A Christmas Story - movie house

The Story of “A Christmas Story”

It fascinates me how the fickle finger of fate determines which stories become famous. Consider the story behind the annual favorite, A Christmas Story, released with so-so reviews in 1983, but set in the 1940’s. The movie didn’t generate enough attention to merit running it until Christmas when it was first released. Today it is a foundational part of the season in many households. How did that happen?

In case you some how managed to never see this annual classic, it is about Ralphie Parker who tries to convince his parents, teacher, and good ole’ St. Nick himself, that he’s old enough to take charge of a Red Ryder BB gun.

A Christmas Story – Off to a Slow Start

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. It is his tradition to watch the movie at least once every Christmas season.

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. A man in the neighborhood, who’s turned part of his property into parking for museum visitors, told us how much he and his neighbors appreciate the positive impact the movie and museum have had on their community.

Cleveland, OhioKathryn Haueisen's childhood home

The photo on the right is the home in which I grew up, a few miles west of the where A Christmas Story was filmed. It is typical of homes in the Tremont neighborhood, which like many older neighborhoods in industrial cities, has changed dramatically over the years. My grandmother’s home was located three blocks away on West 14th Street. It was torn down to make room for Interstate 71. This West 11th Street neighborhood seems to be thriving.

That is thanks to Brian Jones, an entrepreneur who has been a fan of A Christmas Story 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 imagine making a living out of reproducing that iconic piece of plastic? Brian Jones could, and did.

New Life for an Old House

The people from whom Jones bought the house had remodeled it. Jones liked it the way it was in the movie. He went through the movie, frame by frame, making detailed drawings of the interior and exterior. The interior scenes in A Christmas Story were filmed on a Toronto sound stage. The exterior scenes are filmed in the Tremont neighborhood. Some $240,000 later Jones had remodeled the West 11th Street home to a near perfect replica of the home in the movie.

The movie is based on a short story from Jean Shepherd’s collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. I’ll have more about her story next week. The Parker family home is based on a home in the author’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana. In preparing to adapt Shepherd’s story for film, director Bob Clark selected the Tremont neighborhood primarily because of its proximity to Higbees Department Store on Public Square in Cleveland, eleven blocks away. That is the store we see in the movie.

Film-making disrupts the neighborhood where the filming takes place. Our home in Houston was once used as the setting for a TV commercial. It took twelve hours, two moving van size trailers, and a dozen people to shoot one 30 second commercial. Imagine the disruption that would take place to film a feature length movie in your neighborhood. However, the Tremont neighbors appear grateful for the interruption.

How to Make a Movie Popular

When the movie was first released opening weekend did not go well. That might have been the end of A Christmas Story had not TNT decided to air it for twenty-four hours over Christmas Eve and Day in 1997. By running the Parker family’s Christmas story non-stop it allowed most of the station staff to spend the holiday with their own families.

My daughter and her family are among the thousands who cannot imagine a Christmas season without watching Ralphie and his family’s Christmas drama at least once. That would be like forgoing Christmas lights and eggnog. Unthinkable.

I am drawn to the movie now for several reasons. First, when I spend Christmas with that branch of the family, I’m going to see the movie. It’s grown on me. Secondly, it is a fairly accurate portrayal of the west side of Cleveland I knew in my childhood. My parents took us to see the Higbees window displays and occasionally the Christmas parade that made it’s way into the movie. Thirdly, 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.

Two Kinds of Christmas

There’s much social media chatter these days about people removing Christ from Christmas. I see it differently. No one can stop anyone from worshiping Christ. There are thousands of churches – ten thousand in my denomination alone – that would love to have people come honor the birth of the Christ child throughout Advent and on to Christmas Day and the Christmas season that follows. The Internet makes it’s easy to find locations and hours of worship for thousands of options. On behalf of my Lutheran tradition, I’m personally inviting you to join us this Christmas season at one of our Lutheran congregations. I’m confident you’d be welcome in other churches as well.

The Christian version Christmas evolved over centuries, in part in response to pagan end-of-the-year traditions. These traditions helped counter the effects of short days and long, cold, dark nights. Today we have two Christmas’s. One is the Christian story of God coming to us as a helpless infant, born to parents who eventually had to flee for their lives as refugees. The other is a combination of assorted secular traditions that weave people together at a time of our society when we need all the weaving together we can get.

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.

            Next up – the story of the author who inspired the movie – Jean Shepherd.

            What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?

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