'A Christmas Story' extra recalls Hammond's Shepherd on set

2013-12-15T00:00:00Z 'A Christmas Story' extra recalls Hammond's Shepherd on setJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
December 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CLEVELAND | South sider Jim Moralevitz thought he made it pretty big when his polka band, The Music Jesters, was making good money playing at weddings and bowling alleys.

Moralevitz would reach a much bigger audience.

Millions of people see him on television every Christmas because he offered the use of his driveway to a Hollywood cast and crew that swarmed over his workingman's neighborhood in south Cleveland three decades ago.

He got to work with Hammond native Jean Shepherd on the set of the beloved classic "A Christmas Story."

"He's a wonderful man," Moralevitz said. "On set he mostly kept to himself and observed. He was arguing with (director) Bob Clark a few times."

Moralevitz lived a few homes down the street from the house where they filmed a movie — based on Shepherd's Hammond childhood — that is now shown for 24-hour-long marathons on cable television. Moralevitz helped get the production back on schedule by suggesting they ship in snow-making machines from a nearby Ohio ski lodge when it failed to snow, and appeared as an extra in one of the most memorable and oft-quoted scenes.

Moralevitz delivered the big wooden box marked fragile, which the old man pronounced "fra-GEE-lay" and said must be Italian. Inside was Old Man Parker's Major Award, a fishnet-stockinged leg lamp that has become an iconic symbol.

The crate was 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, too big to fit through any doorway, so filming was stopped while union carpenters spent hours trimming 4 inches off the side with a handsaw. Careful viewers can spot their handiwork because the letters read "his side up," not "this side up." Moralevitz shares that anecdote with visitors from across the globe while guiding tours at the A Christmas Story House down the street.

The 73-year-old still lives down the block from the house where the movie was filmed, which was turned into a tourist attraction for smartphone picture-snapping parents in 2006. A Christmas Story House and Museum owner Brian Jones gave Moralevitz a leg lamp, which he proudly displays in his second-story window.

"At my age, I've lost so many friends, but I've gained so many friends to talk to through this movie," he said. "It gives me something to do, and I can walk two doors down. I will keep the leg lamp burning for as long as I live."

More than 300,000 visitors from all 50 states and all over the world have come to the house, where Moralevitz dollied in the leg lamp crate more than three decades ago. Cars with out-of-state plates block driveways, park on lawns and otherwise cram the mostly residential neighborhood, he said.

The crowded parking situation was the same in 1982, when he turned his driveway over to the crew and in exchange got a small part and the opportunity to take a limousine to the drugstore every time he needed cough syrup.

Moralevitz, who was running a business out of his home at the time, got to hang around the set. He talked to Jean Shepherd, who mostly asked him questions and said little about himself.

"His hands were always behind his back," he said. "He was always looking and watching while we carried on."

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