It’s easy to love A Christmas Story. Even if you don’t love Christmas, the movie speaks to either a childhood that you had or one that you longed for. An amazing blend of a uniquely American holiday experience, a coming of age tale, and a glimpse behind the curtain into a family dynamic that, once purposely bygone, is in an almost chronic state resurgence, the film has provided a laugh, a sigh and a nostalgic sympathetic moan for three decades of audiences. Is it odd, then, to hear that this film was almost never made? And that when it was released, it was not a box office success? Well, both of these stories are true. And maybe I’ll get to them in a minute, but first, let’s talk about why I’m really putting finger to keyboard to write to you today. . . THE HOUSE!!!!
Though the story takes place sometime between 1939 and 1943, A Christmas Story was filmed in 1982 so it is NOT, in fact, an OLD MOVIE (I tell my children this about so many movies made in the 80’s and 90’s that they have a practiced shared smirk dedicated solely to my idiocy on this subject–what is old). And the story and human characters are lovely, but the vintage setting of the movie is such an important diorama that I feel it’s fair to consider the town itself a “character” since it goes so much further than “setting” in this particular case. Filmed on location in Cleveland, Ohio and Toronto, Canada, the steel yards, working class housing, school house, and department store are so much more than window dressing that they have procured a cult following among movie fans including Brian Jones, an entrepreneur producing leg lamps for sale on the internet to help ends meet when he discovered in 2005 that THE Christmas Story house was being auctioned on EBay. He bought the house sight unseen for $150,000.
When the new owner arrived, he found that the house (an actual family home, not a movie set) had been used as first a family home then converted to apartments at some point so the conversion back to “Ralphie’s House” took years and a whole lot of dinero (not to mention a fair bit of imagination since this house was used on a limited basis and for the exterior shots, but the interior scenes were actually filmed on a sound stage in Toronto). But now, not only has the house been restored to it’s appropriate midcentury glory, but also a museum dedicated to memorabilia from the original motion picture and a garage containing the Old Man’s car have been built across the street.
Here’s where I come in. . . YOU CAN VISIT THE HOUSE! It is now a museum and a hands on one at that. You can touch everything, lay down on the beds, dress up in bunny suits, caress the leg lamp, eat at the kitchen table, use the decoder pin, heck there are even bars of Lifebuoy soap and Red Rider BB Guns! This was one of my favorite roadside stops of all time. It costs $10 for the tour of the house and nearby museum, but it was money well spent. They are generous with time and folklore about the movie and characters. I learned a bunch of great stuff and I had an amazing time.
The movie is based on a series of short stories by Jean Shepherd originally published in Playboy and later as a book titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Director Bob Clark heard Shepherd reading the stories on the car radio one evening and fell in love. Throughout his career, he tried to talk studios into letting him make the film, but he had been pigeonholed into the corny horror genre and couldn’t get execs to see him as an endearing holiday story teller. It was only because of the success of his film Porky’s that he gained the leverage he needed–the studio wanted Porky’s Revenge and he parlayed their interest in a second Porky’s into a small budget for A Christmas Story.
When released on Thanksgiving weekend in 1983, the original reception was lukewarm and the film had been pulled from theaters before the Christmas rush (Scarface and Carrie came out–nothing says Christmas like lots of blood, people). It wasn’t until the rights to the film were purchased by Warner Bros as part of a 50 film deal (it was pretty much thrown in for free so that they could make the 50 film number) and started being played on cable television that it became a beloved holiday tradition. And I couldn’t be happier.