'A Christmas Story' now part of pop culture

'A Christmas Story' continues to charm, draw fans and sell leg lamps after a quarter-century
2007-12-25T00:00:00Z 'A Christmas Story' now part of pop cultureMOLLY WOULFE
December 25, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Christmas is here. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolves.

So sighs Ralphie, the bespectacled hero of "A Christmas Story."

That does double for Time Warner, which controls the rights to the holiday chestnut.

Based on the stories of Hammond native Jean Shepherd, "A Christmas Story" (1983) is the little film that snowballed. The minor hit about a third-grader yearning for a BB gun in 1940s Indiana has evolved into a mainstream smash, a cash cow giving warhorses like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" a run for their money.

And demand is growing as the flick's anniversary looms in 2008.

"'A Christmas Story' is a holiday perennial that seems to work again and again. The likable and familiar story draws people in and has a certain nostalgia that keeps viewers coming back year after year," said Ken Schwab, senior vice president of programming for TBS and TNT. "Having the film on the air every year has raised the profile of the film and greatly increased its fan base, contributing to the film being included in many favorite holiday films lists."

Time Warner declines to discuss dollar figures, yet evidence suggests the chestnut is worth its weight in 24-karat Red Ryders. "A Christmas Story" ranks as one of Warner Home Videos' top 10 moneymakers.

According to TBS, home of the 24-hour "A Christmas Story" marathon -- today's runs through 7 p.m. -- more than 45.5 million people tuned in last year to watch Flick lick a flag pole, Randy eat "like the piggies" and the Old Man battle the furnace.

Then there's spin-off merchandise like the new "Christmas Story" Monopoly game. USAopoly produced an initial shipment of 50,000 copies. They vanished like Bumpus hounds with turkey legs. "We're definitely doing it again next year," game designer Derek Stucker said.

The public is stuck on "A Christmas Story," entertainment and licensing attorney Mitchell D. Bernstein said.

For starters, it touches on universal themes -- youthful hopes, siblings and family. "It's not a religious story by any means. It's a story about the holidays," said Bernstein, of Moses & Singer in New York.

From a practical standpoint, Warner has limited spin-offs to date and some tie-ins -- say, leg lamps in fishnet stockings -- carry year-round appeal (or dismay). "I think this has a ways to go before the public gets tired of it," he said.

Slow start

Ironically, Shep's boyhood memoir -- first published in Playboy, then in his books -- stumbled at the box office.

Directed by Bob Clark, the comedy features Peter Billingsley as young Ralphie, the third-grader pining for a Red Ryder BB gun in the fictitious town of Hohman, Ind. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon co-starred as his parents, with Shep narrating part of the film and making a cameo as a grouchy store patron.

The $4 million movie grossed $19.2 million and vanished. On the local front, the author's ex-neighbors were amused -- and vexed -- that Shep laced the script with references to his home on Cleveland Street, friends Jack "Flick" Flickinger and Paul Schwartz, and alma mater Warren G. Harding School.

Give Ted Turner a major award for rescuing Ralphie's saga from obscurity. When the media mogul bought MGM in 1986, "A Christmas Story" was part of the package.

Home videos and TBS screenings followed. Sister network TNT launched the marathon in 1997, a marketing strategy-cum-stroke of genius.

One, repeating a movie is cost-effective, broadcast expert Peter Orlik said. Two, the ploy complements time-crunched viewers' lives. On holidays, "visitors are dropping in, the turkey is getting done, the dog kicks over the Christmas tree. You can watch it in bits and pieces. 'Christmas Story' is the perfect vehicle for the situation," he said.

Third, the story "is a wonderfully modular film," said Orlik, director of the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts for Central Michigan University. "It has these great little vignettes. You can go by the TV, watch a little, come back minutes or hours later and pick up on another one. And it's perfectly enjoyable."

Ralphie, commercialized?

"A Christmas Story" has long enjoyed cult status, spawning T-shirts, ornaments, and mentions on Shepherd Web sites like www.Flicklives.com and www.keyflux.com/shep/. But tie-ins are proliferating, a sign that Time Warner recognizes a gold mine. They include:

* The aforementioned Monopoly game, complete with pewter tokens of Ralphie in the bunny suit, a bar of soap, and the Old Man's car. "Surly Elves" occupy the traditional luxury tax space on the themed board

* A jigsaw puzzle of Ralphie and Mrs. Parker examining the leg lamp. The 550-piece puzzle is packed in a wooden crate labeled "This End Up -- FRAGILE"

* "A Christmas Story" board game, calendar and bobblehead action figures via the National Entertainment Collectibles Association

* A hardcover collection of Jean Shepherd's "Christmas Story" yarns (Broadway Books, $14.95)

* Rumors of a pending Broadway musical

As for companies with pre-existing lines, they include Daisy (Red Ryder guns), Lenox and Department 56 (The Christmas Story Village), Hallmark limited-edition ornaments ($12.50-$18.50). Let's not forget the frilly-thighed leg lamps, ranging from nightlights to full-size gams ($14.95 to $199.99 at www.redriderleglamps.com).

For Gary Hoppenstand, editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, the debut of the Monopoly game marks a turning point for the film. "It's arrived," he said. "If they're making Monopoly board games, it has achieved a sense of identity within American pop culture that very few things have achieved."

If Time Warner doesn't shoot its eye out by over-flogging merchandise, the yule chestnut could generate revenues for years to come, said Hoppenstand, a professor at Michigan State University. What sets "A Christmas Story" apart from other seasonal classics is its subversive humor, a quirk that gives the nostalgic charmer a contemporary edge.

"Modern life is crazy and Ralphie's life was crazy, too. And the Old Man's life was crazy in terms of the leg lamp and the Bumpus dogs. It's crazy from a different era, but it's still crazy. Today's kids can identify with it, but so can their parents and grandparents," he said.

Absolutely, said Brian Jones, owner of the Christmas Story House where the film was shot in Cleveland. He opened the Parker homestead to tours last year and has since welcomed 40,000 fans. And sold thousands of souvenir leg lamps.

"The adults act goofier, the kids are like, 'Yeah, it's cool,'" Jones said. Every nook and cranny is camera-worthy. "They're getting pictures under the sink, of the big leg lamp, of the Lifebuoy soap upstairs in the bathroom," he said.

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