Beyond the leg lamp: A trip to the 'Christmas Story' house

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

A Christmas Story. That iconic holiday movie people either love or hate.

Cleveland boasts a connection to the Christmas tale of BB gun mania and "pink nightmare" bunny suits, of triple-dog-dares and major awards. Part of the filming took place in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood; 3159 W. 11th Street, to be exact (a.k.a. the Parkers' house). Now a bona-fide tourist attraction, the Christmas Story House and Museum attracts visitors from all over.

In 2004, entrepreneur Brian Jones purchased the house on the auction and marketplace website, eBay. Operating as Red Rider Leg Lamps (redriderleglamps .com), the Christmas Story-fan-Jones had been making and selling lamps reminiscent of the "major award" that figures so prominently in the film. Jones offered the eBay seller $150,000 for the house in return for an early removal of the $99,000 listing. The house had been a rental property, but after renovating the house's interior to resemble the Parker family home as it is represented in the film, Jones opened it to the public, along with a museum and gift shop.

A Christmas Story House tour guide Michelene Hart described the major structural renovations that were required to create the Parker residence recognizable by viewers of the film. "When [Jones] got here, the place was a wreck inside, because there was no proper plumbing; there was not anything in here that was worth anything. It was 'just' the Christmas Story house. But he was undaunted by that ... He had to squeeze that huge soundstage; he went freeze-frame by freeze-frame and recreated [the interior of the house] to be the inside of the Christmas Story house." The renovation log can be viewed on the Christmas Story house webpage.

In transforming the house, Jones has subsequently helped to transform the neighborhood. A Christmas Story House executive director Steve Siedlecki described the effect of Jones' entrepreneurial efforts. "Basically, you have almost three quarters of a million dollars worth of home purchases and renovations just in this little corner here. Some of the other surrounding lots have fixed up their yards a little bit. But the neighborhood itself was on the up and up before, and this is just kind of the continuation of it."

A Christmas Story was based on In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, author Jean Shepherd's collection of short stories about growing up in Indiana. Despite the Hoosier setting of Shep-herd's book, director Bob Clark ultimately chose a Cleveland location for the onscreen Parker family. Shepherd and Clark toured the 'Rust Belt' scouting potential locations for the film. They found their particular vision of 1939-1940 Indiana realized in Cleve-land's multicultural and industrial setting. "One of the things that was important was that the [steel] mills were seen from the house in the background. They were looking for a type of neighborhood that was a Slavic-Polish kind of neighborhood, Italian, Irish - the people that worked in the mills - and that had nooks and crannies and had that 40s look," Hart explains.

The house ultimately selected was logistically almost perfect for the filmmakers' purposes. Siedlecki analyzed why the Tremont house was indubitably the house for A Christmas Story. "It was perfect for setting up [film] equipment. [The lot was] where they kept the Bumpus house; that's where they kept Black Bart's horse. And then also the way that the house is situated on the street, right on the intersection, it gave perfect camera views - you know, the sweeping shots of the neighborhood." However, as Siedlecki said, it is nearly impossible for filming to take place inside a house of normal proportions. "[The filmmakers] weren't going to use the interior of this house. Hollywood needs to manipulate the environment. Lighting, tracks on the floor. Even today, being opened up a little more than it was, it's still just way too small to get a couple actors in there, a couple cameras, the booms, everything. No interior shots were actually done [inside]. The actual soundstage was modeled off the interior of the house. When [filmmakers] are building a soundstage, they do need to make the interior be set up similar to the way the outside looks," Siedlecki said.

Jones and his team have been enormously successful in bringing the house "to life." Hart emphasized the huge popularity of the house as a showplace. "A couple thousand people came the first day that [the house] opened [on Thanksgiving weekend in 2006]. In the last three years, there have been a hundred thousand people. About a month ago, we had our 100,000th person. He [Lee Stanton] was from Maine. We gave him a leg lamp and a few other gifts. I had the privilege of taking the ticket from him, so that was fun." The House appeals to A Christmas Story fanatics, loyal Clevelanders, and passers-through Cleveland alike. Visitors' cars parked outside the house have license plates that reflect a variety of different states in the U.S.

Siedlecki reflected on how the Christmas Story house staff focuses on maintaining it as an inviting, interactive exhibit. "The whole idea was we want people to be able to come here and experience the movie, not just see the house. You know, climb under the sink. Act out your favorite scene. Touch the leg," he said. The furniture, appliances and telephone are 1939/1940s-style. The house is decorated with props reminiscent of the film. A sled is on the porch. The shed is in the backyard. The infamous leg lamp stands in its place of honor near the window. On the desk in Ralphie and Randy's room are broken eyeglasses and a marbled-cover composition book containing, in a child's cursive, Ralphie's "What I Want for Christmas" essay. There's even a bar of red Lifebuoy soap, which Mother used to scour Ralphie's mouth clean of "fudge." Across the street from the house are the Christmas Story House museum and gift shop. The museum showcases memorabilia relevant to the film, including many original props used in filming, and uses an assortment of different displays on a rotating basis. The gift shop offers a wealth of Christmas Story merchandise, including items that are exclusive to the Christmas Story House and Museum.

Christmas was the once-a-year pivot "around which the entire 'kid year' revolved" for Ralphie Parker, but thanks to Brian Jones and the house staff, it will always be Christmas in Tremont.

Magdalene Pesch, M.B.A., M.A., is a freelance writer based in the Cleveland area. She is a former member of the editorial board of the Ohio ASCD Journal. She writes about today's business issues and popular culture.


Inside the Christmas Story House

Fun stuff