A radio comedian, a guy late for a date, and a movie about a spunky kid named Ralphie Parker came together to revitalize a Cleveland neighborhood I visited often in my childhood. This is the story behind the fabulously famous flick – A Christmas Story.
Decades before A Christmas Story became an annual tradition, my grandmother lived on West 14th Street, a few blocks over from the 11th Street home where portions of the movie would eventually be filmed. Grandma lived in the second floor of a duplex, down the street from the family business – the Hieber-Zimmer Funeral Home.
By the time I settled into adult life, Grandma’s portion of the neighborhood had been torn down to make room for Interstate 71. The nearby West 11th neighborhood was spared, and thus available for the setting of “A Christmas Story.”
From Radio Comedian to NYT Best Seller
Like many great movies, A Christmas Story started as a book. It is one small portion of the novel, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Parker Shepherd. Shepherd’s author friends urged him to publish his fictional, humorous accounts of his childhood friends. His preferred medium was radio. In the 1960s, he regaled audiences with stories based on his Indiana small-town childhood. Though not a writer himself, he had numerous author friends, including Shel Silverstein, author of The Giving Tree, plus many other children’s books. With a lot of encouragement and help from his writing friends, Shepherd published his book in 1966. It became an instant New York Times bestseller and is still available today.
Timing Is Everything
The transition from radio program to novel to movie is a fortunate case of the right person in the right place at the right time. Film director Bob Clark had a date. On the way to pick up his date he listened to Shepherd on the radio telling the now famous story about a boy accepting the triple dog dare to touch the frozen school yard flag pole with his tongue. Clark confessed he was over an hour late picking up his date because he drove around and around the block listening to the comedian spin his stories.
When it came time to film the movie, Clark selected the Cleveland West 11th Street neighborhood primarily because it was close to Higbee’s Department store on Public Square. The store scenes were filmed at the store.
The 1983 movie got so-so reviews and didn’t even run through Christmas in most U.S. theaters. Its fate changed in 1997. That was the year TNT decided to air it for twenty-four hours over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so the majority of the studio staff could spend the holiday home with their own families.
Clark realized he’d created a hit when he overheard other guests in a restaurant reciting lines from the movie. The restaurant maître d’ told him the family had an annual Christmas Eve tradition of dining there and amusing themselves by quoting lines from the film. Clark said, “That’s when it began to sink in. This low-budget fluke of a movie had become a quintessential Christmas tradition.”
From Movie to Neighborhood Revitalization
The credit for A Christmas Story transiting from a movie to a neighborhood revitalization project goes to entrepreneur Brian Jones. He’s been a fan of A Christmas Story since childhood. In 2004 he bought the 11th Street house on E-Bay for $150,000. He paid for it with money from his business – wait for it – the Red Rider Leg Lamp Company. Who could make a living from reproducing and selling that iconic piece of plastic? Brian Jones could, and did.
The people who owned the house before Jones had remodeled it. Jones liked the 1940’s style as it appears in the movie. He studied the movie, frame by frame, making detailed drawings of the interior and exterior. Some $240,000 later he’d remodeled the home to a near perfect replica of the movie version.
Jones also purchased the house across the street and converted the houses into A Christmas Story House & Museum complex. There visitors can see props from the movie, including Randy’s snow suit, the Higbee’s window toys, and hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos.
The museum is currently open, but masks are required for all visitors over the age of two. When we visited the area a couple of years ago, one man in the neighborhood told us how much he and his neighbors appreciate the positive impact the movie and museum have had on their community.
Laughing Down Memory Lane
I am drawn to A Christmas Story for several reasons. First, it carries me back to my own 1940s and 50s childhood. It is a fairly accurate portrayal of the west side of Cleveland as I knew it back then. My parents took us to see the Higbee’s window displays and Christmas parade that are captured in the movie. Plus, I like people who do something good for others. I like the concept of turning the West 11th Street neighborhood into a museum complex that pumps money into an aging community.
When you watch this annual classic, be grateful for:
- Radio comedian Jean Parker Shepherd
- Late-for-a-date film director Bob Clark
- Entrepreneur, film fan Brian Jones.
This trio has given us the legacy of a great family-friendly story and preserved my grandmother’s old neighborhood in the process. With all that the year 2020 has taken from us, I’m especially gratefully this year to have access to the old classic movies that bring a little laughter into the house. I triple dog dare you to watch the whole movie without laughing. Bet you can’t do it. Let me know if I’m right about that.
ASUNDER BOOK BLURB – The holidays can be brutal for people who have lost a loved one. Everywhere sights, sounds, and aromas trigger memories of what was that will never be again. Ellie, the middle age main character in my fictional account of losing a spouse, encourages others to just keep moving forward through the grief and confusion. As a special encouragement to those facing the first holiday season without their spouse, I am offering you a FREE copy of her story for the cost of shipping – $5. If you’d like it dedicated to someone, let me know exactly how you’d like their name to appear. Order your copy today at HowWiseThen.com.