• The Wild, Wonderful, and Poetic World of Ralphie Parker

    Matt Mitchell on Midwestern Humorist Jean Shepherd and the Christmas Story Universe

    In Cleveland, Ohio, at 3159 West 11th Street, stands a yellow, 19th-century Victorian two-story home. The exterior is done up in forest green accents; a fishnet-clad woman’s leg glows in the front window. Outside, beyond the slipshod backyard fence gussied like a period piece, is a picturesque view of Steelyard Commons, a shopping center built atop the remains of an LTV Steel Factory. If you squint, you might just catch a gob of mill fumes soaring toward the clouds.

    Most of the neighborhood surrounding the Christmas Story house has been modernized into a quaint suburbia. Across the street is The Rowley Inn, a bar born in 1906 that the cast and crew of the movie used for makeup and wardrobe.

    When A Christmas Story was first released in November 1983, the film wasn’t immediately the cultural phenomenon that we know it as today. It made a modest amount of money and was gone from most theaters by the time Christmas arrived. In what feels like a completely different lifetime, A Christmas Story found a second life when it was released on home video and earned television syndication. TBS’s 24-hour marathon was the law in my parents’ household. At 8 p.m. every Christmas Eve, after all party activities came to a halt, the family would gather around the television and hold communion, as the MGM lion’s roar beckoned our attention and Jean Shepherd’s narration transported us to some familiar, mesmerizing winterland in 1940s Middle America.

    Shepherd wasn’t just the narrator of A Christmas Story, though his voice was as singular as the film. Born in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties, Shepherd was a humorist and radio host for stations across the Midwest and East Coast, from Hammond, Indiana to Toledo and Cincinnati, to Philadelphia and New York City. He went by Shep and became a prominent figure due to his comedic stunts on-air, like the “I, Libertine Hoax,” in which he urged his listeners to demand their local bookshops order copies of I, Libertine, a fake novel, to manipulate the results of the New York Times Bestseller List.

    Shepherd’s first novel, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, focuses on the life of adult Ralphie Parker, now back in his hometown of Hohman, Indiana and exchanging childhood war stories with his old pal Flick. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The plot of A Christmas Story Christmas, the long-awaited sequel that hit HBO Max last month, is a deliberate author surrogacy in which Ralphie, after years of struggling to become a successful science-fiction writer, finally finds promise in returning to his childhood home on Cleveland Street and telling the stories of his family’s life in suburban Indiana—much like Shepherd himself, who found his forever footing in recounting stories of his youth in Northwest Indiana.

    Tales like “Old Man Pulaski and the Infamous Jawbreaker Blackmail Caper” and “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil” first found homes on-air before later being published in issues of Playboy. You can see the words “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” on a sign behind the bar at Flick’s tavern in A Christmas Story Christmas.

    When A Christmas Story was first released in November 1983, the film wasn’t immediately the cultural phenomenon that we know it as today.

    I grew up 45 minutes southeast of Cleveland and visited the Christmas Story house once as a kid, and again as an adult. One of the first things a tour guide will tell you is that Bob Clark, the film’s director, was only able to make the movie because of the success of his previous production, the raunchy Porky’s. “Has anyone ever seen the movie Porky’s?” the guide asks the room. All the middle-aged men raise their hands. If you’re unfamiliar with Clark’s other work, perhaps I might direct you toward some of his other films, like Rhinestone, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, or Black Christmas, which is often credited as the first slasher horror film.

    Clark’s interest in making A Christmas Story dates back long before 1983. He heard Shepherd read “Flick’s Tongue” on his WOR radio show in 1968 and spent years trying to adapt In God We Trust for the silver screen. Clark was born in New Orleans but grew up in Birmingham and Fort Lauderdale. He didn’t have the same kind of Depression-era, Middle American childhood that Shepherd had, but, like all great narrative purveyors, Clark found a warmth in Shepherd’s work and dared to attempt translating it to Hollywood.

    A Christmas Story wasn’t the first time Ralphie Parker was in front of a camera. Dubbed the “Parker Family Saga,” there are seven productions out in the world that closely follow Shepherd’s characters. The on-screen tirades of the eldest Parker son began sometime in 1976, when Fred Barzyk and David Loxton made The Phantom of the Open Hearth for PBS. The 94-minute special tails Ralphie as he gets ready for his junior promenade. He wants to ask Daphne Bigelow, a cute cheerleader miles out of his league, but instead he takes his neighbor, gets drunk, and throws up violently in the bathroom stall. Oh, and his dad wins another lamp. This time the major award comes from a victorious bowling match.

    In 1982, PBS would throw some stake in the Parker name yet again with The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, which starred future drugstore cowboy Matt Dillon as Ralphie in his first ever television role. A Christmas Story would hit theaters soon after, with Peter Billingsley recast as Ralphie, before PBS would produce the Thanksgiving special The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski two years later.

    Ralphie would again be recast, this time in 1988 by Stand by Me star Jerry O’Connell, in Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, the dysfunctional road trip chapter of the Parker family’s decades-spanning story. Before A Christmas Story Christmas, the last time we saw Ralphie and his family on-screen in a way that stayed true to Shepherd’s novel was in My Summer Story (1994), a loose sequel to A Christmas Story, in which Ralphie, played by a young Kieran Culkin, is trying to acquire a spinning top strong enough to outmuscle that of his bully Lug Ditka’s. My Summer Story bombed at the box office, making only $71,000 on a budget of $15 million.

    In truth, the Christmas Story house is a bit of a fake: Almost none of the scenes shot inside the Parker house were done in Cleveland. Instead, the interior was made on a soundstage in Toronto, hence the avalanche of white light pouring through the windows. The exterior scenes, like when Ralphie shoots his eye out with the Red Ryder BB gun, or when the Old Man gets a good look at his leg lamp for the first time, were filmed on West 11th, at the edge of the Tremont neighborhood.

    In 2006, the house was opened to the public, with an interior reconfigured into a perfect match. Many of the original cast members of A Christmas Story have returned to visit, except for its star Peter Billingsley, who is nothing more than a ghost when you walk through the building. To my own disappointment, HBO did not use the property during production for A Christmas Story Christmas.

    Growing up in the part of the country where the Midwest bleeds into Appalachia, a film that captures the magic of a small-town Christmas still feels quixotic.

    Tourism in the Midwest is not as romantic as it is on the coasts. Northeast Ohio, specifically, doesn’t have movie stars or American landmarks or a bevy of sports championships to flaunt. Instead, it’s an unglamorous but charming crop of to-sees, like Cedar Point, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cuyahoga River—which has become known more for catching on fire than its part in a long, storied freight industry—and, of course, the Christmas Story house.

    If you migrate to Public Square, you might recognize the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument or Terminal Tower from the opening shot of A Christmas Story, where Ralphie, his brother Randy, and his friends Flick and Schwartz press their eager noses up to the glass of the Higbee’s building storefront, as wind-up tin toys and well-dressed dolls wow their eyes. Sadly, the Higbee’s building, which was a real store on Public Square for 71 years, is now the entrance to a casino.

    Perhaps what has come from the Christmas Story legacy that is most essential, at least to me, is how much of its setting is an outlier from other popular holiday movies. Growing up in the part of the country where the Midwest bleeds into Appalachia, a film that captures the magic of a small-town Christmas still feels quixotic. Christmas tales are usually told in American meccas: Elf and Miracle on 34th Street are set in New York City, while Four Christmases takes place in San Francisco, Jingle All the Way in Minneapolis, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home Alone in Chicago.

    I am sometimes jealous of the people who leave their expensive brownstones or high-rise lofts to admire the giant tree lit up outside Rockefeller Center. We had one of those here, too, near the gazebo at the center of my 3,000-person, blue-collar hometown. There was an inflatable Santa Clause down the road that swelled every morning; neighbors’ houses sat aglow in strands of lights as the December snows became more infrequent.

    As a young writer in the Midwest, it has always been Shepherd’s narration that holds the greatest piece of my heart.

    When the weather changed and our house cracked as the foundation shifted, the walls would rip and a leak would dribble down from the ceiling. It was then that I’d hear my father unlock the most vulgar palette of words ever fashioned, as he struggled to bring the water to a stop. And, just as Ralphie had, I, too, would employ them in my own vocabulary—only for my mother to reward my actions with a bar of Dove soap or, in one specific case, a handful of liquid dish soap.

    When you head upstairs to Ralphie and Randy’s bedroom, you can look out their windows at the bustling bodies of West 11th Street below, people pointing their cameras at the florid, golden sheen of the leg lamp warming downstairs. Like the group of Hohmanites who congregated around Ralphie’s dad as he marveled at his major award for the first time (including director Bob Clark, who appears wearing an out-of-place Miami Dolphins hat), thousands flock to Cleveland every year to catch a glimpse of the Christmas Story house and remember the stories it holds. Maybe they didn’t spend their childhoods listening to Little Orphan Annie on a Westinghouse radio like Ralphie and Randy, but perhaps there are parts of themselves that were once invested in the mythology of the 24-hour marathon like me.

    Most importantly, as a young writer in the Midwest, it has always been Shepherd’s narration that holds the greatest piece of my heart, as the humorist is responsible for some of the prettiest English sentences ever muttered in a feature film. Lines like “we plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice,” or “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window” live on as linguistical marvels and gloam like an unbridled sunset in my soul.

    But it’s the last words of the Shepherd’s screenplay that are especially gravitational, as Ralphie sleeps soundly, clutching his Red Ryder BB gun in his arms. “Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled, blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots,” Shepherd rings out, while snow sputters gently onto Ralphie and Randy’s nearby bedroom window. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays on, Cleveland Street turns an angelic white, and the hope of a good holiday hangs joyously frozen in the chilled air.

    The movie—and Jean Shepherd’s oeuvre—is not just a portrait of a young Indianan’s childhood, but a life he and his family made together in World War II America.

    I didn’t grow up in the enchantment of opening presents with siblings, but I did have my own Christmas story in 2004, when my parents gifted me a PlayStation 2 under the guise of Santa. In an album someplace, there’s a picture of me holding up the box with a glee I have not conjured since, my grandma cheering loudly in the background. I think about that Christmas morning often, especially when I return home to my parents’ house, and none of my grandparents are around anymore, and the gifts have shrunk or become more practical.

    In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash sought to do what many of us continue to do: Preserve the magic of our youth, the wrinkles in time where the rest of the world seemed so small compared to our own excitements. The vignettes in A Christmas Story become a greatest hits collection from a boy’s favorite Christmas: Ralphie gets stoked about meeting Santa Clause at Higbee’s, says the F-word in front of his Old Man, beats the piss out of his tormentor in a snow-covered alley, and receives the gift of a lifetime.

    The movie—and Jean Shepherd’s oeuvre—is not just a portrait of a young Indianan’s childhood, but a life he and his family made together in World War II America. Like Ralphie, we have lived long enough to remember the Christmas morning that changed our lives, memories that still crackle blue in our hearts when the reindeer touch down on our suburban roofs.

    Matt Mitchell
    Matt Mitchell
    Matt Mitchell is a poet, culture critic, and essayist from Northeast Ohio. He writes for MTV, Pitchfork, Paste, Bandcamp, and elsewhere. He’s the author of The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks, 2021).

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