Twenty-five years ago, at the quiet end of Cleveland Street, a round-faced rapscallion with endangered blue peepers gazed from the window of his house and dreamed of the perfect Christmas gift:
An official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, a blue-steel beauty with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.
You go, Ralphie Parker.
And now, in front of that same mustard-yellow two-story with the wraparound porch, dinged-up mailbox and horseshoe door knocker announcing "major awards" — fra-gee-lay! — another round-faced kid gazes into that same window and dreams of that same gift.
Reel life, meet real life.
Ralphie Parker, meet Raul Gomez.
"I like that BB gun," says 13-year-old Gomez, who lives a few doors down from that working-class home made famous in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. The house is now a life-affirming tourist destination, a must-see for any fa-ra-ra-ra fan of the film.
Raul's home isn't that different from Ralphie's old joint, although the "Latinos for Obama" sign is certainly a modern touch. Every day, Raul rides his orange bike down the sidewalk and stops in front of the movie house, the one with the fishnetted leg lamp in the front window — behold, the leg lamp! — which stays illuminated 24/7/365.
Raul and his family love the flick. "My mom says if it's on 10 times, she'll watch it 10 times," he says. But despite living so close, Raul has never been inside the house, which draws people, day and night, to the blue-collar neighborhood of Tremont.
A few years ago, a San Diego businessman bought the house on eBay, sight unseen, for $150,000. He then spent another $250,000 having it restored. More than 600,000 people have made the pilgrimage here since A Christmas Story House opened in 2006.
And every day, Raul watches hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fans pay to enter, to get a whiff of nostalgia, to peer out the side window at the Bumpus house — the Bumpuses! — and listen for those howling hounds.
Raul won't give up his dream of getting in there, though, especially when I tell him that Ralphie's BB gun is still inside. I saw it myself, across from the Christmas tree with that crooked star on top. Ralphie's bar of Lifebuoy, the soapy penance he chomped on after blurting out "the queen mother of dirty words," is in there, too. With teeth marks.
Raul nods, smiles. He likes that. He wants to get in. He wants that BB gun. And why not? Whether it's the 20th century or the 21st, fiction or fact, the Ralphie Parkers of the world should never give up.
• • •
I've come to Cleveland to pay my respects to the Old Man. I want to sit in his chair. I want to touch his blue bowling ball. I want to shake my fist and bulge my eyes and howl unintelligible threats at the neighbor mutts.
I also want the ultimate in yuletide bragging rights. That's right: I've been to his house.
When A Christmas Story first came out, I was all about Ralphie and his Red Ryder. I'm 38 now. I have kids of my own. I have a car that sounds like it has a giant ball of aluminum foil lodged under the hood. I pay my bills and I complain about my sports teams.
I'm not about Ralphie anymore. I've become the Old Man, portrayed so brilliantly, so churlishly in A Christmas Story by Darren McGavin.
Not a fingah!
For the three of you out there who don't spend great chunks of your holiday season watching A Christmas Story, it's a subtly subversive comedy about the Parker family — the Old Man, Mrs. Parker, sons Randy and Ralphie — as they maneuver the times, trials and clinking furnaces of Christmas in 1940s Indiana.
A Christmas Story didn't last long in theaters. But thanks to the power of cable TV and DVDs, a quarter-century later the film rivals Snoopy and the Grinch as the holiday season's most beloved TV draw. TBS hosts an annual 24-hour marathon (this year's begins at 8 p.m. Dec. 24). The movie has become a veritable goldmine of quotables.
It is sweet and sepia-toned. It is painfully, unmistakably, unerringly us. That's also why I've come to Cleveland. Because in the screwy year 2008, we need A Christmas Story more than ever.
Despite the Indiana "locale" in the script, most of the movie was shot on a soundstage in Toronto. But for a few sweet weeks, director Bob Clark and his film crew set up shop in Cleveland, specifically downtown at Higbee's department store (where Ralphie braves Santa and his elves) and at 3159 W 11th St. (a.k.a. Cleveland Street in the film).
Only exterior shots were filmed at the house, including Ralphie's battle with Black Bart in the back yard and the Old Man's sidewalk presentation of the leg lamp. But owner Brian Jones, 32, has done his best to match both the outside and the inside of the house to what you've seen 2,000 times on your TV.
As you drive down the tree-lined street and see the house for the first time, it fills you with such ridiculous joy, some folks (yeah, okay, fine, some folks like me) get misty-eyed. And when you finally walk up those steps, onto the green porch, and through the front door of A Christmas Story House, it is nothing less than going home.
• • •
In the years after the movie crew left, the house on W 11th Street lost serious cinematic magic. Drug dealers moved into the neighborhood. Houses were abandoned, boarded up. But Jones, a longtime fan, was undeterred.
Vinyl siding came down. Paint went up. There was no staircase in the original house, no way for boys in deranged bunny pajamas to trundle down the steps. That's the first thing you see when you walk in: a wide yellow staircase opening up onto a leg-lamp-illuminated living room. The Philco radio is playing old tunes. The Old Man's bowling ball gleams under the Christmas tree lights.
The Parkers' 1940s-style kitchen was re-created and made fully functional, with a Maytag wringer washer, a GE icebox and an old gas stove, which now sports a plastic turkey awaiting canine catastrophe. Local contractor Mike Foster got so involved in the Christmas Story project, he demanded that the kitchen tiles in the movie match the ones in real life. He had to hand-cut dozens of 12- by 12-inch tiles to 9-by-9.
But the transformation is brilliant. The details are irresistible. When I open the small cabinet under the kitchen sink, PR rep Emily Vincent laughs, "Everyone does that!" I'm looking for Randy, of course, who hid under there when he thought the Old Man was "going to kill Ralphie."
After a short talk, tour guides allow guests to browse the house on their own. It's fun, like a scavenger hunt. In the upstairs bathroom, you'll find that bar of Lifebuoy with the bite marks. Tour guide Dale Drottar, a 58-year-old retired cop, was in charge of the dental authenticity. "When I bit down, it stuck to the back of my teeth," he says. "It was dripping on my tonsils. Horrible stuff."
The back yard might be the coolest place at A Christmas Story House. The original shed, where Ralphie imagined picking off baddies, is still intact. (The door opens, so walk on in.) Peer over the back fence, and you'll see an old steel mill, which was written into the original script.
Jones also bought three houses across the street, razing one and turning the others into a gift shop (Old Man action figures, leg lamp night-lights) and a museum for memorabilia, which includes Flick's goggles, Miss Shields' chalkboard and Randy's tragically binding snowsuit. There's also the door from Ralphie's classroom. It was Room 3.
• • •
When A Christmas Story House opened on Thanksgiving weekend 2006, 4,300 people were waiting to get in. "The first day it opened, I had to drive around the block 12 times looking for a parking space," says neighbor Dash Combs, 25.
The house has transformed the street. If the folks next door ever want to sell, Jones has even considered turning the Bumpus house into a B&B. Someday, A Christmas Story House could turn into A Christmas Story Land. And more than likely, fans will come for that, too.
Lisa Vosbury, 36, drove from Binghamton, N.Y., to see her ailing father, her own Old Man. It's been a tough trip. She needed a smile. So she came here. "It looks exactly like the movie," she says beaming. She wanders around the property, a small, goofy grin curling her mouth. "Oh, it's just about the simple things," she says of the movie's allure. "We can relate to it on all levels, right?"
Diehard fans, called "Ralphies," come at all hours to bask in the glow of that leg lamp. Huge crowds are expected for this year's 25th anniversary. This weekend, there's a Christmas Story convention at the Renaissance Hotel, right next to the Higbee's building, now a visitors center. Thousands of Ralphies will descend on the city, giddily attending such events as A Christmas Story: The Musical! and "Character Look-alike Contest."
A scattering of actors will also be in town, although none of the major players will attend. Bob Clark, Jean Shepherd and, alas, "Old Man" Darren McGavin have all passed away. Melinda Dillon, who played the mom, has declined invitations to visit. And Ralphie himself, Peter Billingsley, is now a Hollywood producer (Iron Man) who prefers to keep his past right where it is. Rumor has it the original bunny suit and Red Ryder are in his mom's attic.
The movie doesn't need actors to sell it, of course. Grandfathers and fathers and sons and brothers own the movie now. And as they descend upon A Christmas Story House this holiday season, bundled-up neighbors will be there to greet them, selling cookies and Ovaltine.
2008, meet 1940.
Snow will be falling. Music will be playing. And if you happen to meet a boy named Raul selling his own wares, you'll know what he's saving his money for. Wish him a Merry Christmas. And tell him not to shoot his eye out.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.