Backstory: A holiday fantasy tourists can touch
The house from 'A Christmas Story' – leg lamp and all – is open to the public and rejuvenating a Cleveland neighborhood.
CLEVELAND — One recent Saturday morning in South Tremont, a neighborhood of narrow streets overlooking a steel plant, 11-year-old Drake Przybylski ladles chocolate Ovaltine from an 18-quart roaster into plastic cups.
It's not exactly the lemonade stand he always wanted. But he's not complaining.
"The first weekend I made over $150!" he says from the front porch of his next-door neighbor – the recently restored house featured in "A Christmas Story," which was recently ranked by a Harris poll in the top three most popular holiday movies. For the third time since the house opened to the public Nov. 25, Drake has donned the coonskin hat of yellow-eyed bully Scut Farkus and sold the movie's official drink to visitors.
Parents in their 30s and 40s bring their children. Children in their teens and 20s bring their parents. They wear movie sweatshirts, wield camcorders, and promise donations. They wait in line for tickets and pose with Drake's Red Ryder BB gun in front of the leg lamp in the picture window.
For the most part, the visitors look like middle- and upper-class American families, the ones who, for decades, have been fleeing Cleveland, named the poorest big city in 2005. But this centenarian structure with the green trim has brought them back to one of its neighborhoods – in droves. About 200 people a day show up during the week, between 1,100 and 1,500 a day on weekends. By Saturday, 20,200 had traipsed through the house – and many more are expected this week.
With his props and stories – including the one about finding a BB from the movie in the back yard – Drake definitely adds to the charm. He wears glasses like Ralphie and pulls funny-guy stunts like Flick. He hasn't shot his eye out with his BB gun, though he did shoot himself in the knee once.
Drake wants to be a chef when he grows up and figured he'd start with a lemonade stand. But until his next-door neighbor became a major tourist attraction, the stand seemed like a bad, money-losing idea to his mom. For most of the past seven years, they've seen little traffic on their stretch of West 11th Street, where many homes look abandoned. Drake's dad, a police officer, bought their house seven years ago at a reduced price under the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's Officer Next Door program. Two drug-dealer neighbors left around the time they arrived.
The house was chosen for the 1983 movie because its working-class exterior evoked 1940s Hammond, Ind., an industrial town where the original book's author, Jean Shepherd, grew up. (The film crew even had the steel mills melt tires to blacken the smoke rising in the background to make it look more dramatic.) This would be home to the movie version of Shepherd's middle-class family: Ralphie, the fantasy-inclined 9-year-old Red Ryder fanatic; Randy, his kid brother who doesn't like to eat; Mr. Parker, whose most entertaining lines are delivered to a furnace, and Mrs. Parker, who fills her kids' mouths with cooked cabbage when they're good, and soap when they're not.
The snow in the movie conceals much of the decline along "Cleveland Street," but retiree Jim Moralevitz remembers the 1980s as being a decade of renters neglecting their yards, rough neighbors, and drug activity.
"My own family said 'It's getting dangerous. When are you going to leave?'" he says. "But I didn't want to leave. It was my parents' home. I just kept fixing it up."
Where others saw blight in South Tremont, San Diego businessman Brian Jones saw promise. The US Naval Academy graduate had loved "A Christmas Story" since he was a child and first looked to it for career inspiration after he found out his vision was too weak for him to become a pilot. To cheer him up, his family made a leg lamp just like Mr. Parker's "major award." They sent it to him in a large wooden crate marked "FRAGILE." The high-heeled mannequin leg topped by a skirt-like lampshade drew so much interest that he decided to sell the lamps online in 2003 at RedRiderLegLamps.com.
The minute he saw an ad for the Cleveland house on eBay in 2005, he wanted to open it to the public. The seller had the price at $99,000. Mr. Jones offered $150,000 before he even went to Cleveland to see it.
"People thought I was crazy," he says. "I thought it [the house] was an important part of Americana and people would come see it."
People came from all over the country on opening weekend, and they're still coming for the kitsch, nostalgia, and photo ops. They pose with Randy's snowsuit in the museum, the original shed in the backyard, and Mr. Parker's leg lamp emerging from a large crate just inside the front door. As if on cue, a woman belts out a perfect Parkerian mispronunciation: "Say fra-GEE-lay!" ("Italian" for fragile.)
In the gift shop across the street, souvenirs for all levels of devotees are available at a range of price points. Even though all the movie DVDs and leg lamp Christmas lights were sold out on one recent Thursday, there were plenty of movie photographs, action figures, and even chunks of the original wood siding for $60 a square.
"Do you have any more decoder rings?" asks one visitor, a lone, bald man in a suit coat.
He leaves smiling.
"C'mon, grab a leg lamp and let's go!" yells a well-dressed blond woman on a tight schedule. But which one? The 20-inch lamp costs $59.99, the 45-inch $149.99, and the deluxe – the one aglow in the family's picture window – $199.99.
Fans visiting on the weekends have plenty of time to decide what to buy while waiting in the line, which can snake down the steps, past the fence, and down the street. Visitors, some with out-of-state license plates from as far away as Maryland, pay residents $5 to park in their driveways. Curator and director Steve Siedlecki watches for drive-way blockers from the house's front porch.
On a recent Saturday, Mr. Moralevitz, a former polka-band drummer who was an extra in the movie, stands behind a display case sharing behind-the-scenes moments with visitors until he's hoarse. "I had the pleasure of delivering the leg lamp," he tells those stuck in front of him. No, he tells the latest person who asks, he was not the guy who shrugs when Mr. Parker asks what's in the crate. He was the guy behind the crate.
Other businesses have come up with promotions linked to the house, including a local Chinese restaurant that serves duck (Chinese turkey), cutting off its head at the table like in the movie. Jones wants to partner with other local businesses to make a Christmas village on the street, a portion of which will soon be ceremonially renamed "Cleveland Street." A new member of the neighborhood block club, Jones is buying the house next door to the museum, where he plans to move the gift shop.
Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman is thrilled by the effect Jones has had on the neighborhood, where you can still buy a house for under $90,000. He's received a dozen requests from people interested in redeveloping housing in the neighborhood.
By noon, South Tremont's newest entrepreneur has sold out of almost all his Ovaltine. It's time for lunch and homework now. His mom tips up the roaster and gets him the last drops.
Things may look different next year, but Drake will be back: "Every Christmas I'm going to do this. Until I'm 17, I'm just going to keep selling."