December 6th, 2008 by Ralphie
To them, A Christmas Story, the Bob Clark film based on short stories by humorist Jean Shepherd (who also narrates the movie), has eclipsed the 1946 Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life as the top holiday flick.
It’s been a long climb for the relatively low-budget movie, shot for an estimated $4 million in Cleveland and Toronto by the director of Porky’s. A Christmas Story didn’t do great box office when it was released in November 1983, and disappeared from theatres soon after. Nor was it nominated for multiple Oscars likeIt’s a Wonderful Life, although Clark did pick up Genies for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
But thanks to the 1997 decision by U.S. network TBS to run the movie 24 hours straight through Dec. 25, coupled with booming video and DVD sales, it has gained an army of fans who say it wouldn’t be Christmas unless they see Randy trussed up in his snowsuit, the Bumpus hounds making off with the turkey and Ralphie railing against those who predict “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid” if Santa brings his coveted Red Ryder BB gun.
Some 4,000 of these fans gathered at a Cleveland hotel last weekend for the fourth annual A Christmas Story convention to mark the 25th anniversary of the movie’s release, meet its stars and tour the home of the fictional Parker family.
“They’ve got Trekkies; we’ve got Ralphies,” quipped Brian Jones. For $150,000 on eBay, he bought the rundown house in a blue-collar Cleveland neighbourhood that was used for exterior scenes in the film.
“It’s bigger than It’s a Wonderful life,” insisted Scott Schwartz, who played Flick, the kid who gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole by taking a “triple-dog dare.”
“Even though it’s a Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life has nothing to do with Christmas,” added Ian Petrella, who played reluctant eater Randy. “My theory is we’ve all had Red Ryders in our life. We’ve all had that moment in time when we wanted something so bad it’s all we can think about.”
Petrella’s words ring true. Ask fans and they’ll recount stories of the year Santa brought them what they really wanted, said Oakville-based Tyler Schwartz (no relation to actor Scott), director of Canadian operations for A Christmas Story‘s online store. “When you’re a kid there’s no feeling like it. Your only recourse is to ask for it for Christmas and you just hope and pray that you’ll open up your present and it’s your toy.”
Toronto actor Tedde Moore, who played Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields, said she had no idea how big the movie had become until she saw the huge crowd that came for the official opening of the Cleveland house two years ago. “It was kind of overwhelming,” she said. “In two days, 40,000 people went through the house. You couldn’t see the street for the crowds.”
Moore said not everyone understood what Clark was trying to do, especially Hollywood brass who made him cut two fantasy scenes that are believed to be lost forever. “They never got the sense of the bigness of it,” Moore added sadly.
The biggest loss is legend among the fans. It’s an elaborate sequence with Ralphie in outer space, helping Flash Gordon battle Ming the Merciless and a monster with the help of his trusty BB gun.
Here at the Cleveland convention, the cast sat behind cloth-draped tables in a small ballroom, Sharpie pens, cash boxes and hand sanitizer at the ready. Thrilled fans, kept in line by red velvet ropes, filed by. The actors were patient and eager to please; nobody was rushed through. After all, this was work and they stood to make some money on $20 autographed photos and memorabilia.
Zack Ward and Yano Anaya, who played bullies Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, signed pictures with the salutation: “Say uncle!” They posed for photos with fans while pretending to hold them in headlocks. At another table, the sarcastic elves from Santa’s castle, Patty Johnson and Drew Hocevar, enthusiastically sneered for convention-goers.
Fans peppered the cast with questions: Where is Santa’s slide from Higbee’s department store? (It’s long gone.) Where did the leg lamp come from? (Production designer Reuben Freed created it.) Where’s Ralphie? (Actor Peter Billingsley, now a successful producer of such big-league films as Iron Man, rarely makes appearances. Yes, he does have the only “pink nightmare” bunny suit.) Also missing was “the old man,” Darren McGavin, who died in 2006, and “mom” Melinda Dillon, who is still acting in film and TV. Director Clark, 67, and his son, Ariel, 22, were killed by a drunk driver last April.
A Christmas Story has had more traction in the U.S., where many people leave it on all day as background music to their holiday celebrations. “We even put it on in the middle of summer, just to feel good,” said fan Sandi McCormick, who came to the convention from Madison, Wisc., with three generations of Ralphie fans.
She stood in the upper hallway of the Parker house with replicas of the bathroom and the boys’ bedroom behind her. It’s merely a recreation: the movie’s interiors weren’t shot here. They were all done on a Toronto soundstage.
Meanwhile, a long line of fans patiently waited to get into the house. Once inside, they admired the leg lamp in the front window, while most kids – and a few agile adults – wedged themselves under the kitchen sink, just as Randy did in the movie to escape his father’s wrath. As they left, they tried their luck on the Red Ryder shooting range, aiming for a target on the back fence that read: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Later on Saturday, Jeremy Starkey, 27, of West Virginia, won the adult division of the character look-alike contest, nabbing first prize for his Scut Farkus – authentic down to the fake braces for his teeth.
“I’m sitting next to Santa’s son!” a woman announced at the standing-room-only screening of a new documentary, Shooting the Eye Out: The Untold Christmas Story. The ballroom erupted in smiles and applause to learn that Phil Gillen, whose late dad, Jeff Gillen, played the cranky Higbee’s Santa, was in attendance with his family.
When Tom and Marlene Fickes of Akron, Ohio, weren’t “doing everything” at the convention or house and museum, they were in their room watching the 24-hour screening of A Christmas Story on the hotel’s house channel. They left it playing all day “so it would be on when we came back,” said Marlene.
“It’s a phenomenon that nobody saw coming,” actor Scott Schwartz marvelled as fans lined up to buy a signed photo of him with his tongue stuck to a flagpole. “I have the second-most famous tongue in the world, next to Gene Simmons,” he added with a chuckle.
From one kind of flick to another
There was no big payday for Scott Schwartz in the years after he starred as Flick – the kid who succumbs to a triple-dog dare and gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole in A Christmas Story.
There was no money from the action figures, T-shirts, lunchboxes or endless Christmas Day TV showings. And there was little work for a 30-year-old former child actor who had the lead in The Toy with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor 15 years before.
So he took roles in adult movies.
It’s practically an urban myth – hey, did you know Flick did porn? And he’s clearly unhappy to be asked about it by a nosy reporter. “I don’t promote it, I don’t want to promote it. It’s 10 years ago, it’s in my past,” says Schwartz.
All but one of his roles were what are called “non-sex parts,” he says, in which he played a bartender or chauffeur in movies likeNew Wave Hookers 5 and Still Insatiable, with Marilyn Chambers.
“You’re the first person all weekend to ask me that,” says Schwartz as he prepares to spend hours meeting fans and signing autographs at the Christmas Story convention a week ago. “It’s not important to these people. It’s not important to my history, so to speak. It’s something I did to put a roof over my head and put food on my table.”
Schwartz, 40, who now works for American trading card company Donruss, securing celebrity autographs, made $6,500 a week for six weeks’ work as a 14-year-old actor on A Christmas Story in 1983.
He was also “supposed to” make 5 per cent of any product with his likeness (as Flick) on it. It didn’t happen. “They have a thing called creative bookkeeping,” he scoffs. “I’ve seen $2,400 in merchandise money over the last five years.”
Despite that, the gregarious Schwartz revels in his almost ambassadorial role at the convention, posing with fans, keeping lines moving and people happy. He never seems to tire of hearing people talk about what A Christmas Story means to them, and is delighted that its fan base continues to grow.
“I got a chance to meet Michael Jordan and he’s a huge fan. He loves A Christmas Story. He was even doing an impression of me!”
- Linda Barnard
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