Home of a seasonal classic

The kitchen furnished with 1940s-style appliances and a dinette set. Pains were taken to make the interior of the house true to the period - although the film's interior scenes actually were shot in Toronto.
The kitchen furnished with 1940s-style appliances and a dinette set. Pains were taken to make the interior of the house true to the period - although the film's interior scenes actually were shot in Toronto.
Posted: December 19, 2012

The shapely woman's leg - gam, to stay within the 1940s time period - with a lamp on top and tackier than the pinkest pink flamingo, 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 lady's hatbox in the closet of the upstairs bedroom, I called out to guide Dale Drottar, "My mother had hatboxes just like that in her walk-in closet." To which Drottar replied, "That's the type of thing we hope to hear from people here."

A Christmas Story House, in the working-class Pembroke section of Cleveland, is the actual house used for exteriors in the holiday season classic, A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd's autobiographical tale of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, his quest for a BB gun for Christmas, and the adventures that transpired around him and his little world.

Who can forget the scenes where Ralphie's father - "the old man" - chased the neighbor's mutts out of his way as he entered his home? That scene was shot here. Remember Black Bart and his gang of bad guys climbing the backyard fence in Ralphie's fantasy sequence? That was filmed in the backyard. Ralphie's kid brother, Randy, falling in the snow while trying to escape the neighborhood punks? That happened on this street, which happens to be West 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 here in Cleveland. And 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 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."

To which his teacher wrote the same admonition his parents gave him: "You'll shoot your eye out," and gave him a C+ for his efforts.

Drottar concedes, "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. She said, "This was my dad's favorite movie. 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.' "

Targeting those memories stuck in the recesses of our brains, or in our parents' brains, is a main reason for replicating Ralphie Parker's house, which explains Drottar's excitement when I recalled that my mom had a hatbox like the one in the upstairs closet. And, says Drottar, "Nothing in the house was used in the movie, so you can sit on the furniture."

And so I sit 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 pick up a copy of a 1940 edition of the Chicago Tribune as the sounds of Little Orphan Annie, "brought to you by Ovaltine," emanate from the nearby Philco.

Few details were spared in transforming this former real-life 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 spread across the fireplace mantel. There is a space under the kitchen sink where a frightened Randy hid when he thought 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 blurting out a word his old man might have been allowed to say, but never a 10-year-old in 1940.

The climactic scene in which Ralphie unscrambles Little Orphan Annie's secret code is played out in an upstairs bathroom, just as in the movie. Sitting atop Little Orphan Annie from the Sunday comics (or Sunday funnies, to use 1940s vernacular) is another composition book on which Ralphie anxiously decoded the hidden message of the Little Orphan Annie radio program's Secret Society, only to learn to his disappointment that the message was merely a plug for the show's sponsor: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

The redecorating and opening of A Christmas Story house had 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, read on eBay that the house where exteriors for A Christmas Story were filmed was for sale. The starting bid was $99,000, overpriced for a neighborhood had that declined after the closing of nearby steel mills.

Jones did not care. He had a dream to turn the house into a tourist attraction and he paid $150,000 for it. In time he bought two more houses across the street. The neighborhood gradually began to gentrify. Today, one of the two other buildings is a gift shop, the other a museum with four rooms filled with original props, including the toy soldiers and Raggedy Ann dolls that were in the front window of Higbee's department store, the original Parker Christmas tree, and the family's pajamas, with one exception - the famous bunny pajamas. Actor Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, has possession of the bunny pjs and has been loath to display them 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 Jim's job was caretaker to young actors Billingsley and Ian Petrella, who played Randy. Moralevitz will happily recount his brush with movie history, like the fact that Higbee's in downtown Cleveland stayed trimmed in Christmas regalia for three months after Christmas so filming could be completed there.

Moralevitz adds, "Randy hit on me a lot, always pulling pranks. I'd come back from the commissary with a cup of hot chocolate and he'd want some. Peter was a more serious kid. He wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes, how the movie was being made."

It was prescient - today Billingsley works as a producer but has not given up acting; he had an uncredited bit part in the 2003 Christmas movie Elf. His latest production, A Christmas Story: The Musical, opened on Broadway Nov. 19.

Should you venture into the gift shop, you will be eye-to-thigh with 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. There are ceramic replicas of movie scenes and A Christmas Story editions of such games as Yahtzee and dominoes. But should you buy an A Christmas Story candy bar, don't rush to throw away the wrapping. 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."


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