A Christmas Story [video by Rod J. Eckrich]


A national treasure comes home

The sleeper hit “A Christmas Story” now stands shoulder to shoulder with such holiday cinematic fare as “It's A Wonderful Life” or variations of “A Christmas Carol.” An annual exhibit in The Region is a testament to its status as a perennial favorite.

The cable TV station TBS broadcasts it for 24 hours beginning Christmas Eve. There are a few modern Christmas films that became instant holiday staples such as “Scrooged,” “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but none of those movies has worked its way into people’s hearts like “A Christmas Story.”

Given a limited release in 1983 in select theaters, “A Christmas Story” received treatment normally reserved for more under-the-radar movies. It began to fade into semi-obscurity on videocassette for a few years until word of mouth spurred a surge in rentals. The film was championed as offering a personal take on the reality and fantasy of the holidays. Viewers found an honesty that we still can identify with.

From getting ridiculous clothes from relatives and confronting bullies and triple dog dares to the troubles of picking up a tree from a lot and wanting something for Christmas that seems out of reach, the film resonates with people. We’re able to relate with Ralphie Parker and his trials and tribulations.

And, of course, for residents of Chicago and The Region, it depicts life and holidays in the Midwest that’s missing in the flurry of Rankin-Bass stop-motion stuff and various other Christmas movies. It’s rare for a film that came to theaters quietly and gradually attracted a cult-sized audience to turn into a pop culture phenomenon that everyone and their brother – and sister – knows.

Director Bob Clark actually had made horror movies such as “Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things,” “Deathdream” (also titled “The Night Andy Came Home”) and the holiday-themed “Black Christmas” before directing “A Christmas Story” and “Porky's,” Clark's biggest box office hit. “Black Christmas” is actually something of a holiday classic in its own right with its point-of-view scenes through the killer's eyes and the “menacing phone calls are really coming from inside the house” revelation as well as the identity of the killer remaining elusive.

“A Christmas Story” works because Ralphie and his family feel like a real family, and the film has a heart. The story was written by former Hammond resident Jean Shepherd and retains his voice as Shepherd also serves as the narrator of the film. Because the story is based in The Region and there are references to Griffith and, of course, Hammond, there is a misconception by some that the movie actually was filmed in Northwest Indiana.

It was shot in Cleveland, Ohio, and Shepherd ironically was known as the Cleveland Street Kid because he grew up on Cleveland Street in Hammond. Producers for the film were looking for a Rust Belt house, and the one featured in the movie was chosen because steel mills can be seen in the background. Some of the school scenes actually were filmed in Canada.

It’s only fitting that a homage to the film – an exhibit titled A Christmas Story Comes Home – should find a home in Hammond. The exhibit has been available for viewing at the Indiana Welcome Center, just south of Interstate 80/94 off of Kennedy Avenue at the Highland/Hammond border, since Nov. 1 and is free to the public until Jan. 9. The Welcome Center has six displays of scenes from the movie accurately re-created with props and animatronic characters. The scenes are of Higbee's Department Store, Flick's Tongue and the Triple Dog Dare, A Major Award, Santa's Mountain, The Bumpus Hounds and the Parker Living Room.

The displays originally were featured in the windows of Macy's store in New York City for the 20th anniversary of “A Christmas Story” in 2003. In 2005, Macy's took the displays and displayed them in Boston for a year. The figures and sets then were rescued from a storage facility in Boston. The purchaser of the displays forged a 13-year contract with Warner Brothers, the copyright holders of the film, and Macy's.

The exhibit has been at the Welcome Center for three years. During the past 10 years, the city of Hammond has made great strides in making “A Christmas Story” more viable to the community. Activities related to “A Christmas Story” now happen every year around this time, and the city also offers the Jean Shepherd Center.

The Welcome Center’s first year of displaying the scenes drew about 37,000 people. When the displays are open to the public, there are normally tons of special events. Such festivities include a mashed potato eating contest, the "Oh Fuuudge" tire relay and appearances by some of the actors featured in the movie. A Santa's Mountain exists where photos with Santa Claus can be taken. There is even a slide to go down after telling Santa what you want for Christmas, but chances are a boot to the head won’t be pushing you down. The center also puts a wide variety of Christmas trees up for a vote. A gift shop sells replicas of the leg lamp along with various other merchandise related to the film.

The displays offer a good indication of what makes the movie special. From many different lines of dialogue to a variety of scenes, everyone seems to have their favorites. My favorite scene is arguably between the "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine" moment and Ralphie and Randy standing in line to see Santa and the kid with goggles speaks to them inanely about “The Wizard of Oz”: "I like The Wizard of Oz … I like the Tin Man." Just the way the kid says it and how Ralphie casually responds is always funny to me. It is exciting to go to the Welcome Center, get a feel for a movie and appreciate it for how near and dear it is. I highly recommend checking it out.

For more information on the Christmas Story display at the Indiana Welcome Center, including exhibit hours, visit http://www.achristmasstorycomeshome.com/index.html