still sung about Ludlow Kissel; and, most importantly, what happened to all the wash rags.

"Americans measure their lives by holidays—Christmas, Easter, Birthday, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July—like mileposts in the picket fence of the years... But those holidays when you're young, they're the sweetest of all. You remember 'em forever."
—Jean Shepherd

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