"A Christmas Story" turned 25 last year. Yet the celebration keeps snowballing.

Inspired by writer Jean Shepherd's Hammond boyhood, the saga of a boy's quest for a BB gun tops an E! poll of the best holiday movies. Last year's 24-hour TV marathon rang up its highest ratings ever. More than 54 million viewers tuned in for the mean elves, the bunny suit and the Old Man's major award.

And TBS, launching its 13th annual marathon at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve, expects viewership to rise again.

The nostalgic gem "builds in audience year after year," said Phil Oppenheim, senior vice president of programming and scheduling for TBS and TNT.

"Kids related to Ralphie's quest for the ultimate Christmas present.  And adults enjoy how the movie evokes fond memories of childhood," Opppenheim said.

The Christmas morning telecast is among the popular. Turner publicist Kevin Little suspects it's a growing Yule rite, to open gifts while Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) lobbies for a Red Ryder on TV. "That's what we do in our household," said Little, of TBS's parent company.

On the local front, Shep's hometown is gunning for a five-star salute. Hammond kicks off a tandem "Christmas Story"/125th birthday salute Saturday.

Spearheaded by the Downtown Hammond Council, festivities include free movie screenings at the Towle Theater, an "Oh, Fuuuudge" Recipe Contest, and Ralphie and Randy look-alike contests. A much-anticipated event: the Dec. 5 parade through the Woodmar neighborhood. The grand marshals are the actors who played Randy, Flick, the yellow-eyed Scut Farkus and toadie Grover Dill.

Meanwhile, Hammond's Indiana Welcome Center is showcasing related exhibits, holiday windows and other events through Jan. 10 (See the special insert in today's Times.)

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Scott Schwartz, who played the flagpole-licking Flick, is amused how the low-budget 1983 film has become a jingle-bells juggernaut. TBS report that the show draws all ages. Viewership is 48 percent male, 52 percent female.

Fans recognize him still, said Schwartz, 41. Men high-five him. Women hug him. Teens "seem to make more fun of the tongue on the flagpole. It's the mindset of the teenager," he said.

As for tots, they are solicitous. "They say, ``Did your tongue heal?''' he chuckled.

A record number of tongues will adhere to flagpoles this winter. Stage adaptations of "Christmas Story" are proliferating like snowflakes. Kansas City Repertory Theatre bows the Broadway-bound musical on Friday, the same day Rhino Records releases the film score on CD.

Shepherd's Depression-era tribute to family values resonates strongly in the recession, said Kyle Hatley, assistant artistic director of the Missouri theater. Post-modern audiences embrace the Parker clan "coming together to make the best of a situation. For me, it's very healing," he said.

It's also intoxicating. No other movie radiates the joy of glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolves. Brother Gerry Molyneaux, Ph.D., a film professor at La Salle University, said students light up when he mentions the movie. The timeless classic "speaks to the child in all of us," he said.


Don't miss The Times 18-page special insert looking at the festivities planned in honor of "A Christmas Story." INSIDE TODAY'S TIMES

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