‘A Christmas Story’ 25th anniversary draws crowds to Cleveland house

by John Caniglia/Plain Dealer Reporter

Saturday November 29, 2008

In this scene from the movie “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie Parker (played by Peter Billingsley) freezes up when Santa asks what gift he wants. Santa was played by the late Jeff Gillen, whose family is in Cleveland to help mark the film’s 25th anniversary.

The streets of Cleveland were still asleep Friday when the Gillens of Miami, Fla., bolted through the hotel lobby, ready to see the city that helped make their father famous.Like caffeinated shoppers tracking deals, the Gillens were a jangle of joy. After all, the city threads through the family’s past; it’s where their late father starred in “A Christmas Story.”

Twenty-five years ago, Jeff Gillen played the scary, worn-out Santa listening to a little boy in the movie classic that did much of its filming in Cleveland.

This weekend, his wife, Arlene, and children, Phil and Elana, are joining about 4,000 people to visit a convention at the Renaissance Hotel and A Christmas Story House in Tremont.

“It’s a film about being a kid and looking back,” said Brian Jones, who owns A Christmas Story House and the neighboring museum.

The weekend features actors who starred in the movie, three documentaries about the film and the original 1938 fire truck that drove to the rescue in the tongue-frozen-to-the-flagpole scene.

“It is unbelievable that a movie has touched the lives of millions of families,” said Phil Gillen, Jeff’s son. Jeff Gillen died in 1995, a dozen years after the movie was filmed.

Elana Gillen agreed: “A movie that has a museum just doesn’t happen, and to see images of my father is unbelievable.”

The original fire truck used in “A Christmas Story,” a 1938 Ford La France pump truck, gives movie fans a ride around the Tremont neighborhood Friday. The truck is owned by the Chippawa Volunteer Firefighters Association in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Hours for the house tour, museum and gift shop will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. today.

To many viewers, the movie grabbed them in ways that few films ever can. The story of Ralphie and his longing for the perfect gift — an official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock — and his family’s oddities take on special meaning for all of us.And some have passed the movie’s meaning and its laughter on to their own families.

Mark and Becky Tompkins traveled 600 miles from LaPorte City, Iowa, just south of Waterloo, with their children, Madison, 9, and Brandon, 5.

They use some of the movie’s scenes for holiday decorations, inside and outside of their home. They even took a family picture around the leg lamp, the prize in the movie that Ralphie’s dad wins in a newspaper contest.

“It’s a Christmas movie that you can watch and relate to,” Mark Tompkins said. “Everyone, whether they want to admit it or not, really wanted a special gift one holiday.”

Tom Laughlin of Richmond, Va., holds his 6-year-old daughter, Abby, as they wait in line Friday to visit the West 11th Street house made famous in “A Christmas Story.” Tours of the house, its neighboring museum and gift shop will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. today.

Christa Puskar of Everson, Pa., near Pittsburgh, said she has tree ornaments and board games based on the movie. She even buys Lifebuoy soap, the kind Ralphie’s mother used to wash his mouth out after he swore. She also keeps the television on for the 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story,” which begins airing on Christmas Eve on TBS. The movie also will air at 8 p.m. this Wednesday on TNT.She laughed about the snowsuit that Ralphie’s brother Randy wore. The boy was so bundled up that he could barely move.

“I had one just like it,” she said.

Amid the fans Friday was a whirlwind of a man bouncing from table to table, shaking hands, hugging fans and setting up booths. Scott Schwartz, 38, was back in Cleveland but found a far different city than the one he had visited at 14.

Schwartz played Flick, who is triple-dog-dared to stick his tongue on the frozen post. Schwartz spent two weeks in Cleveland shooting scenes. At the time, he said, the city was in a horrible economic slump, with lots of stores boarded up.

“It’s a much better place,” he said of the city. “You have the baseball stadium, the Cavs, the stores.”

The actor who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, missed the event, as he was shooting a movie, according to published reports. Schwartz, however, was stumping the greatest treasure of “A Christmas Story.”

“It’s multigenerational,” Schwartz said. “It reaches people whether they are 5 or 85.”

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