Firetruck famous after rescuing Flick from flagpole
By Corey Larocque
A cameo appearance in a flop of a film 25 years ago has turned a 70-year-old Chippawa icon into an enduring star. Chippawa residents recognize their 1938 Ford-LaFrance fire truck for its faithful service over the years, but a few seconds in the movie “A Christmas Story” has earned it international acclaim among fans of the quirky seasonal comedy.
Now, with a big convention coming up in Cleveland that celebrates the exploits of Ralphie Parker (actor Peter Billingsley) and his oddball family, Chippawa’s 1938 pumper is expected to reprise its role. Ken Prohaszka and Ray Anderson, two members of the Chippawa Volunteer Firefighters Association, will be taking the truck to the convention, held over the American Thanksgiving weekend in November.
Tyler Swartz, a die-hard Canadian fan and promoter of Cleveland’s convention, compares the annual convention to a gathering of trekkies at a Star Trek event. The movie has a devoted following now, he said.
“It’s one of those things when you watch it every year, you start looking forward to it. It’s something everyone can relate to. It’s got a certain sense of humour, it really grows on you,” said Swartz, who lives in Oakville. He’s trying to round up some of the extras from St. Catharines for a reunion.
The Chippawa firefighters say they’re constantly surprised by the interest fans of the movie have in their truck.
“To still have a piece of equipment that was in the movie and still have it operational… we take pride in it and look after it,” Prohaszka said.
“A Christmas Story” tells nine-year-old Ralphie Parker’s crusade to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas even though his mother, teacher and a shopping mall Santa tell him no because – as one of the film’s recurring lines goes – “you’ll shoot your eye out.”
Ralphie’s family lives in a small town in northern Indiana, but the movie was actually shot in Cleveland, Ohio, and in St. Catharines, Ont.
In one famous scene filmed in the Canadian winter, Ralphie classmate Flick accepts the “triple-dog dare” to stick his tongue to a flagpole while the kids are playing in the schoolyard. The bell rings and the kids leave the youngster frozen to the pole.
Enter Chippawa’s 1938 fire engine.
Because the movie is set in the 1940s, producers needed a period fire truck to respond the flagpole emergency.
Back in 1983, then-firefighter Gord Chase (now the chief of Chippawa’s company of volunteer firefighters) was keen to answer the call for a vintage truck. He and then-chief, the late Alex Oleksuik took the truck to the St. Catharines set, where it was used in the filming. Bad weather meant filming went over two days.
Chase said he missed out on being an extra in the film because he could only afford one day off work, so he wasn’t around for second-day shooting which resulted in the footage that was included in the movie.
To this day, Chase said he’s surprised by fans of the movie who know the trucks origin and who stop by Chippawa’s Station 4 firehall to take a peek at a piece of movie lore.
“With this in the movie, we’ve got people coming from all over. I can’t believe how many people have seen this movie and have some connection to it, when it’s only 10 seconds in the movie,” Chase said.
The truck is now a “showpiece” for the Chippawa Volunteer Firefighters Association. It’s now stored at Chippawa’s Station 4 firehall and is regularly on display in a museum area that was added to the hall in 2000. The volunteer firefighters use it for parades and also in fire-prevention educational programs.
Chippawa firefighters beam with pride when they talk about its role in “A Christmas Story.” But they can also retell its less-glamorous day-to-day service.
The truck itself went into service for the Village of Chippawa on June 10, 1938, according to a newspaper article that referred to it as “state of the art firefighting equipment.”
That meant it could drive 30 miles an hour and pump 200 gallons of water a minute, Chase said.
It stayed in service until 1969 when the village was amalgamated with the City of Niagara Falls. The truck then became part of the private fire brigade at Norton Abrasives between 1970 and 1977. When Norton stopped using it, it reverted to a city asset. The Chippawa volunteer firefighters association bought it from the city in 1978 for one dollar. A Wintario grant in 1978 helped fund its restoration in 1982 – the year before A Christmas Story was made.
You have to look carefully to see Chippawa’s 1938 Ford-LaFrance fire truck in just a couple of scenes.
“You’ve got to know when it’s coming in and going out. As it’s driving in, if you don’t know what to look for, you don’t realize it’s there,” said Anderson.
Though the movie was set in the town of Hohman, Indiana, the fire truck kept the markings on the doors that identify it as part of the Chippawa Volunteer Fire Department. A clever, careful parking job prevents audiences from seeing anything that would spoil the illusion.
Organizers of this year’s convention are going big with it because this is the 25th anniversary of the movie. Actors from the movie attend and mingle with fans. There are tours of Ralphie’s neighbourhood. Museum exhibits of props used in the movie are unveiled. There’s a lecture series with behind-the-scenes gossip and documentaries about the making of the movie. And naturally there’s a screening of the movie with an audience of some of its hardcore fans. And of course rides on the fire truck.
At the convention Prohaszka and Anderson will be giving rides on the fire truck. It will be a fundraising opportunity for the firefighters association. And the truck is expected to chauffeur the grand marshal of Cleveland’s Winterfest parade.
“A Christmas Story” was a box office bomb when it opened. But in the last few years – possibly because one American network plays it 24 hours a day on Christmas Day – it has become a fan favourite, joining “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” as must-see annual Christmas movies.
“The movie basically has a cult following. We have people that come here every day that grew up in the ‘40s so they can relate to it,” said Steve Sieblecki, the executive director of the A Christmas Story House museum.
Some of the fans grew up watching it in the theatres.
“The young children are just getting turned onto it. It’s just a big thing now,” Sieblicki said.
Cleveland plays host to the convention because it has the “A Christmas Story” House museum. A few years ago, a businessman bought the actual house in Cleveland where the movie was shot. He restored it – inside and out – to the way it looked in the movie, Sieblicki said. A house across the street serves as a museum with displays about the movie. A house next door is their gift shop.
The museum opened two years ago and has been attracting about 32,000 people a year, Sieblicki said.