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
The movie version of A Christmas Story was conceivedwhen film director Bob Clark tuned into Shepherd telling a story on a radio station. Clark was on his way to pick up his date. He was nearly an hour late picking her up because he kept driving around the block until Shepherd finished telling the story. The story was about a boy who was triple-dog-dared to put his tongue on a metal pole in the middle of winter, and of course immediately got his tongue stuck to it.
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 in Indiana. The movie is set in a fictional Indiana town, but was actually filmed in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland and on a sound stage in Toronto, Canada.
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
The chronicle of Ralphie in A Christmas Story inspired the TV series, The Wonder Years. Though the movie got off to slow start, it gradually grew in popularity. It’s fate as an annual Christmas season favorite was sealed in 1997 when Turner Network decided to air it non-stop for twenty-fours starting Christmas Eve and Day so as many staff as possible could be home with family. Shepherd died two years later of natural causes in Florida where he had retired.
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.