Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


December 1, 2011

GARY'S WORLD: BB guns, silver trees and leg lamps, oh my

CROSSVILLE — My wife called me the other night from Main St. in Crossville because she said she nearly wrecked the car.

"You won't believe it!" she screamed.

"What?" I said.

She scared the daylights out of me. I was expecting an emergency of some sort.

"They have a full-sized leg lamp in the window at Mitchell's Drug Store!" she hollered.

Oh my gosh! I was relieved there was no emergency, but then I was flooded with joy. This is too good to be true, I thought. Shortly after I went to town and there it was — THE ultimate "Major Award," "Christmas Story" decoration on display along with the beautiful, shiny, fake, silver, aluminum Christmas trees I so fondly remember from my youth. Those trees make me long for the Christmases of past and think of being at my older sister's home at Christmas time.

The display is "indescribably beautiful" as the old man from "A Christmas Story" would say.

Each year at Christmas I'm reminded of my roots of growing up in Northwest Indiana near Hammond and Gary. It's not the Christmas-related ripoffs and outrageous crime stories I hear from my family members who still live there. It's not the tales of wicked snows and bitter temperatures that keep people locked in their homes like prisoners. No — it's the annual 24-hour broadcast of Jean Shepherd's classic movie tale "A Christmas Story."

The film is loosely based on events that occurred during Shepherd's childhood in the town of Hammond, IN.

This year marks 28 years since the film was released. I still remember going to the Town Theater in Highland, IN to see the movie that Christmas season. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I went to see the movie on a date. It was a classic movie theater that had an intermission and served free cake, cookies and coffee — yeah, that's right — free! It was included with the $3 admission price.

I've written about this once before, but this movie no doubt has become a classic that many look forward to watching every year. In my family, watching the film has most certainly become as much a part of our Christmas tradition as trimming the tree and listening to carols.

I know you've seen this movie. The story is about young Master Ralphie Parker and his quest to get an official Red Ryder BB gun. Throughout the movie Ralphie is plagued by the response, "You'll shoot your eye out" when talking about his desire for the blue steeled beauty.

This movie has become such a commercial Christmas icon that dozens of products from scenes in the movie have been manufactured recently. You can go online and purchase your very own leg lamp for the front room window.

You can buy your own major award certificate. There are also bobbleheads of the main characters in the film, watches, stockings, leg lamp night lights and smaller leg lamps - my wife bought me one of those last year.

Many people don't know the history of this film, or the writer. The film almost didn't make it to the silver screen. Many companies wouldn't consider it. But film producer and director Bob Clark made a package deal with MGM in order to make the

film. Clark had tremendous success in the early '80s with the film "Porky's." When MGM wanted Clark to do a sequel, "Porky's II," Clark agreed to only as long as they allowed him to film and release "A Christmas Story."

Not only do I love the film, but I have a personal connection to one of the main characters. I actually knew and was friends with Jean Shepherd's younger brother, Randy Shepherd. Randy's character was Ralphie's whiny kid brother in the film.

I knew Randy as an adult from the early to late 1980s. Randy and I attended the same church in Northwest Indiana where, after the film's release in 1983, he was a glorified celebrity — at least in the church, anyway.

Randy owned and operated a limousine service in Northwest Indiana.

When the VHS movie version was released the following year, Randy brought a copy of the movie for all to watch at church one Sunday after the service. I still have the copy he gave me.

Jean Shepherd's Christmas tale is a sample of what it was like to grow up in Hammond, IN, during the 1940s on Cleveland St. The film features several stories of his early childhood when he attended Warren G. Harding Elementary in Hessville, IN, a section of Hammond.

The movie script of "A Christmas Story" was based on stories published in Shepherd's 1967 book, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, the old man is at the kitchen table in the house on Cleveland St. reading the newspaper story about some "clodhopper in Griffith" who swallowed a yo-yo. Griffith is a town neighboring Hammond where my mother lived. Northwest Indiana references abound in the movie, but it was actually filmed in Cleveland, OH.

In fact, the house that was used for filming the movie was purchased by a business man off eBay and completely restored to look as it did during the movie. It is open year-round as the Christmas Story House Museum. Actors who played characters in the movie appear there each year at Christmas and give tours. One in particular, Ian Petrella, who played Randy Parker, is at the home this year giving tours, meeting people and posing for pictures.

Shepherd's younger brother, Randy, in real life, my friend from church, told me that most of the action stories Shepherd wrote were really about him, although he always appeared in Shepherd's short stories as the runny-nosed, whiny kid brother.

Although Jean Shepherd insisted the characters in his books were made up as well as the town of Hohman, according to Randy, the town in the stories was Hammond and the characters were based on real people the two brothers knew. However, these characters were so greatly exaggerated, they practically were imaginary, Randy said. Hohman is actually one of the main streets in downtown Hammond.

"You don't really think I was that whiny as a kid do you?" Randy once asked me.

Flick from the movie is a real person and even owned a tavern in Hessville called Flick's Tap. Cleveland St. and Warren G. Harding Elementary School do exist in Hammond, IN.

Jean Shepherd supplied the voice-over narration to the film and also made a cameo appearance in the movie as the man who stops Ralphie from cutting in line at the department store to see Santa. Leigh Brown, who co-wrote the screenplay and was Shepherd's partner in life, is also in the scene.

Jean Shepherd had a successful career in radio in New York long before the movie "A Christmas Story" was released. Randy Shepherd was also a good storyteller and lived in Northwest Indiana, where the two brothers grew up. He lived there until the early 1990s. I heard from other friends from the church that Randy moved to Florida to be near his brother, Jean.

Randy passed away in the mid 1990s. Jean Shepherd died of natural causes in October 1999 in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, FL, home.

"Shep," his nickname given to him by friends and fans, created several works aside from the movie "A Christmas Story." He authored books, hosted radio programs and wrote many short stories. He will mostly be remembered, though, for "A Christmas Story."

It has become one of the great Christmas classic movies of all time thanks to being broadcast every year on TBS for 24 hours straight from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. I still find myself drawn to watching it every year. Although I'm not old enough to have experienced growing up in Indiana during the 1940s, the Indiana humor, references and deep-seated sarcasm sit well with me. I experienced plenty of that first-hand growing up in Northwest Indiana.

It's great to see vintage Christmas displays in store windows like the one at Mitchell's in Crossville. Seeing displays like this take me back to simpler times in life. Times like when the biggest worry at Christmas was how to talk mom and dad into buying me a BB gun. I never did manage that — I wasn't quite as skilled as Ralphie.

As an adult, I know now that enjoying time with family, honoring Jesus Christ, helping others and creating tomorrow's great memories are the most important things about Christmas.

May you all have a blessed, holiday, Christmas season.

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