A Christmas Story. What is it about this movie?
What is it about this film that so captures the imagination of all of us? Especially if we're from Cleveland, Ohio? How has Bob Clark’s now classic film, based on Jean Shepherd’s classic story, become the very fabric of this Northeast Ohio city?
It is true that some of the film’s most iconic scenes - the outside of Ralphie’s house and the backyard where he shoots his eye out, the Christmas parade and Ralphie’s tragic visit to Santa Claus (“Ho …. ho ….. ho.”) - were filmed here. But the bulk of the movie was shot in Toronto. And the story is set in fictional Hohman, Indiana.
Still. Doesn’t matter. A Christmas Story is Cleveland through and through. How did this happen? And why is it so?
‘You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.’
Dennis Tennant says it’s because the film reminds him of what it was like being a kid. “I still want a Red Ryder BB gun,” he says. (Full disclosure, the Copley, Ohio, resident is my Old Man.)
Sure, makes sense. But I suspect boys of a certain age from across the country feel the same way. What we’re really looking for is the reason Cleveland is so enamored with the movie.
“Well, it’s not like we have any recent memories of World Series or Super Bowl victories,” suggests Jeremy Negrey. Negrey, a life-long suffering Cleveland sports fan, lives in Shaker Heights. “We cling to what we’ve got: Peter Billingsley and Scottie Schwartz.”
Could that be it? Does our city collectively yearn for the kind of admiration folks give this holiday favorite? Possibly. Probably. But there’s more to it than that, right? Because we feel this film is a part of us.
‘If Higbee thinks I’m working a minute past 9 …’
“It’s the downtown scenes with Higbee’s,” says Clare Cottrill, a Cleveland-based content strategist. “We Clevelanders love that stuff.”
Ivan Schwarz, director of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, agrees.
“It’s Higbee’s,” he says. “Those scenes are a historical reminder of what Cleveland was like back then. The movie is giving us a chance to look back at our own history.”
Higbee’s, founded in 1860, was the downtown department store where A Christmas Story’s famous Santa Claus scenes were shot. Legend tells that the film, made in 1983, asked the department store to keep its iconic Christmas decorations up through February for filming.
Maybe it’s because you can visit all the locations featured in the film. You know, feel like you are part of the movie. Fans of that scene have the opportunity to visit Santa and slip down a replica slide at Castle Noel in Medina, Ohio, about 30 minutes outside the city. (And you can also check out Cousin Eddie's Winnebago from Christmas Vacation while you're there.)
Besides the slide, Public Square (also the setting for Stuttgart, Germany, in The Avengers) and Higbee’s (now Horseshoe Casino), you can even visit Ralphie’s house if you’re in town.
“Having A Christmas Story House in Cleveland gives the city one more cool and fun thing to be proud of,” says Brian Jones, owner of A Christmas Story House. “Who doesn’t love the movie? And being able to say our hometown is featured in America’s favorite Christmas movie is pretty cool.”
In 2005, Jones bought the Tremont, Ohio, home that was used as the exterior set of the Parker house in the film - on eBay, no less. Then he renovated it, turned the inside into a replica of the movie’s interior sets, and invites fans to tour the landmark. And fans come - from all over the world.
‘The folklore of Cleveland Street’
“How can you not swell with pride when you see your city lit up in its holiday best?” says Bill Watterson, another Cleveland to L.A. transplant. As an actor, Watterson has appeared in several shorts, and has worked in production roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Hollywood Wasteland. “There we are, in all our snowy industrial glory, at the center of one of the most universally appreciated holiday tales of all time. I will never tire of spotting our town, no matter how many repeat viewings. I can’t get enough.”
“It does such a great job of capturing Christmas in the Cleveland of yesteryear,” adds Ed Ackerman, a Cleveland-born and West Coast-based actor. “The story might take place in Indiana, but the shots of downtown are unmistakably Cleveland. Clevelanders watch the movie and know that those wintery cityscapes and homes are, in fact, the same homes in which they grew up.”
A Christmas Story is a flickering home movie, then, for those of us in Northeast Ohio. An opportunity to experience our fair city during a simpler time. Or, as a high school friend, Spencer Medvick, says, “the trip to downtown, a big part of my past, and a huge part of my parents’ past, is reflected in the movie and brings the past forward.” Makes sense. But is that all?
‘The theme I’ve been waiting for all my life’
“I think it’s got to do with how recognizably middle-of-the-map Ralphie’s story is,” says Jeff Talbott. Talbott once played the older Ralphie Parker in Playhouse Square’s stage rendition of A Christmas Story. The play, based on the film, ran seasonally for five years until its hiatus in 2009. It returned in 2013 for the film’s 30th anniversary.
“Entertainment shows us so much about the (East and West) coasts, but this kid’s quest is all about life out here in the Middle,” says Talbott. “And it’s a good, good life.”
Maybe, then, it’s a combination of the film’s iconic scenes, scooped from the very memories of Clevelanders, and the film’s steadfast Midwest story.
“The real reason people from the Cleveland area have embraced the film is the same reason people everywhere have embraced it. The film’s appeal is universal,” says Mark Dawidziak, award-winning author, biographer, teacher, lecturer and television columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Starting with the autobiographical writing of Jean Shepherd, the movie brilliantly constructs the world of a child waiting for Christmas and hoping for that one most-desired gift.
“The child’s-eye view of the world, which we see through the eyes of young Ralphie Parker, zeroes in on all the grand triumphs, stumbles, hopes, dreams, disasters, fears, injustices, thrills, disappointments and, yes, terrors. But it’s through the eyes of an adult Ralphie, our narrator, that we see this is truly a celebration of family. So there’s something in this film that everyone can relate to and respond to, whether he or she is from Cleveland or not. The magic doesn’t begin or end at the Cleveland city limits.”
Wow, right? Dawidziak knocks it out of the park. It’s how the film tempers the power of a child’s hopes and dreams with the reality of growing up and how we all - every one of us – relate to that.
‘I had one when I was 8 years old’
Maybe for Clevelanders, I would add, that’s how our life seems to go all year round. From our childlike hopes and dreams for a championship sports team to the reality of “there’s always next year,” we never really give up, never stop moving forward, despite the setbacks.
Rust belt? No problem. Now we’re a hub of medical miracles, digital technology and LeBron James. Declining downtown? How about a gastronomic adventure so amazing its driving (yet another) downtown renaissance.
“This film came out right before the cable and home video boom of the mid- and late-1980s,” adds Dawidziak. “The culture wasn’t as, well, noisy as it is now. And this was the last Christmas movie that, like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, had a shot at reaching a mass audience, cutting across all borders.
“That kind of magic is hard to come by these days. And maybe the realization that some of the magic was created here boosts the power of the film’s spell a little bit in Cleveland.”
In other words, we’re Ralphie, stopping ourselves in the midst of our slide, determined to crawl back up and get what we want – know, inevitably, that we’ll probably shoot our eye out.
But that’s okay. We’ll get right back up and aim high again.