House draws ‘Christmas Story’ fans to Cleveland

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by Bob Fulton

house

If you can find West 11th Street in Cleveland, you’ll have no difficulty locating the house linked to a beloved holiday movie.

It’s the one with a leg lamp in the front window.

Some 65,000 visitors a year make a pilgrimage to the mustard-yellow Victorian home with green trim where portions of “A Christmas Story” — Jean Shepherd’s 1983 cult classic about 9-year-old Ralphie and his longing for a Red Ryder BB gun — were filmed.

Shepherd, who co-wrote the screenplay, based on his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” and who provided the narration from the perspective of a grown-up Ralphie, practically stumbled onto the site, possibly with director Bob Clark in tow.

“When they were looking for filming locations they were also looking for a department store to film all those Santa Mountain scenes and all of the department store stuff,” said A Christmas Story House & Museum CEO Angela Dickerson.

“They sent out letters across the country to department stores, and Higbee’s in downtown Cleveland responded. So they came to Cleveland to check out the department store and drove through various residential neighborhoods, looking for a house.”

They headed down Rowley Avenue, came to a T intersection and there before them was the home Shepherd had envisioned for his film. According to our tour guide, Kaliya Smith, Shepherd blurted out, “There it is! That’s it!”

Smith explains that the studio paid the tenants to vacate the premises for two months while filming took place. It’s the house where The Old Man battled a balky furnace and a mortified Ralphie donned the pinky bunny outfit. Only it’s not, really. Interior scenes were actually filmed on a sound stage in Canada; only outdoor scenes were shot here. But that hardly diminishes the thrill experienced by fans who flock to 3159 W. 11th St. and explore the home, which has been remodeled inside to approximate the movie layout.

“What’s appealing about the house is the fact that people just enjoy walking around and re-enacting scenes,” said Ian Petrella, who portrayed little brother Randy and occasionally returns to the home for special events. “They find a spot in the house, act out a scene, take a picture and post it up on Facebook — say, look, I was in the movie.”

The home became a tourist attraction after former Navy intelligence officer Brian Jones, a big fan of the movie, bought it sight unseen in 2004 for, he estimates, twice what it was worth. Some questioned his sanity. After all, this was a man who for a time made his living selling … leg lamps.

The story of the “Christmas Story” house begins with Jones, who aspired to be a Navy pilot like his father. When he failed the vision test, he was understandably devastated. His parents tried to cheer him up by sending him, as a gag gift, a leg lamp resembling The Old Man’s “major award” from the movie. None were available for sale, so they made one.

“Then my mom just offhandedly said to me, ‘That would be a decent business idea, making leg lamps. People would be interested. The movie’s pretty popular,’” Jones recalled. “I didn’t think much of it at the time. But in my second tour in the Navy, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So I started looking into things and one day it just dawned on me — I should sell leg lamps. I said it out loud, and my friend was sitting there and was like, ‘I’ll build you a website.’ So I formed a company and started tooling together leg lamps in my condo and selling them online.”

The success of his enterprise took Jones completely by surprise.

“It just exploded,” he said. “I lost 20 pounds that first year I got out of the Navy because I just didn’t have time to eat, it was going so well. Then the house from the movie went up for sale on eBay.”

Jones didn’t see the listing initially. His wife, Beverly, a Navy lieutenant junior grade, was standing on the bridge of the USS Bonhomme Richard, en route to the Middle East, when she was handed a message from the ship’s captain, who had spotted the posting and knew Jones sold leg lamps. She emailed the news to her husband in San Diego. He pounced on the opportunity like a cat on a mouse.

“I contacted this guy named Al Barberic,” Jones said. “His brother had died and so him and his other brother had inherited the house. It was just a rental property. He was tired of going down there to mow the yard and pick up the rent check, all that stuff, so he decided to sell it on eBay. The house was worth maybe $75,000. I said to him, ‘If I give you $150,000, would you sell it to me now and stop the bidding?’ He checked with his brother and he called me back five minutes later and said, ‘The house is yours.’ So that’s how I got it for basically twice what it was worth. But me, I saw a diamond in the rough. The leg lamps had done really well so I was kind of taking it on faith that this would transfer to people coming to see the house.”

And come they do, in droves. Jones basically gutted the interior in order to re-create the movie layout and then filled it with 1940s-era furniture and appliances. Visitors step inside and their faces, like the leg lamp, take on a glow.

Smith leads her tour group past the actual mailbox pictured in the movie, which an impatient Ralphie checked every day to see if his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin had arrived, and into the living room of the home. Suddenly we’re transported back to the 1940s and to Hohman, Ind., the fictional setting for the film.

A Red Ryder BB gun is propped in its box in a corner, near the vintage stand-up radio like the one on which Ralphie listened to the continuing adventures of Little Orphan Annie. Presents are scattered beneath a twinkling Christmas tree. Above us is the landing where poor Ralphie modeled the pink bunny suit, a gift from Aunt Clara, who, as a grown-up Ralphie lamented in the movie, “had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old but also a girl.”

The kitchen, with red and white checkered linoleum, features a faux turkey in the oven, evoking the scene when the Bumpus hounds paid the Parkers an unexpected visit and ruined their holiday meal. Smith points out the sink with a cabinet underneath where Randy hid, thinking The Old Man was about to kill Ralphie for the stream of obscenities he spewed while pummeling neighborhood bully Scut Farkus.

Petrella climbed under there once as an adult and got “stuck.”

“I did it when we had a group tour,” he explained. “I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I go under the sink? And when I did they wouldn’t let me out. I was there for the remainder of the tour, stuck under the sink while like 60 people took pictures. So I don’t do that anymore.”

The highlight upstairs is the bathroom, where a lined composition book, similar to the one in which Ralphie wrote down Little Orphan Annie’s secret message using his decoder pin, sits next to Little Orphan Annie newspaper comics. There’s even a bar of red Lifebuoy soap, which fans of the movie recall Ralphie was forced to hold in his mouth as punishment for his “oh, fudge” (“only I didn’t say fudge”) outburst in the tire-changing scene. Visitors are encouraged to touch everything, although some apparently go to extremes. Petrella noted with disgust he once spotted tooth marks on the soap.

“People love that the house is completely interactive,” Dickerson said. “Most places, everything is behind velvet rope. Here, you can pick up anything, sit anywhere, even taste that bar of Lifebuoy soap if you’re so inclined.”

Smith regales us with tales about “A Christmas Story” as we gather in the living room. Such as how the movie owes its very existence to “Porky’s,” a teen sex comedy directed by Clark that scored at the box office in 1981 and gave him enough clout to get “A Christmas Story” made.

“This was something that Bob Clark really wanted to do, but the studio wasn’t convinced it would be as great as he thought it was going to be,” Dickerson said. “He was kind of known for B horror movies. Christmas wasn’t really his thing. So the studio just didn’t have a whole lot of faith in it.”

But Clark ultimately prevailed. Darren McGavin was cast as Mr. Parker (The Old Man), Melinda Dillon as his wife, Peter Billingsley as Ralphie and Petrella as Randy. Incredibly, the role of the father almost went to Jack Nicholson.

“I heard that he actually wanted to do it but he just wanted too much money and they couldn’t afford him,” Petrella said. “I’ve always said it definitely would’ve been a different movie with him in it. Especially given the fact the movie he did before that was ‘The Shining.’ It brings a whole new meaning to ‘Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie.’”

Items authentic to the movie are located across the street in the museum, which occupies another house Jones purchased. Here you’ll find costumes and props; stills from the movie; behind-the-scenes photos taken by the late Jim Moralevitz, who lived in the neighborhood all his life and was recruited to portray one of the freight men who delivered the major award to the Parker residence; and one of Randy’s snowsuits that left him feeling as constrained as an Egyptian mummy. Petrella owns another, along with the toy zeppelin Randy received on Christmas morning.

“The cast got to keep a lot of things from the set,” Smith said. “No one thought this movie would be as big as it is, so they just kind of let them have first dibs on everything. Peter Billingsley, he got to keep the bunny suit. Brian has been begging him for it so we can put it in the museum. He’s been offered a lot of money, but he will not let go of that bunny suit.”

The centerpiece of the collection is the Red Ryder BB gun.

“It was something that we had looked for but could never really find,” Dickerson said. “Last year it just kind of showed up at an auction house in California. A fan of the movie saw it, messaged us on Facebook to let us know it was there, and probably within 48 hours it was ours.”

Museum displays include decoder rings; toys used in the Higbee’s window display; the chalkboard from Miss Shields’ classroom (actress Tedde Moore actually wrote the A+++ on the board during a visit from her native Canada); newspaper clippings; and a movie poster in French with the tag line “Il est plus agreable de donner que de recevoir” (“It is better to give than to receive”). Of particular note is a large ad for Nehi soda, depicting a woman’s leg with the hemline of a skirt at the top and a black high heel below. The very inspiration for the major award.

“One of the questions people ask is how the leg lamp got started,” Smith said. “The writers [Shepherd, wife Leigh Brown and Clark] were thinking hard for days and days, what can Dad win? It can’t be a cash prize, it can’t be cliche, it has to be unique. So they came across this ad for Nehi soda, a popular drink back then.”

Shepherd added fishnet stockings and a golden lamp shade with black fringe. Voila! — the movie’s iconic image.

Adjacent to the museum is a garage that houses the actual Parker family vehicle, a 1938 Oldsmobile. The car is flanked by a firetruck nearly identical to the one that carried Flick’s rescuers in the memorable flagpole scene. The original is on display at the Chippewa, Ontario, firehouse.

Next door is a 3,500-square-foot gift shop, where all manner of “Christmas Story” items are available for purchase: Red Ryder carbines, pink bunny suits, T-shirts imprinted with lines from the movie (“You’ll shoot your eye out”; “I triple dog dare you”); and “Christmas Story” calendars, mugs, ornaments and puzzles. The biggest seller? Need you ask?

“The leg lamp is definitely the most requested item,” Dickerson said. “We do sell quite a few of those, and we have them in many different sizes, from the 50-inch, just like in the movie, that you can put in your front window, all the way down to a tiny little night light. So whatever the size home or the size budget, there’s a leg lamp for everybody.”

The success of the house and museum can be traced in part to media mogul Ted Turner. When “A Christmas Story” premiered in 1983, the movie barely made a blip in the nation’s consciousness, inconceivable as that seems today.

“It just never got love from the studio,” Dickerson said. “It didn’t get the support or the promotion that it deserved. It was only released in a limited number of theaters for about two weeks. It did pretty well at the box office, but it didn’t stay there long enough to make any real money or really gain attention. So when it was pulled, that was it.”

Or so it seemed. Then Turner started airing “A Christmas Story” on TNT in 1997, breathing new life into Jean Shepherd’s nostalgic tale. Now some 40 million viewers watch it every year during the TBS Christmas Day marathon. So why does the movie resonate as it does with so many?

“I think it’s because we’ve all had a Red Ryder at some point in time in our lives,” Petrella said. “It doesn’t matter what it is — maybe it was a car, maybe it was a girl, or a job … something. We’ve all had that one thing you just fantasized about and how it was gonna change your life, and we’ve all struggled in trying to get it. And then when we finally do, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world. I think that’s kind of what people relate to.”

We can all identify with Ralphie’s journey in “A Christmas Story,” which critic Leonard Maltin characterized as “one of those rare movies you can say is perfect in every way.” And fans of the film discover a visit to the “Christmas Story” house is a perfect way to relive a holiday classic.

Head to Cleveland, locate West 11th Street and it’s easy to find. Just look for the leg lamp in the window.

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