Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Monday, August 9, 2010


So here we were, SWMBO and I, on one of the hottest days of the year in Atlanta, sitting in front of the Big Screen Teevee with our friends Gary and JoAnn, watching A Christmas Story. You may well be moved to ask why: Not only is July decidedly not a Christmassy Time of the Year, but none of us are what you’d call Christmassy People, given that the four of us are Red Sea Pedestrians. Why, indeed?

Here’s the Long-Winded Explanation.

Those of my Esteemed Readers who have been following my adventures for a long time know that I am an admirer of the works of Jean Shepherd, the late humorist, raconteur, and radio personality.

I suspect that, these days, most of the people who know about Shep discovered him through the movie A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark’s paean to growing up in early 1940’s Indiana. It’s become a sort of seasonal Cult Classic, this movie has, thanks in part to TBS’s practice of showing it in a repeating loop for a full 24 hours on Christmas... but it stands on its own as a filmic collation of Shep’s inimitable tales, all of which I had been on familiar terms with since the late 1960’s.

Most of the stories on which the film is based were short pieces that Shep had assembled into a novel of sorts, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. He did this by the expedient device of writing interstitials that set the various stories up as reminiscences between a Ralph, now a writer returning to his hometown to write a magazine article, and his old buddy Flick, now a bartender. Only one of these Flashback Stories really has anything to do with Christmas: “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” - the Founding Myth of little Ralphie’s BB-gun obsession - and many of the others are set in Ralph’s adolescent years. The book’s tone is far more satirical and biting than the movie’s rose-colored atmosphere of happy reminiscence... which to me is a Good Thing.

Prior to the appearance of A Christmas Story on the big screen, several of Shep’s pieces had been adapted for television by PBS. There were four: The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976); The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982); The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983); and Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988). Alas, none of these has yet been released for home video... but I still have them preserved on precious cassettes of VHS magnetic tape. It’s extremely entertaining to see some of the same vignettes, familiar to millions thanks to A Christmas Story, portrayed by different actors (James Broderick as Ralphie’s dad, Matt Dillon as the teenaged Ralphie) and in different settings, as well as to see many of Shep’s other adventures brought to life.

Ironically enough, the
Christmas Story House is
closed on Christmas.
What does this have to do with Christmas in July? Knew you’d ask. When we were in Cleveland with Gary and JoAnn in late June, we had been seeking out appropriate Touristic Activities with which to keep us occupied. Almost by accident, we discovered something that was right up my Jean Shepherdly Alley: A Christmas Story House and Museum.

It seems that when director Bob Clark was looking for places to shoot the exteriors for A Christmas Story, Hammond, Indiana (the basis for Shep’s fictional “Hohman”) was deemed by Shep to be too modern. The early ’40’s look he was after was in Cleveland... as was a Higbee’s Department Store, an important consideration. And so West 11th Street in Cleveland became Cleveland Street in “Hohman.”

The house at 3159 West 11th Street was used for exterior shots as well as some interiors. Later, it fell into complete disrepair, until a canny California investor bought it and restored it (at great expense) to its full Filmic Glory, converting it into a museum. Or perhaps a shrine. And it was a perfect place to stop by and soak up some Jean Shepherd nostalgia, regardless of one’s level of interest (or lack thereof) in Christmas per se.

Here are some pics:

The exterior, complete with old mailbox and vintage Radio Flyer sled.

Leg Lamp
SWMBO and the Leg Lamp. “It’s a major award!”

More photos below the fold... and a surprising postscript here.

It turns out that Gary and JoAnn, who visited the Christmas Story House with us, had never seen the movie. We resolved, then and there, that we would watch it together upon our return to Atlanta... and so we did. And as many times as SWMBO and I have seen it, it was especially enjoyable to watch it with our friends, who could now appreciate the museum visit in retrospect... and who laughed at the same stuff we did.

The infamous bar of Lifebuoy soap, along with several vintage accoutrements. The only serious anachronism is the presence of a bar code on the soap box...

Bedroom w/ Beds
Ralph and Randy’s bedroom.

Click on the image to embiggen: you can see the alphabet blocks, cleverly arranged to show familiar phrases from the movie.

Sewing Room
The sewing room.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I heard abut this place watching something on TV and thought about how incredible it would be to visit--glad to see you got the opportunity!

Elisson said...

@Eugene - Just so you know, I read your book several years ago, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. And you're right: Shep's real genius was as a radio raconteur. Those shows I used to listen to on WOR-New York were pure magic... and they still are.

Motherkitty said...

I was born and raised in Hammond, IN. Even though the film was actually shot in Cleveland, everything in the movie screamed Hammond, including the Christmas duck dinner at the Chinese restaurant (Cam Lan's) where our family ate practically every Sunday. I actually went to school with a kid that looked just like Skut Farkas and he had yellow eyes to boot. Finally, the exterior of the school in the film looks exactly like my old high school. I even know where Shepherd lived as a kid -- the house still stands -- in Hammond.

This is one of my very favorite movies because it reminds me of my youth and growing up in Hammond (the armpit of America).

Anonymous said...

My brother-in-law, my son, and I would watch this every Christmas at our Mother's-in-law house. USA does a 24 hour marathon. My BIL gave my son one of the leg lamp reproductions.

I grew up in those years. I really understand it. Probably my all time favorite movie.