A Christmas Story

On the 35th anniversary of its release, the movie—and the Christmas Story House and Museum—are more popular than ever.

Leg Lamp At A Christmas Story House
The Leg Lamp at the Christmas Story house in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Failure magazine.

“My guess is that either nobody will go to see it or millions of people will go to see it because it will catch on,” said iconic film critic Roger Ebert about A Christmas Story. Ebert proved prophetic, because the movie—released on November 18, 1983—came and went before Christmas Day 1983, but is now watched by tens of millions of people each and every holiday season. Much like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Wizard of Oz, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it took home video and television to make A Christmas Story what it is today—a beloved holiday classic, complete with its own mecca, the Christmas Story House and Museum, in Cleveland, Ohio.

From Porky’s to A Christmas Story
Director Bob Clark might never have earned the chance to make A Christmas Story if it weren’t for his critically-reviled teen sex comedy Porky’s (1982), a box office smash that gave Clark some bargaining power. (Clark agreed to deliver Porky’s 2 in exchange for the chance to make A Christmas Story, which he had been pitching to studios for more than a decade.) But Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) merely tolerated the making of the film—at one point nearly pulling the plug on production. So it’s no surprise that A Christmas Story opened on fewer than 900 screens nationwide (by comparison, Amityville-3D opened the same day on more than 1,200), and received little in the way of marketing and advertising support (which went to MGM’s major holiday release, Barbra Streisand’s Yentl).

Reviews of the unconventional Christmas movie were all over the map: Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up, and Jay Carr of the Boston Globe predicted the film would “give pleasure to people not only this Christmas, but for many Christmases to come.” On the other hand, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was not amused, writing that “There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in A Christmas Story, but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them.” Rex Reed of the New York Post was even less charitable: “By the time the holidays roll around, this little turkey will already be stuffed, devoured, and sent out with the rest of the garbage.”

Despite the lack of support from the studio, A Christmas Story could not be characterized as a flop. Made for $4 million it earned approximately $19 million on its initial run. But MGM hadn’t planned for success, and neglected to book the film into additional theaters for the run-up to Christmas. MGM seems to have recognized its mistake and made a half-hearted attempt to re-release A Christmas Story the next November “by special arrangements with the North Pole,” but the total domestic gross in the fall of 1984 was a mere $1.3 million.

Television was slow to embrace A Christmas Story, though it did air on HBO in 1985 and FOX in 1986. Then, beginning in the late 1980s, TBS began showing the film on a regular basis, with additional notice generated by sister stations TNT and Turner Classic Movies.

“The exposure hit an unprecedented level in 1997 when TNT launched a first-ever programming stunt, broadcasting A Christmas Story twenty-four hours straight, starting on Christmas Eve,” notes Tyler Schwartz in his 64-page book, “A Christmas Story Treasury” (Running Press). “The marathon was a hit and continues to air annually, now on TBS,” continues Schwartz, who reports that “each year more than fifty million people tune in at least once to watch 24 hours of A Christmas Story.”

A Christmas Story: The House
Though most of the filming of A Christmas Story took place in Canada, the cast and crew spent several weeks in Cleveland filming the Higbee’s Department Store scenes, as well as several scenes that feature the Parker family’s house and property.

But the house—a rental property found at 3159 W. 11th St., just minutes from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport—fell into disrepair over the course of the next two decades. Then, in December 2004, in the midst of a partial renovation gone awry, the owner put the house up for sale on eBay, listing it for $99,900 and noting that the house “still attracts hundreds of people who are interested in seeing this historic Christmas icon.”

Enter Brian Jones, a Navy intelligence officer-turned-entrepreneur with a curious connection to A Christmas Story. Jones had a lifelong dream to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Navy pilot, and advanced all the way to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, before failing the vision test.

In the wake of that bitter disappointment, he received an unexpected package—actually, a wooden crate—at his condominium. Inside was a leg lamp, which his parents had assembled as a cheer-him-up gag gift. But after more than a few friends joked that he ought to begin selling leg lamps, Jones got the hint. “One day, it just kind of dawned on me. I should sell leg lamps,” he told TV Guide for The Cast of A Christmas Story: Where Are They Now?

Recognizing an opportunity to parlay his increasingly successful leg lamp business into something more and fearful that someone would outbid him, Jones called the house’s owner and offered to buy the property sight-unseen for $150,000. In the meantime, Jones’ wife had jokingly sent him a link to the eBay auction. His reply to her email: I already bought it.

Jones proceeded to hire Steve Siedlecki (a part-timer at the Cleveland Historical Society), to oversee the renovation of the house, a project that included replicating the interior rooms seen in the film. “We went through the movie frame by frame to get it as accurate as we could,” offers Siedlecki, noting that it took 11 months and $250,000 to restore the house to the condition it is in today.

Finally, on November 25, 2006, the Christmas Story House opened to the public. Jones held his breath, knowing that his wife might never forgive him if the investment didn’t pay off. Fortunately for Jones, opening day “beat every expectation I ever had for it. By the time the day really kicked off [the line] was three or four people deep all the way down the block. It was hours to get in. I was happy as could be,” he says.

“We keep the house interactive,” begins Siedlecki. “You can climb under the sink, you can hold a BB gun, and you can sit on the toilet upstairs where we have a little decoder ring. And we have a flagpole outside the museum, where people go and pretend their tongue is stuck to the pole.” (In case you’re wondering, the flagpole is made of plastic, but if anyone ever triple-dog-dares you to stick your tongue to a cold metal pole, you should beg off, as Mythbusters confirms).

A Christmas Story Museum and Gift Shop
These days, Ralphies—that is, fans of the movie—descend on the neighborhood in droves, which has allowed Jones to expand the complex to add a stand-alone museum and stand-alone gift shop, both located across the street. The museum features many of the outfits worn in the movie (including Ralphie’s hat, coat, ear muffs and scarf), as well as several hundred behind-the-scenes photos, not to mention other memorabilia.

Over in the gift shop (which officially opened the day I visited, July 13, 2013), Ralphies can purchase leg lamps, replica scarves & caps, and of course, Red Ryder BB guns. Or simply watch scenes from the movie, which plays in a continuous loop.

With more than a quarter-million visitors to date, one would assume the Christmas Story house is the most famous property in the neighborhood. Except the home of rapist/kidnapper/murderer Ariel Castro (where Amanda Berry, Georgina “Gina” Jones, and Michelle Knight were held captive for more than a decade) is only three-quarters of a mile away—or at least it was, until it was demolished in August 2013.

Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration
In 2012, more than 25,000 people visited the house and museum between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, and Jones & Co. expect a far greater number of visitors this year, owing to the 30th Anniversary Convention and Celebration, which will take place November 29-30. According to Siedlecki, the Convention will feature appearances by at least a half-dozen original cast members (Randy, Flick, Scut Farkus, Grover Dill, and the Evil Elves); author signings of two new books about the movie, including the aforementioned “Christmas Story Treasury”; a BB gun range in the backyard of the House; and a “very special not-to-be missed light ceremony.”

Siedlecki and company expect to see their share of hardcore Ralphies, though he insists the level of obsession is nothing like one might see at, say, a Star Trek convention. But Grace French, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and works as a tour guide at the House, says she’s seen her share of hardcore devotees. “One woman brought mashed potatoes to stick her face in,” she recalls, “and another time we had an entire busload of people dressed in pink bunny suits.”

Another time, during an appearance at the House by Ian Petrella (Randy, Ralphie’s little brother), a woman pushed Petrella to the point where he stumbled and nearly fell down, an incident described in the new book “A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic” (ECW Press), by Caseen Gaines. “What the hell did you do that for?” exclaimed Petrella. “I wanted to push you on the ground and see if you’d have trouble getting up,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the film continues to earn accolades, re-validating Clark’s vision of A Christmas Story’s potential. In December 2012, the movie won a truly major award—inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as a work of enduring importance to American culture. French isn’t surprised, because “everyone can relate to it. Everyone really wants something, and everyone remembers their dad yelling,” she says. “Plus, eight-year-old's love it.”