'A Christmas Story' draws visitors to NWI, but Cleveland throws bigger bash

2013-12-15T00:00:00Z 2013-12-16T09:09:29Z 'A Christmas Story' draws visitors to NWI, but Cleveland throws bigger bashJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
December 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CLEVELAND | The line to see the house where much of "A Christmas Story" was filmed didn't stretch all the way back to Terre Haute, but it did extend down a block of clapboard working-class homes that stood in on the silver screen for the bygone Hammond where Jean Shepherd grew up.

More than 5,000 people flocked to Cleveland two weeks ago for "A Christmas Story" convention that coincided with the 30th anniversary of a movie that's become a cult classic, captivated generations and run on 24-hour marathons on TBS during the holiday.

More than 50,000 people visit Cleveland every year to see A Christmas Story House and Museum, out of appreciation for the work of a Hammond native who made it big riffing over the New York City airwaves about adventures in Greenwich Village, his "I, Libertine" hoax novel and nostalgia for his early years in Northwest Indiana.

Drive down Cleveland Street in Hammond, where the radio host and raconteur grew up and got much of his best material, and you won't see anything you wouldn't see on any other residential street. There's no bronze historical marker, no museum, no nothing until you realize you already passed the Warren G. Harding Elementary school where Flick's fictional counterpart pressed his tongue to a flagpole on a triple dog dare.

But if you hit the road and drive more than 300 miles east to Cleveland, you'll feel like you're in Jean Shepherd country. Leg lamps illuminate the windows of homes, restaurants and shops across the entire city, and especially in the south side Tremont neighborhood, where much of the movie was filmed. A King Kong-sized projection of a leg lamp lights up the top half of the landmark 52-story Terminal Tower skyscraper.

In Hammond, a handful of businesses such as Freddy's Steakhouse decorate with leg lamps, "Major Award" crates and other memorabilia from the film, but the iconic fishnet-stockinged lamps are few and far between. The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority and the Downtown Hammond Council coordinate almost all of the festivities.

In Cleveland, "A Christmas Story" gets a big citywide bash.

Cleveland's claim

The Near West Theatre, a community theater troupe, staged "A Christmas Story: The Musical," which debuted on Broadway last year. All the performances quickly sold out, said chief operating officer Hans Holznagel. The Cleveland Play House is showing the play version of "A Christmas Story" downtown, and it has been one of the professional theater company's most popular shows, publicist Kelly Luecke said. A few movie theaters screen the film that inspired the stage adaptations, hotels offer discounted "Ralphie rates" and kids can experience Ralphie's climb up the Santa Mountain slide at Castle Noel in nearby Medina.

Thousands of runners – some in pink bunny suits – ran last weekend in a 5K/10K leg lamp fun run, where participants were given Ovaltine hot chocolate when they crossed the finish line. The Horseshoe Casino that's now where the Higbee's department store used to be set out the holiday window displays that Ralphie peered at in the movie. A few restaurants serve "Chinese Turkey" diners to fans who want to recreate the scene where the Parker family visits the Chop Suey Palace after the Bumpus hounds devoured their turkey.

A Christmas Story House even has an official Chinese restaurant, Bac Asian American Bistro & Bar, which actually serves Vietnamese fusion cuisine but sells tons of Peking duck breasts every December, said Stephanie Marsh, a bartender and server. Restaurant staff won't sing the "fa ra ra" song from the movie, but most visitors ask anyway.

Tourists swarm throughout the the neighborhood and pile out of trolley cars to see the main attraction, the movie house where they can take pictures of themselves washing their mouths out with Lifebuoy soap or firing off a Red Ryder BB gun without — hopefully — shooting an eye out.

The house and museum — founded by "A Christmas Story" enthusiast and Navy veteran Brian Jones — recently expanded its gift shop by 3,500 square feet and started carrying merchandise from other holiday films, such as "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Shoppers can buy leg lamp earrings, cookie cutters or costumes.

"There's a thousand different souvenirs in the gift shop, and most are selling beautifully," said tour guide Jim Moralevitz, who was an extra in the film. "Leg lamps and BB guns have made the owner a millionaire — how's that for a way to become a millionaire? He was a Navy man who wanted to be a pilot but flunked the eye test. His parents wanted to cheer him up and knew he loved 'A Christmas Story,' so they made him a replica leg lamp. He got the idea to sell them online, and they sold very quickly."

Jones started the Internet business in his garage, later saw that the house where much of the movie was filmed was up for sale on eBay, and invested about $400,000 to buy and restore it. The tourist attraction has grown into a year-round enterprise that now fills three homes across a city block, and employs more than 20 workers. More than 300,000 people from all over the world have since come to see the house, where they can touch movie props and pose for pictures, CEO Angela Dickerson said.

"It's a very relatable movie," she said. "There's something in the movie that everyone can relate to."

All the visitors — about 24,000 during the typical December — have helped spark reinvestment in the surrounding neighborhood, where a new barbeque restaurant and animal clinic will open this spring, said Cory Riordan, executive director of the Tremont West Development Corp. The 5K run and an auction for the chance to spend the night of Christmas Eve in the movie house also have been raising money to fund home improvements throughout the neighborhood. Residents have to put up with a lot of traffic and parking hassles, but still have welcomed the attraction and even put out elaborate Christmas decorations in a show of pride, he said.

"It's a unique storyline that the city of Cleveland has really embraced," Riordan said.

Region's 'Christmas Story'

Hammond, which first honored the author of the holiday classic with an achievement award in 1981, has been celebrating its ties to the movie more and more in recent years. The first Jean Shepherd festival in 2004 included a kazoo symphony, a lookalike contest and actors from the movie.

For the last six years, the all-volunteer Downtown Hammond Council has hosted an annual tribute. People can watch Ralphie's antics on the big screen at the Towle Theater, design their own leg lamp lampshades or see if they could fend off Black Bart's gang in a pop gun contest. They can listen to carolers, or take a horse and carriage ride down Hohman Avenue.

Hundreds of people attend the event, often traveling from as far as South Bend and Chicago's north suburbs, Council President Karen Maravilla said.

"It's a great way to promote downtown businesses and pay tribute to one of our own," she said. "This guy was very talented, and we're proud of what he did and how he captured the whole spirit of Christmas joy, and waking up on Christmas. It's part of Hammond history."

Since 2008, the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority has offered an annual winter exhibit of hand-painted "A Christmas Story" window scenes that Macy's had first displayed in its New York City store.

About 30,000 to 40,000 visitors come every year to see the animatronic vignettes, said Speros Batistatos, visitors authority president and CEO. Attendance has been strong this year after the welcome center added another window display and a bronze statute of Flick sticking his tongue to the flagpole. The splashy addition of the quirky statue garnered an estimated $3 million worth of international media attention, such as on Canadian public radio.

Unlike Cleveland's A Christmas Story House and Museum, the Hammond exhibit is free. But visitors still spend money when they are in town, Batistatos said. The Indiana Welcome Center typically pulls in $64,000 to $78,000 a year in gift shop sales of replica leg lamps and other memorabilia.

"It brings in high-quality visitors, generally all families who look for other activities and find local restaurants," Batistatos said.

Batistatos sees crossover potential between the Hammond and Cleveland attractions. Fans who visit the movie house in Ohio one year might choose to make a road trip the next year to Hammond's "A Christmas Story" Comes Home exhibit, he said.

He is looking at adding new features every year to keep the experience fresh and give travelers a reason to return. Batistatos has been working with Hammond schools to stage scenes from the musical at different locations throughout the city.

"We can own the event. We are very credible in owning the event, more credible than anyone else in the country, regardless of where the movie was shot," Batistatos said. "There is room for more, and the city could embrace this more, and we're willing to work with any and all partners to build on what we've accomplished over the last several years."

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