'A Christmas Story' celebrates 30 years of memories

Published December 23, 2013 4:45 pm
Celebration • The house featured in the film has become a hot spot for fans whose devotion has turned a dud into a classic.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's just an unassuming two-story yellow house with green trim that sits in the back of a neighborhood in Cleveland — unless you've seen the 1983 film "A Christmas Story." For the many who have, the house is an iconic piece of movie history.

"A Christmas Story" focuses on 9-year-old Ralphie's desperate plea to get a Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas. But everyone he tells this to — his parents, teachers and even a foot-in-the-face Santa and his elves — responds, "You'll shoot your eye out."

The movie starred Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker, Darren McGavin as his dad (known as "The Old Man"), Melinda Dillon as his mother and Ian Petrella as his pig-of-an-eater brother, Randy.

Hardly a success at the box office, the nostalgic comedy eventually caught hold of America's fancy and has been a Christmastime television staple ever since. Scenes from the movie have become classics in many a household, including triple-dog dares, helping The Old Man change a tire and a Christmas dinner of a smiling goose.

The Parker House • For fans of the movie, not to mention the Bumpus hounds, the house is a magnet.

Dubbed the A Christmas Story House, it has been fully restored on the outside to look just as it did when the crews filmed the classic movie 30 years ago. Inside, it's a bit of a different story. While many of the rooms look just like the rooms in the movie, the interiors were not shot in the house, but on a soundstage.

Only a little more than two weeks of the nine-week shooting schedule was spent in Cleveland. The rest was done on the soundstage in Toronto and also at the Victoria School in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Exteriors shots of the house and the surrounding area are enough to make the neighborhood on the city's west side a bucket-list item to hordes of fans who have visited the house since it opened as a tourist attraction in 2006.

The attraction nearly didn't happen, though; a tour guide in the house said that when Brian Jones swooped in and bought the house, it was less than 24 hours from destruction. She may have embellished the tale a bit to make it more exciting, but the story is one to note.

According to Jones' official recounting of how he came to own the house, his wife saw it for sale on eBay, and he bought it.

Of course, there is a bit more to it than that.

Jones had wanted to join the Navy and become a pilot. Unfortunately, his eyesight wasn't good enough and his aviation dream was scrubbed.

His parents, wanting to cheer him up, decided to make him a gift.

A couple of weeks later he received a large wooden crate marked "Fragile." Inside was the same "Major Award" that The Old Man from the film received. Jones now had his very own handmade leg lamp, complete with fishnet stocking and a black-fringed lampshade.

The film was a family favorite and Jones' parents had such a good recollection of the lamp that they re-created one. While it was a difficult and time-consuming task, it also was one the Joneses thoroughly enjoyed. After sending it to their son, they told him of the significant interest the lamp received and that many people requested one for themselves.

And therein was Jones' "Eureka!" moment. Thinking there was money to be made, and needing a new job after leaving the Navy, he decided to go into the business of making leg lamps for anyone who wanted one. At the very least, it sure beat moving from San Diego to the East Coast for a corporate job.

On April 9, 2003, RedRiderLegLamps.com — a largely online venture that sells replica leg lamps — was launched.

Then, in 2005, came the email from his wife alerting him to the house from the movie being for sale on eBay and suggesting he buy it. Apparently she sent the email as a joke, but for Jones it was no laughing matter. Especially for someone running a leg-lamp business, buying the house was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Rather than take a chance at auction, Jones offered the owner $150,000 for the house if the auction were canceled immediately. Within 24 hours, he was in Cleveland signing the papers to buy the house.

Open house • After buying the house, Jones had to spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours fixing it up to return it to the exact look it had on the screen. That required quite a bit of remodeling on the inside, since most of the interiors were shot elsewhere.

By Thanksgiving 2006, the house was ready to open to the public for tours and a bit of nostalgia. Eventually, Jones purchased two more pieces of property in the neighborhood; one became a museum dedicated to the movie while the other is a large gift shop, which opened this year. Both are across the street from the movie house.

The original shed shown in the film — which was target practice for Ralphie — is also still on the property, though it had to be heavily restored after storms damaged it a couple of years ago.

The gift shop offers everything from replica props, including the leg lamp and bunny suit, to keychains, DVDs, board games and just about anything else a fan would want that has to do with the movie.

As you would expect, the museum is packed full of memorabilia from the movie, from many original costumes to behind-the-scenes photos. Also on display are call sheets, props and dozens of other items taken not just from the house, but from other locations that were used for filming.

The Olds is there, too • The Parker family car, a 1937 Oldsmobile Model F-37 four-door trunkback sedan, sits in a garage across the street from the house. It is brought out and displayed on special occasions.

In the movie, The Old Man's relationship with his car is revealed to be somewhat tumultuous: "Some men are Baptist, others Catholic; my father was an Oldsmobile man." "That hot damn Olds has froze up again." "That son of a bitch would freeze up in the middle of summer on the equator!" Those are just some of the lines McGavin uttered in his memorable portrayal of The Old Man Parker.

Fans pack the house • In the first two years of operation, the house saw more than 60,000 visitors, but those numbers pale in comparison to more recent totals.

On Dec. 7, the house hosted the first-ever A Christmas Story 5K/10K, which brought in as many as 10,000 runners and spectators who flocked to Cleveland to watch fans run from the old Higbee's Department Store to the house.

Patty Lafontaine, who played the head elf, and Jim Moralevitz, one of the men who delivered the leg lamp to the house, were in the museum signing autographs and talking to fans who came through.

Lafontaine, who was known as Patty Johnson when the film was made, recounted memories of working with children and how grueling it was to shoot at night.

"We shot for six nights," she said. "The store was open during the day so we could only shoot at night. Our call was from 6 at night until 6 in the morning for all consecutive nights for just that one little scene."

She said it was not easy to work with the child actors at the time.

"We had a very difficult time getting through that week, shooting all-nighters," she said. "I was working during the day as well."

Her best experience on the movie came when the cameras weren't rolling.

"The other elf [Drew Hocevar] and Santa [Jeff Gillen] and I, between takes, were cracking jokes all night long and just howling."

Moralevitz stood in a room with several versions of the crate that he and Jim Hunter delivered in one of the more memorable scenes in the movie.

"I had the pleasure of delivering the major award 30 years ago," he said. "Unfortunately, the crate was so wide that it wouldn't fit through the door. So they called in the carpenters and they took 4 inches off."

It was during that modification that the crate became an iconic piece of film history. Rather than just being a simple crate that said "This end up" and "Fragile," the final film version said "his end up," with the "T" having been removed. Of course, the crate had the leg lamp in it, making the "his end up" remark seem like a hidden joke rather than a simple production miscue.

"They made a mess of it and then gave it back to me," Moralevitz said. "It worked fine but it changed the looks of the crate."

Moralevitz also had the distinction of playing "the boys." When Hunter's character uttered, "Boys, bring the crate in," he was the only one to bring the crate inside.

"I'm the 'boys;' there's only one," he said with a smile. "I still kept it at two for payroll reasons. I get two checks that way."

Earlier this month, a convention in downtown Cleveland brought the movie's original cast to town, and another 5,000 fans toured the house.

30 years later • Nov. 18, 2013, marked the exact 30-year anniversary of the movie's release.

The movie is based on the novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepherd, who wrote the screenplay and was the voice of the narrator.

The character of Ralphie is the stand-in for Shepherd himself. The vignettes in the movie are based on his memories of growing up in Indiana in the 1940s.

With a budget of $4 million and an opening-weekend haul of just over $2 million, the movie was pretty much a dud from the start. Due to a rapidly growing home-video market, though, it found its audience and became a staple of holiday traditions for millions of people across the country. Now, it airs on cable TV channel TBS for 24 hours each Christmas Eve into Christmas, as well as on other channels.

A sequel, "A Christmas Story 2," was eventually made and released direct to DVD last year; the movie was critically panned. All of the original characters are in the movie, but none of the actors returned. That film is set five years later and recounts how Ralphie tried to get his first car. —

30 ways 'A Christmas Story' became our Christmas story

The latter-day success of "A Christmas Story" is tied to its nostalgia for mid-20th-century Americana. To commemorate the film's 30th anniversary, we scoured today's nostalgia tool-of-choice, Instagram, to highlight how fans continue to interact with the classic each holiday season. Click here for the story. —

'A Christmas Story' on TV

It's the annual 24-hour, 12-airing marathon of the utterly charming, 1983 movie.

Watch • 6 p.m. Tuesday-6 p.m. Wednesday, TBS



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