In case you’ve never seen the classic 1983 “A Christmas Story,” it’s about Ralphie Parker who needs to convince his parents, teacher, and Santa he’s old enough to handle a Red Ryder BB gun. Although the story is filmed in a neighborhood walking distance from where my grandmother lived, I never saw “A Christmas Story”until I met my son-in-law. Rudy watches the movie at least once every Christmas season. But then, I was visiting that neighborhood in the 50s and the movie wasn’t made until the 80s.
A Movie Re-vitalized a Neighborhood
The house in which the exterior scenes of the movie are filmed, and two other houses nearby, are now a museum complex in Cleveland, Ohio. When I visited the complex a man in the neighborhood told me how much he and his neighbors appreciate the positive impact the movie and museum have had on their community.
This West 11th Street neighborhood seems to be thriving. in part thanks to the efforts of entrepreneur Brian Jones. He’s been “A Christmas Story” fan since his childhood. In 2004 he bought the house on E-Bay for $150,000. He paid for it with money he made from his business – wait for it – the Red Rider Leg Lamp Company. Who could could make a living from reproducing that iconic piece of plastic? Brian Jones could, and did.
The people from whom Jones bought the house had remodeled it, but he liked it the way it was in the movie. He studied the movie, frame by frame, making detailed drawings of the interior and exterior. The interior scenes in “A Christmas Story” were filmed in a Toronto studio, with exterior scenes filmed in the Tremont neighborhood. Some $240,000 later, Jones had a near perfect replica of the movie version.
Film-making disrupts the neighborhood. Years ago our Houston home was used to film a 30 second TV commercial. That required twelve hours, two moving van size trailers, and a dozen people. Imagine the disruption caused by the production of a feature length movie. However, the Tremont neighbors appear grateful for the interruption.
From Short Story to Big Screen
“A Christmas Story” is based on Jean Parker Shepherd’s short story published in his, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. The movie Parker family home is based on a home in Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana. Movie director Bob Clark chose the Cleveland neighborhood primarily because of its proximity to Higbees Department Store on Public Square in Cleveland. That is the store we see in the movie.
Opening weekend when the movie was first released did not go well. That might have been the end of “A Christmas Story” were it not for TNT’s decision to air the movie for twenty-four hours over Christmas Eve and Day in 1997. Running the Parker family’s Christmas story non-stop allowed most of the station staff to spend the holiday with their own families.
Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie version of “A Christmas Story” when he tuned into Shepherd telling his story on a radio station. Clark was nearly an hour late picking up his date because he kept driving around the block until Shepherd finished telling the story.
Shepherd adapted the original short story into the screenplay in 1983, with help from Bob Clark and Shepherd’s wife, Leigh Brown. The film character Ralphie was inspired by some of Shepherd’s own childhood.
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 Clark the family had an annual Christmas Eve ritual of dining there and amusing themselves quoting lines from various scenes in 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.” Clark died in a car accident in 2007.
So if A Christmas Story can do that for a family and a community, I’m all for it. But I do hope Ralphie will be careful. Guns are dangerous.
The now popular movie A Christmas Story owes its existence to a short story in Jean Shepherd’s collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Well, that’s part of the story. It also owes its existence to a Shepherd radio program Bob Clark heard while driving to pick up his date in Miami.
Jean Shepherd, writer, humorist, satirist, actor, and radio, television and film personality, had a gift for telling stories. He mingled memories from his childhood in Hammond, Indiana with his adventures as the Army Signal Corps to create nearly three decades worth of radio content that delighted and amused his radio audience. He started in Cincinnati in the early 1950’s. After a few years he moved to New York where his radio program aired until 1977.
From Radio to Big Screen
You can see Shepherd’s cameo role in the movie. Look closely at the scene in which an angry man informs Ralphie, “The line ends here! It begins there!” Given his experience in radio, and the fact the idea for the film was birthed when Clark heard Shepherd on the radio, Shepherd was the natural choice to narrate the adult Ralphie in the story. Director Clark also has a cameo appearance as the next-door neighbor to Ralphie and his family.
Filming the movie proved challenging for Clark because Shepherd was intent on taking on the role of director as well as scriptwriter and voice over narrator. Clark had a budget and deadline to meet. Shepherd’s constant interruptions with his assessments of how a scene should be played made Clark’s job challenging. He eventually had to ban Shepherd from the set to complete the filming.
Life after A Christmas Story
Director Bob Clark realized what a hit he’d created when he overheard other guests in a restaurant reciting lines from the movie. The restaurant maître d’ told Clark the family had an annual Christmas Eve ritual of coming to the restaurant and amusing themselves quoting lines from various scenes in 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.” Clark died in a car accident in 2007.
Peter Billingsley played Ralphie. He had been in front of the camera since he was three. Part of the Hollywood scene for years, he was nominated for an Emmy in 2005. He has worked as a producer on several shows, including the Marvel Comics feature film Iron Man.
The Amazing Path to Fame
When you watch this annual classic, be grateful for a guy who caught a funny guy on the radio and was willing to incur the wrath of his date to finish the story. We just never know when, where, or how an idea will take root and grow into something amazing.
Just like the way a little baby born to poor peasants in a backwater town two thousand years ago and thousands of miles away has inspired too many stories, books, plays, and movies to count. Maybe the next famous story is already lurking deep in your mind, just waiting to sprout and grow into something wonderful.
I triple-dog-dare you to turn your creative imagination loose on the possibilities.