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"A Christmas Story"

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Brian Jones opened “A Christmas Story” House and Museum after sales of his leg lamps took off.

SCOTT MEIVOGEL Positively Cleveland,

Touring the 'Christmas Story' house

  • Article by: Michael Schuman
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 21, 2013 - 3:24 PM

The lamp with a woman’s leg (or “gam,” in the parlance of the 1940s) as its base sits right where it should: in the living room window. Across the room from the Parker family Christmas tree is a half-unwrapped Red Ryder BB gun. When I discovered the circa 1940s lady’s hat box in the closet of the upstairs bedroom, I called out to our guide, Steve Siedlicki, “My mother had hat boxes just like that in her walk-in closet.”

“That’s the type of thing we hope to hear from people here,” he replied.

I was steeped in a tour at “A Christmas Story” House, in the working class Pembroke section of Cleveland. The museum occupies the abode that was used in exterior shots for the holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” Jean Shepherd’s autobiographical tale of 10-year-old Ralphie Parker, his quest for a BB gun for Christmas, and the adventures that transpired around him and his little world.

Anyone who has seen the film will recall the scenes where Ralphie’s father — a k a “the old man” — chased the neighbor’s mutts out of his way. That scene was shot here. Remember Black Bart and his gang of bad guys climbing the back-yard fence in Ralphie’s fantasy sequence? That was filmed in the back yard. Ralphie’s kid brother, Randy, falling in the snow while trying to escape the neighborhood punks? That happened on this street, which is W. 11th Street in the real world, as opposed to the reel world.

Forget the fact that the interior scenes were filmed in and around Toronto.

The movie producers wanted to replicate Shepherd’s boyhood steel town neighborhood of Hammond, Ind. They found it in Cleveland. Today, the house’s interior is decorated to look as much as possible like Ralphie’s home in the movie, right down to the school composition book next to his famed glasses on the desk in his bedroom, in which he printed in crude letters, “What I want for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. I think everybody should have a Red Ryder BB gun. They’re very good for Christmas. I don’t think a football is a very good present.”

His teacher answered this essay with the same admonition his parents gave him: “You’ll shoot your eye out,” and gave him a C+ for his efforts.

Some people disconnect when they hear this is not where the interior shots were filmed. On the other hand, there are those such as Claire Kingsbury, visiting from Ocala, Fla., who said she had to see the home for sentimental reasons.

Secret code uncovered

“This was my dad’s favorite movie,” she said. “He would watch it and say things like, ‘We sat in chairs like that all the time when I was in school. I also had a teacher who took our toys and put them in a drawer, and we never got them back.’ ”

Unlike at other museums, visitors can sit on the furniture here. So I sat in the comfy chair by the console radio, next to a standing ashtray, something else my parents had in our house when I was growing up. I picked up a copy of a 1940 edition of the Chicago Tribune as the sounds of Little Orphan Annie, “brought to you by Ovaltine,” emanated from the nearby Philco.

Few details were spared in converting this former two-family house into Ralphie Parker’s 1940 movie home. The trimmed Christmas tree stands in the living room, sheltering wrapped presents and a blue bowling ball, while holly is sprawled across the fireplace mantel. There is a crawl space under the kitchen sink where a frightened Randy hid when he felt he was in trouble. And if you look carefully, you can see in the upstairs bathroom a bar of Lifebuoy soap with a bite taken out of it, evidence of Ralphie’s punishment after spurting out a word his old man might have been allowed to say, but never a 10-year-old in 1940.

Navy vet behind museum

The redecorating and opening of “A Christmas Story” House came from an unlikely source. San Diego Navy veteran Brian Jones began making female leg lamps, like the one Ralphie’s old man coveted, as a cottage industry. After sales unexpectedly took off, his wife, Mary, discovered on E-Bay that the Cleveland house was for sale nearly a continent away.

Though the neighborhood was in decline after the nearby steel mills had closed, Jones bought the house and two others across the street. Today, those two other houses are a gift shop and a museum with original movie props, including the toy soldiers and Raggedy Ann dolls that were in Higbee’s front window, the original Parker home Christmas tree and the family’s pajamas, with one exception — the famous bunny suit. Actor Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, has possession of it and has been loath to display it publicly.

If you enter the museum at the right time you might meet longtime neighborhood resident Jim Moralevitz, who was here for the filming in 1982 and served as an extra, playing a freight man who helps deliver the leg lamp to the Parkers.

Most of the time, Moralevitz’s job was to take care of young actors Billingsley and Ian Petrella, who played Randy. Jim will happily recount his brush with movie history.

Today Billingsley works as a film producer and is executive producer of the hit musical based on the movie.

Should you venture into the gift shop, you will be eye to leg with female leg lamps in all shapes and sizes, as well as in the forms of night lights and cookie cutters, inside snow globes and as a string of Christmas lights. If you buy an “A Christmas Story” candy bar, don’t rush to throw away the wrapper. At the bottom of the box is an altered facsimile of the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society hidden message Ralphie waited so anxiously to decipher.

In this case, the hidden message reads — what else — “Don’t forget to eat your chocolate.”

 

Travel writer Michael Schuman lives in Keene, N.H.

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