by Thomas J. Sheeran
CLEVELAND — Even after three decades, the triple-dog dare doesn’t get old.
The film “A Christmas Story” opened 30 years ago to mixed reviews but has shown its staying power as a holiday family favorite. Cleveland, where parts of the movie were filmed and hard-luck Ralphie dreamed big, is celebrating the anniversary with iconic leg lamps, holiday store windows like the ones that drew Ralphie’s wide-eyed stares and stage and musical versions of “A Christmas Story.”
“It becomes part of your fabric for your whole life,” said Kevin Moore, managing director of the Cleveland Play House, where the stage version of the story has become a holiday staple.
In the film, starring Darren McGavin as the father, 9-year-old Ralphie was transfixed by the brightly decorated storefront windows. And he dreamed of getting an air rifle as a Christmas gift, despite warnings that he might shoot his eye out.
The plot follows his determined gift-begging, his encounters with bullies and his family’s daily hopes and dreams — including a lamp in the form of a shapely leg.
The Cleveland house where Ralphie’s film family lived will highlight the anniversary Friday and Saturday with appearances by original cast members and a BB gun range in the backyard.
The movie wasn’t widely acclaimed when it debuted, with favorable reviews barely outnumbering bad mentions like the one that grumped, “Bah, humbug” in the headline. But its quirky humor and love-in-family message struck a chord with audiences.
Like any holiday favorite, a sense of wonder is needed for “A Christmas Story” and 8-year-old Colin Wheeler thinks he has one to match Ralphie’s.
“We both have really big imaginations,” boasted Colin, who plays Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” musical at Cleveland’s Near West Theater.
It’s not easy playing Ralphie in that ill-fitting pink bunny suit, Colin said.
“I’ll tell you one thing that’s hard: it’s really hard not to laugh” while wearing that suit, Colin said.
Across town, the Cleveland Play House production of “A Christmas Story” attracts multigenerational audiences of children, parents and grandparents, Moore said.
The appeal in Ralphie’s blue-collar hometown is simple, Moore said. “It’s just a really quirky and yet incredibly sweet story and that resonates with Cleveland,” he said.
The Horseshoe Casino Cleveland has been decorated for the season to highlight the film’s roots in the department store now housing the casino, with leg lamps atop some of the slot machines.
Sheryl Peet, emerging from the casino, said she appreciates the movie and its humor, without regard to its Cleveland connections. “I like it. It’s got comedy, fun, Ralphie,” she said.
At “A Christmas Story” house overlooking humming steel mills, visitors can re-enact movie scenes including ducking under the 1940s-style kitchen sink or looking out the back door where Ralphie trudged through the faux snow.
The movie “snow” was actually mostly firefighting foam, pressed into service amid a cold but rare snowless stretch during filming in winter-hardy Cleveland.
Jim Moralevitz, now 73, lives down the street from “A Christmas Story” house and landed a cameo role in the film helping deliver the crate carrying the leg lamp.
The entrepreneur who developed the house as a tourist attraction, Brian Jones, gave Moralevitz a leg lamp seven years ago and it’s mounted in a 6-foot outdoor Plexiglas box near the peak of the front roof. People sometimes mistake it for “A Christmas Story” house and stop to visit.
In the neighborhood, “I’m known for the most drive-by shootings (filming),” said Moralevitz, a retired tour guide stepping back into his old role for comic effect.
Like many of the best holiday classics, the risky business turns cheerful at the end. Now families get together at holiday gatherings to watch the movie or crowd theater performances.
“It fills up the seats because it’s a family experience,” Moore said.
The anniversary of the movie will be marked beyond Cleveland, with versions on stage from Boston to California. The musical has returned to Broadway for another run.
A new bronze statue of the “triple-dog dare” tongue-grabbing flagpole scene is on display in time for the holidays in Hammond, Ind., hometown of Jean Shepherd, whose stories inspired the 1983 movie. One of the boys in the movie takes the dare and gets his tongue stuck on the icy pole. The Hammond reproduction has become a big hit since it was dedicated in October, with families stopping by to take their Christmas card photos.
But mimicking Hollywood might be risky, according to Nicki Mackowski with the tourist agency in Hammond.
“We’re working on putting up signs as the cold weather gets here. You know: ‘Lick at your own risk’ kind of thing,” she said.