by Neil Cotiaux
Sometimes, the quirkiest things can spark a novel business idea. Like a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg in a now-classic holiday film.
That lamp, along with an ill-fated turkey and other rib-tickling reminders of A Christmas Story, beckons tens of thousands of visitors a year to A Christmas Story House, tucked away on a side street in Cleveland, Ohio.
Spun from radio monologist Jean Shepherd’s memories of his Indiana boyhood, the 1983 movie in which the kitschy lamp appeared has become must-see TV each year for tens of millions of viewers who delight in the hijinks of Ralphie, The Old Man, and other quintessentially American characters.
“It was a hit right out of the gate for our family,” says Brian Jones, founder and owner of A Christmas Story House and several affiliated businesses.
When a failed vision test dashed Jones’s dreams of becoming a Navy pilot, his parents cheered him up with a homemade replica of The Old Man’s leg lamp, an oddball gift that got Jones’s entrepreneurial juices flowing.
Working out of his San Diego condo in 2003, Jones single-handedly assembled hundreds of lamps to sell on his website, RedRiderLegLamps.com, with his pickup truck serving as collateral for parts. When sales took off, he outsourced production to China.
A year later, Jones learned that the Cleveland house where exterior scenes of the movie were shot was for sale on eBay.
Sight unseen, Jones offered $150,000 to stop the bidding so the house could serve as a tourist attraction and promote his lamps.
“I thought I was getting a steal … a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he remembers.
But when a friend backpedaled on going in as a partner, Jones needed help — and fast.
Enter Steve Siedlecki, a museum guide whose family grew up in the Cleveland neighborhood where the 1895-built house stood. Siedlecki read an article about Jones, emailed him, and said he’d take on the task of transforming the property to reflect the 1940s look and feel in the movie.
“He was the only person who actually believed I wasn’t nuts,” Jones says.
Restoring the house and creating a museum and gift shop across the street were no easy tasks.
Since most of the movie was shot in Toronto, “You had to bring this larger soundstage into a smaller house,” Siedlecki explains. That meant scouring the community for appliances and furniture to “keep the house time-period appropriate,” being mindful of plumbing, and leaving floor space for visitors.
“The upstairs, when you watch the movie, is actually reversed. … The kitchen is reversed as well,” Siedlecki notes.
A bare-bones version of the house opened in November 2006, but the project kept growing through its association with the film and Jones’s leg lamps, as well as by word-of-mouth.
Ultimately, $1.5 million was sunk into the complex using profits from the lamp business, two lines of credit, and proceeds from admissions and gift sales.
On a recent fall day, visitors from three states ambled up the stairs of A Christmas Story House for one of its half-hour tours. They beheld replicas of Ralphie’s sled, the iconic leg lamp, and the kitchen-dining room where Christmas dinner went to the dogs, then traipsed upstairs to see the bedroom where Ralphie fell asleep on Christmas night, his beloved Red Ryder BB gun at his side.
Across the street at the gift shop, fans eyed a 50-inch leg lamp on sale for $179.99 and milled through aisles filled with Hallmark ornaments, “I Triple Dog Dare Ya” T-shirts, DVDs of the movie, and bars of Lifebuoy — the soap used to wash Ralphie’s mouth out. The shop sells more than 200 items in all — with Warner Brothers collecting licensing fees and royalties.
The museum next door features props, costumes, and behind-the-scenes photos from the film’s production. The movie shrine attracts up to 45,000 tourists a year from at least 30 countries.
“They come here and they start quoting the movie,” relates Siedlecki, who holds the title of executive director at a 19-employee operation that’s given him the resources to buy a home for his own family. “It’s on their bucket list,” Siedlecki says.
“Let’s face it, most of us are scoffers,” Ralphie says as an adult at one point in A Christmas Story, “but moments before zero hour, it did not pay to take chances.”
For Jones, taking a very big chance on leg lamps and doubling down with A Christmas Story House turned out to be one of the best decisions of all.