ORLANDO — The tree is trimmed, and Central Florida is getting ready for one of the most popular Christmas movies watched during the holiday season.
“A Christmas Story” is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and it is coming to life on stage right here in Orlando.
The best part is that Ian Petrella, who played Ralphie’s little brother, “Randy,” in the original movie, is in the stage production, switching roles and starring as the narrator.
Even with the star power, in order to create the cornucopia of Christmas chaos on stage, you must have all the ingredients that made the film a holiday icon.
You have to have the infamous leg lamp, and you can’t disappoint Aunt Clara — you have to have the pink bunny suit.
Of course, the story would not be complete without the Christmas presents of all Christmas presents — the official “Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time.”
And then there was that blasted furnace, which has been going on the fritz for a quarter of a century.
Petrella was 8-year-old when he was first stuffed into his maroon snow suit as Randy.
John Handiboe: “How fresh are those memories? What do you remember most?”
Petrella: “Pretty much every moment. People are usually surprised — ‘Wow you remember every moment?’ Yeah, it was 11 weeks. It was a big part of my life.”
However, the star power did not come right away. When the film opened in theaters a week before Thanksgiving in 1983, it was overlooked as a sleeper film. Over the years, it played here and there during the holidays on television. Then, in 1997, TNT began a Christmas tradition, airing “24 Hours of A Christmas Story.”
Petrella: “I have nothing to do with that. I’m terribly sorry. I apologize to everyone who comes up to me and says, ‘It is on for 24 hours,’ and I have absolutely nothing to do with it and if I had any power I would have that stopped and just do one showing on Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Petrella: “Come on.”
Handiboe: “I love it. It’s on for 24 hours at my house.”
Petrella: “I know. Who watches it for 24 hours?”
Handiboe: “I do.”
Handiboe: “Because it’s fun it’s a Christmas tradition now.”
It’s a tradition for which over 45 million Americans tune in to watch at least one time during the marathon, and with more people watching, more and more became fans. The hardcore fans are called “Ralphies.”
“I call it a seasonal celebrity,” Petrella told Handiboe. “Now, all of a sudden you have fans because you have spent most of your life not dealing with that and then all of a sudden people want you to sign things and want you to write. It is no longer bill collectors who want to get you to sign stuff now, it is people want it and now all of a sudden this name is worth $20 on a piece of paper.”
With the autographs, come the fan requests asking Petrella to re-enact one of the most famous scenes in “A Christmas Story” — one in which Randy’s mother eggs him on to “Show mommy how the piggy eats.”
Petrella: “During the mashed potato scene, that is the day that I got sick and was out for two days. I had gotten food poisoning.”
Handiboe: “You got food poisoning from the mashed potato scene?”
Petrella: “I don’t know exactly what happened. I got really, really sick. I don’t know what happened. What they did was after we shot that scene we went right to the unveiling of the leg lamp. So, makeup had to put mashed potatoes and red cabbage back on my face. So, standing there, I had stale mashed potatoes and red cabbage cooking on my face under the lights. So it was either that or the fish and chips I had that day.”
Poor Randy never did get any turkey that day, which is kind of ironic. The Bumpus’ hounds are his favorite characters and the scene when the pesky pooches devoured the Christmas turkey in the movie, well, it didn’t go quite as planned.
Petrella: “They had them run through the kitchen and they were supposed to take all of the food. Well, they didn’t. They just ran through the kitchen. They ran through the kitchen on command and didn’t touch a thing. So they tried it again, they ran through and nothing. So, the handler said, ‘We’ll come back tomorrow and I’ll try something. I won’t give them dinner. I’ll bring them back tomorrow hungry.’ So, he did not feed them dinner, breakfast or lunch. He just didn’t feed them. So, when he brought them in they were actually vicious and this time they tore the kitchen apart. They started fighting. It was madness, so it almost worked out too well.”
Director Bob Clark also wrestled with one of Petrella’s favorite scenes: A Flash Gordon fantasy sequence that was supposed to appear in the film as Ralphie wrote his theme.
“They had rented out a separate soundstage and built this moon vista with this galaxy backdrop and it was really beautiful. They had Ming the Merciless in this hot air balloon and Flash Gordan was wrapped in this monster. It was called the Cobra Plant. It was like this 1940s style Dragon Head. Like Ray Harryhausen, — dragon head with this octopus body. It was just an amazing scene.”
But it is a scene you will never see, Petrella said everything that was cut from the movie was trashed. The only thing left are the trinkets, props and costumes the cast and crew took with them.
Petrella admits he tries not to watch the film, but now he is reliving his childhood acting memories as a 34-year-old, starring as the narrator in the Orlando stage production of “A Christmas Story.”
It’s been 15 years since he has performed as an actor, and when he was in the biz he took mostly walk-on parts. Now, he is headlining, filling the clodhoppers originally worn by the film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd.
“Now I have to basically carry the play and that’s, that’s terrifying. We’ll see what happens come tomorrow night. I may freeze up. I have no idea,” Petrella said.
I guess he is taking on a real-life triple dog dare.
“A Christmas Story,” runs Dec. 11 through Dec. 28 at the Plaza Theatre, located at 1001 E. Princeton St.