A look inside A Christmas Story House and Museum: Leg lamps, decoder rings, bunny suits and a fascinating neighbor who was on the set
December 6th, 2013 by Ralphie
by Laura DeMarco
We have Higbee’s to thank for “A Christmas Story.”
Or so goes the local legend about the 1983 holiday classic — partly filmed in Cleveland and wholly loved in our fair town.
Director Bob Clark was looking for a Midwestern city to stand in for author Jean Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Ind. The city needed 1940s-looking houses – and a historic department store for the parade and Santa line scenes. He sent out 100 letters to stores.
Only Higbee’s responded. So Clark chose Cleveland for his cinematic labor of love. He chose the Tremont neighborhood for the Parker family house because he had loved how it looked in the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter.”
These are just two of the fun facts about the 30-year-old film I learned on a recent visit to the A Christmas Story House and Museum in Tremont, ground zero for fans of what has become an international cult classic.
The house, museum and onsite gift shop are the starting point for devotees of the movie about little Ralphie Parker’s solitary dream of getting a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas.
Nestled in a working-class residential neighborhood at the corner of West 11th Street and Rowley Avenue, and overlooking the belching steel mills, the house looks very much like it did in the film, set sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s. There’s even a glowing Major Award, er, leg lamp, in the front window.
It’s just like you’ve stepped into the Parkers’ world – I half expected to see Randy toddling around in his snowsuit and Mrs. Parker cooking up her turkey in the kitchen.
Except that only exteriors were filmed at the Cleveland house, in addition to the Higbee’s and Public Square scenes. This was in part due to the fact that no snow fell in Cleveland in January 1983 when filming was slated, and in part due to Canadian actress Tedde Moore’s (Miss Shields) pregnancy. So they moved up to Ontario – where the snow was free, not a costly effect – for additional outside shots and soundstage work.
Fortunately for Cleveland fans, house and museum owner Brian Jones has re-created the inside of the Parkers’ house since he bought the home on West 11th Street in 2006.
Downstairs in the vintage house, visitors are greeted by the Parkers’ decorated tree. “Go ahead, crawl under the sink like Randy, or lie down in the boy’s bed – it’s all interactive,” says a tour guide. Upstairs, some guests on our tour did just that – others were fascinated by the bathroom, which featured Ralphie’s decoder ring AND a bar of Lifebuoy soap.
The backyard, where scenes WERE filmed, looked just like the movie. All that was missing were Ralphie and his gun.
While the house was fully interactive, items in the museum across the street were under glass – for good reason. Jones has amassed a large amount of memorabilia from the film since opening the house.
“A lot of it finds me,” he says. “People who worked on the film read about the house and call me up and say, ‘Guess what I’ve got?’ ”
Items include stills from the movie and clothing including the Old Man’s (Darren McGavin) coat, Mother’s (Melinda Dillon) robe and housecoat, and Randy’s (Ian Petrella) snowsuit. The coolest collection, though, may be the antique toys used in the Higbee’s window sequence, including the Toy Tank.
But the best part of the museum isn’t a what, it’s a who: Jim Moralevitz.
Moralevitz, 73, has lived two doors down from the Christmas Story House since he came from the hospital as a newborn.
He lived there in 1983 during the filming and became quite involved: He’s the guy who delivers the leg lamp. He also became friends with McGavin and a de facto caretaker for the kids on the set.
Today, Moralevitz still lives two doors down – and almost every day, he sets up a chair in the museum near his personal memorabilia collection and shares his stories.
And they’re great, like the one about how he and McGavin used to shut down the Rowley Tavern at night, then go back to his trailer for a nightcap , finally ending up sharing breakfast while he would listen to the actor recite his lines.
Or the one about how Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) and some of the other kids were missing from the set, and he found them chasing an alley cat behind his house, stopping them before the young actor could get his face scratched.
“I’m there every single day, greeting people from all over the world,” says Moralevitz, a retired salesman/polka band leader/Eastern Europe tour guide. “People really appreciate meeting someone who was there during the movie. It was a great pleasure for me to be involved, and I love to share my stories.”
So, how did he end up delivering the leg lamp?
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says, “eating pierogi at the Rowley, and the casting director came in and hired all four of us who were in there.
“I never knew I would have such an important role, or that the movie near my house would lead to this Ralphie cult. As I like to say, ‘whoda thunk it?’ ”
Perhaps Christmas Story House owner Brian Jones.
“It’s just a really good movie about childhood and growing up and Christmas,” he says. “It’s a great, real story about being a kid.”
A Christmas Story House and Museum is open seven days a week, year-round, at 3159 West 11th St. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. Call 216-298-4919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Monday through Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Tours of the house run every 30 minutes. Regular admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for children (ages 7 to 12) and free for children ages 6 and under. More info: achristmasstoryhouse.com.
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