by Matthew Woods
For many, the idea of a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun with a 250 shot reservoir goes hand in hand with their memories of the Christmas holiday.
If that connection does not make sense, it is obvious that you have never seen the film “A Christmas Story,” which premiered in theaters 30 years ago last month. The film, roughly set in the time frame of the late 1930s to the early 1940s, focuses on the dreams of young Ralphie, played by Peter Billingsley. Ralphie does his best to convince everyone around him that he needs the air rifle to defend the family from bandits, bears and anything else that may try to invade his Indiana home. All through the film, Ralphie meets opposition to receiving his ultimate Christmas gift, with warnings from people that he will “shoot his eye out.”
And since 2006, A Christmas Story House and Museum has been created to celebrate the Cleveland, Ohio location where exterior shots were filmed in 1983.
The film, which runs for 24 hours straight every Christmas Eve on the TBS network, has gained a cult following that seems to grow every year among viewers, old and new. Hardcore fans of the film are often called “Ralphies,” and it is not unusual to see the film running in the background of many a family yuletide celebration.
The film is based on short stories written by author Jean Shepherd in his collection “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” Director Bob Clark helmed the project, after his successful but very different previous film, “Porky’s,” was released the previous year.
In “A Christmas Story,” the house is set in a fictional town in Indiana, but location scouts could not find the exact home in that state to meet the needs of the director. The story goes that 20 cities were chosen as possible locations for the house, but after an exhaustive search, the house, located in Cleveland’s Tremont district, was chosen for the exterior shots of the film.
Interior scenes were filmed on a sound stage, but scenes like “the old man” pulling up in the driveway, as well as battling the hounds belonging to the neighboring Bumpus family, were filmed at the Cleveland location. Even the actual mailbox used in the film adorns the front of the property.
Higbee’s department store, located at the time in downtown Cleveland, also found a place in the film due to its vintage appearance. Shots of the elementary school were filmed on location in Ontario, along with the Chinese restaurant scene near the end of the film.
The house came up for sale in the mid 2000s. California entrepreneur Brian Jones bought the house, which was listed on eBay, to renovate it and turn it into a museum based on the film. Jones is the owner of The Red Rider Leg Lamp Co., an operation that manufactures replica leg lamps such as the one Darren McGavin’s character won in the film. Jones renovated the home back to its configuration in the film, after studying footage of the house and drawing up plans as to its layout.
The museum opened in November 2006. Original cast members have visited the site numerous times, signing autographs and telling visitors stories of their experiences of the film. The museum has grown over the years, with Jones opening an actual museum across the street, along with a third building that houses a gift shop. The props in the house are very close to those used in the film, from a Christmas tree complete with a blue bowling ball and a Red Ryder under its branches, to the infamous leg lamp in the living room window. Near the entrance to the house, another leg lamp is displayed in a packing crate just as it was in the film. A climb up the stairway reveals an authentic bedroom for Ralphie and brother Randy, and there is even a bar of Lifebuoy soap on the sink, just like the one used to wash Ralphie’s mouth after his infamous utterance.
“We ask that people not put the soap in their mouth,” laughed tour guide Michael Rae of Mentor, Ohio, as he escorted a group of people around the house.
Rae said the film resonates with people on a lot of levels, even if they did not grow up during the time period depicted in the film.
“Everyone had something they wanted for Christmas,” Rae said. “We can all relate to that one thing we wanted when we were a kid.” During his career, Rae has worn many hats, from being an Assistant U.S. Attorney to serving on an Organized Crime Strike Force. When asked why he chooses to work at the museum during his retirement, he said that he likes to stay busy, and he loves working at the house.
“You have to do things that you enjoy,” Rae said. “And I enjoy this.”
Rae said to date, more than 300,000 people have visited the house.
Upstairs, Jami Kinton of Mansfield, Ohio, was helping guests take pictures and pointing out facts about the interior of the house.
“I love it,” Kinton said of her job. “It is a blast.”
Kinton is an actress, and one of her recent jobs was in a Wendy’s restaurant commercial. When she is not giving tours or working one of her many other jobs, she is a regular on Disney Radio.
When asked what she thought made this film and museum popular, she said that the story reminds many people of their own Christmas traditions.
“It is such a simple story line,” Kinton said. “Everyone has people like this in their family.”
Tours last about 30 minutes, and the staff is more than happy to help guests with photos. Both Rae and Kinton said that it is not unusual to see a whole family dressed as pink bunnies, a homage to a scene in the film.
Across the street in the museum, guests can see many items that were actually used in the movie. The museum displays clothing worn by the actors, as well props from the film. Ralphie’s coat, toys from the windows of Higbee’s, along with many other items used in the film are on display. Along with the artifacts, a world map covered with pins detailing points of origin from visitors from all over the globe hangs on the wall in the museum.
“We have people that have come here from Italy and Japan,” said museum staffer Anne Chriszt of Bay Village, Ohio. Chriszt said that guests along with her coworkers make things fun at the museum.
“And it is pretty cool to have something like this in Cleveland,” said the Ohio native.
Just down the street, next to the museum, is the gift shop. Complete with many replica items from the film, the store stocks items like Daisy Red Ryder BB guns, pink bunny suits, decoder pins and just about everything else a Ralphie could ask for. And yes, they have several varieties of leg lamps to fit any budget.
“Our most popular item is the leg lamp night light,” laughed gift store manager Melissa Hamilton of Newbury, Ohio. “Everybody wants a leg lamp.”
So, if you or a loved one found a Daisy Red Ryder under the tree this Christmas, by all means, have fun. But don’t “shoot your eye out.”
For more information about The Christmas Story House and Museum, call (216) 298-4919 or visit www.achristmasstoryhouse.com The museum is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays, noon – 5 p.m. Cost is $10. In December, the museum is open until 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.