When the film hit theaters in 1983, it wasn’t a tremendous success, but it’s become a pop culture phenomenon during the time since. And for the anniversary, New Jersey writer Caseen Gaines compiled cast interviews, photos and other ephemera into a book titled A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic.
[Find CityBeat's entire Holiday Issue, including last-minute gift ideas and classic holiday event listings, here.]
He divulges how scenes were filmed at Higbee’s department store and a few other locales in Cleveland, but the rest of the film was actually shot in Canada (though the movie is set in a fictional town in Indiana). But Cleveland can at least claim the Parker family’s home on 11th Street near downtown — it was transformed into a museum filled with movie artifacts that draws tourists from all over the world.
On the film’s exact anniversary, CityBeat spoke to Gaines about his fascinating book and why the movie is still so insanely popular.
CityBeat: When was the first time you saw A Christmas Story?
Caseen Gaines: I probably was 7 or 8 years old. We had a VHS copy of A Christmas Story but I had never watched it. I knew nothing about it. My mom one day said, ‘You should watch this — you’ll like it.’ So I sat down and watched it and I loved it. I didn’t realize that the movie was made in the ’80s. I thought the movie was actually a lot older. I just thought it was really funny. I mean, who can’t relate to Ralphie’s experience? It’s funny because I think a lot of times when you think about being a kid, being a kid is really trying to navigate in a world of people telling you no. “I want to stay up late.” “No.” “I want to eat candy for breakfast.” “No.” “I want this for Christmas.” “No.” And that’s what A Christmas Story is: It’s Ralphie just desperately trying to get someone to say yes to him, to get this BB gun for Christmas. That was certainly an experience I could relate to as a kid.
CB: What was the impetus in writing the book?
CG: The exact impetus for the book is, I went to the Christmas Story house. I’d written a book called Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse that came out in 2011. I had a book signing in Cleveland and I arrived in Cleveland just a little bit too early, I guess, and I had a couple of hours to kill. I said, “What’s something I could do quick?” I figured I’ll go to the Christmas Story house, because I like the movie. When I went to the Christmas Story house, I couldn’t believe how much stuff was there. I couldn’t believe how much merchandise had been produced. I couldn’t believe the history of the movie. During the tour, they only give you five minutes or so of information. It made me go to Wikipedia and go and look for more information. And I said, “Maybe this could be the next book.”
CB: In the book you talk about buying a lot of stuff from the gift shop.
What did you buy?
CG: I bought a DVD of something called The Untold Christmas Story. It’s a documentary — I don’t even know when it was released. You can buy it on Amazon. I bought a documentary called ClarkWORLD. I bought a bunch of magnets that are still on my fridge. I bought a bunch of postcards. I bought a bobblehead of the Old Man. I bought probably over $50 worth of stuff. There were people buying tons of stuff. This was the thing that was amazing to me. A Christmas Story isn’t a movie where you immediately think, “Oh, well, this is a merchandising type of movie.” It isn’t a movie like Transformers. Warner Brothers has been able to produce so much merchandise in relation to this film. It’s really quite impressive.
CB: Why do you think the movie wasn’t an initial success?
CG: People weren’t interested in sweet movies at the time. It’s funny because when you think about Back to the Future — which was a huge hit in 1985 — it was a movie that movie studios didn’t want to make because they thought it was too sweet of a movie and that people didn’t want to see it. The early ’80s is the time of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Brat Pack films and Porky’s, which Bob Clark [director of Christmas Story] directed. The films were a little bit naughtier, and I think a movie about Christmas that was funny without ever being offensively funny was just not somewhere we were as a culture in 1983.
CB: Like you said in the book, movies like this couldn’t be made today because of the edginess of some scenes.
CG: Having the kids curse — all those sorts of things — are probably things that you couldn’t do today or you’d get a PG-13 rating. And that’s kind of what I think is the beauty of A Christmas Story, that even the parts that are a little more scandalous — Ralphie saying fudge, we all know he didn’t say fudge — are things we go, “You know what? Kids curse.” Kids curse, adults curse, old people curse. People curse. And now we pretend like children’s movies have to be completely G-rated. Even in 1983 it was a little bit more accepted to show more of a true vision of what it really is like to be a kid.
CB: In your opinion, why has the movie endured?
CG: I think A Christmas Story has endured because it’s universal. It’s about family, and everyone has a family whether it’s a group of friends or whether you’re an actual family or whether it’s your grandparents. Everyone’s family is imperfect. Every person has had the experience of wanting something that they couldn’t have and no one understands exactly how much you want it and why you want it so badly, but you do. Everyone has the experience of daring people to do really stupid stuff. Everyone has the experience of being dared to do really stupid stuff. Everyone has been in school. All these little things that happen in the movie are so universal. Even if you didn’t grow up in Cleveland or Indiana, even if you didn’t grow up in the 1940s, regardless of race, regardless of your gender, everyone has felt like Ralphie at some point in time, and I think that’s really why A Christmas Story is so popular and why it’s endured for 30 years.
Purchase A CHRISTMAS STORY: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A HOLIDAY CLASSIC locally at Joseph-Beth ($29.99) or on Amazon ($19.67). To find out more about the book, see facebook.com/achristmasstorybook. More info on the Christmas Story house in Cleveland: achristmasstoryhouse.com.
A CHRISTMAS STORY Through the Years
1983: A Christmas Story opens in theaters the week before Thanksgiving, grossing just over $2 million its first weekend.
1985: The first time A Christmas Story airs on HBO.
1994: Bob Clark directs It Runs in the Family (not to be confused with the Michael Douglas film), a continuation of the first film but set in summertime.
1997: The first 24-hour block of A Christmas Story airs on TNT. In 2004, it switches to TBS, where it has aired every year on a continuous loop from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.
2004: Californian Brian Jones purchases the A Christmas Story house off eBay, sight unseen. He spends about $100,000 building a museum inside the house, which opens in 2006.
2009: A Christmas Story: The Musical debuts in Kansas City, Mo.
2010: Ian Petrella (Randy) briefly lives in the
A Christmas Story house and gives tours.
2012: A Christmas Story: The Musical debuts on Broadway.
2012: A Christmas Story 2, a sequel, is released direct to DVD. No one sees it, with good reason.
MORE FUN FACTS!
Jean Shepherd, the narrator and co-writer of the film, was a Cincinnati radio personality at WSAI and WLW in the ’40s and ’50s.
Peter Billingsley, the kid who plays Ralphie, grew up to produce Iron Man and work with Vince Vaughn on a lot of films. Billingsley currently produces the Broadway version of A Christmas Story: The Musical.
Before directing the family-friendly A Christmas Story, Bob Clark was known for directing horror films and raunchy comedies like Black Christmas and Porky’s.
HEADING TO CLEVELAND?
Planning a trek up to Cleveland to see the A Christmas Story house and spend a lot of money on Ralphie swag? Here are some 30th anniversary events and other movie tie-ins:
A Christmas Story: The Musical: Through Dec. 8. $10. Near West Theatre, nearwesttheatre.org.
A Christmas Story Play (non-musical): Through Dec. 22. $25-$67. Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, clevelandplayhouse.com.
5K/10K run: 9 a.m. Dec. 7. Runners and spectators receive Ovaltine! Downtown Cleveland, speedy-feet.com.
Bac Asian Bistro: The official Chinese restaurant of the A Christmas Story house. Bring a ticket stub and get 10-percent off the bill. Be sure to order the duck. bactremont.com.