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‘A Christmas Story’ at 35: How the Comedy Found Its Place in Holiday History

Hugh Hefner was a huge fan of the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” — so huge that he actually had a replica of the movie’s famed leg lamp in the dining room of the Playboy mansion year-round, and he would screen it at his movie night at the estate during the yuletide season.

“I think one of the reasons he liked this one is because it’s set in 1940, so it was set during the days of his youth,” said Jeremy Arnold, author of the new book “Turner Classic Movies: Christmas in the Movies,” who first saw the comedy at Hefner’s home in 2002.

The film’s star, Peter Billingsley, found himself talking about the movie with the Playboy founder at a screening. “He said, ‘We’ve seen your movie here frequently and we’re big fans.’ He was very warm and very, very welcoming.”

Hefner was far from the only one who fell in love with “A Christmas Story,” which is turning 35 on Nov. 18.

Adapted by Jean Shepherd from his 1966 novel “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” — he also supplies the whimsical narration — and directed by Bob Clark, “A Christmas Story” revolves around Ralphie (Billingsley), a young Cleveland boy who is determined to get a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas even though his nervous mother (Melinda Dillon) fears he’ll put his eye out.

The film is filled with iconic scenes, from Ralphie’s nightmarish visit to see Santa at Higbee’s department store, to Ralphie getting pink bunny pajamas for Christmas (which Billingsley still owns), to Flick (Scott Schwartz) getting his tongue stuck to a frigid flagpole in a triple dog dare.

A Christmas Story
CREDIT: MGM/UA/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Though “A Christmas Story” was not a flop — it made $19 million — the film was out of theaters on Dec. 16 that year to make way for other holiday fare.

But just as Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 drama “It’s a Wonderful Life” did, the comedy has taken on a life of its own, benefiting greatly from its home video release, as well as airings on television.

Though it’s set in 1940, Arnold said the film has endured to become a holiday family tradition because it’s so relatable for families. “Any family can find some element or aspect of that film that will apply to them in some way. Not the actual specifics of what’s happening, but the general thrust behind a lot of the episodes in that film,” he explained. “It’s remarkably modern that way.”

TNT and TBS began airing the movie in the late 1980s and in 1997, TNT kicked off the 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathon through Christmas Day.

“Starting in 2014, we started airing it across both TBS and TNT,” noted Michael Quigley, executive vice president of network and programming optimization and content strategy for the networks.

And the audience has grown substantially. “Just stepping back, as we have looked at the performance of it most recently across TBS and TNT, it’s now reaching over 40 million viewers,” he said. “The marathon is staggering in terms of its performance and we’re finding that constantly it is among the top-performing movies on our network year after year.”

The late director Bob Clark realized how popular the film had become when he was sitting several years after its release with his ex-wife and children in a New Hampshire restaurant.

“I thought we were hearing ‘A Christmas Story,’” he said in a 1997 interview. “We leaned over and, in the booth across from us, a family was acting out the movie — the entire movie. They sat at dinner and they played all the roles. We couldn’t believe it. It really astounded me.”

Billingsley, then 11, was the first actor Clark saw for the role of Ralphie.

“Obviously, he’s like, ‘Well, I like him, but I’m not hiring the first person I see,’” said Billingsley, who has become a successful producer of film, TV, and Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for 2012’s “A Christmas Story the Musical.”

A few months later, he was called in for comebacks. “They did screen test kind of things just for the kids. They were doing chemistry reads to try to get the balance of energy, look, and feel for the group of kids.”

Billingsley noted that Clark was “very prepared” when production began. “He had a real specific vision. Jean was involved. This adaptation was a collaboration that had taken them over 10 years to get this movie made. It was such a challenge to get off the ground because it’s an odd movie probably on paper.”

On set, Billingsley described, Clark and Shepherd were hands-on. “Jean was often trying to give me notes,” Billingsley said with affection. “Bob would run up and say, ‘Stop talking to my actor.’ It all came from what was clearly this great place of really having a specific vision.”

Because of the narration, noted Billingsley, “there was a lot of reacting. Bob would put his face right next to the camera to read the narration off, so you could react to the timing, which was very helpful.”

Billingsley remembered one of the toughest scenes to shoot: when Ralphie goes outside with his BB gun. “It was cold,” he noted. “It was Cleveland, it was freezing, and I was in pajamas. That house was just a shell. There was really nothing in it. They had space heaters, so we’d do a take until I started shivering and then we’d run in, warm up in front of the heaters, and run back and do another take.”

A Christmas Story
CREDIT: MGM/UA/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The house is no longer a shell thanks to Brian Jones, a super fan who bought the Cleveland building in 2004 and lovingly recreated the interior from the film. He opened the house for tours in 2006. Prior to buying the house, Jones started a company that made replicas of the leg lamp.

He now owns four houses in the neighborhood. The home across the street is a museum. “I have one of the six BB guns used in the movie,” said Jones. “I have a bunch of costumes like Peter Billingsley’s outfits, the kids’ pajamas, toys from Higbee’s windows, a lot of hats, a bunch of different fun stuff.”

There’s the gift shop house, and he recently bought the Bumpus house where the neighbors with the dogs lived.

The house and museum are “open all year except for major holidays and a two-week period in February where we do maintenance to just keep the house up and in shape,” he said.

Jones said 100,000 people have visited the house since it opened

“We get people coming from Asia and Africa. [Visitors] say it’s their favorite movie of all time. They watch it every year. Just to come to see the actual house is a tactile experience.” And some families have made it a tradition to visit the house on a yearly basis.

Both the “Christmas Story” and Bumpus homes are now available for overnight stays. “We’re basically sold out until the first week of January — we have been since the first week of October,” said Jones.

Billingsley does have warm and fuzzy memories of making the film, but what he cherishes most was his friendship with Clark, who died with his son in a car crash in 2007.

“Because I wanted to transition from the front of the camera to behind, he was the single greatest mentor I ever had,” Billingsley said. “He was absolutely encouraging and supportive. I would visit him on sets. We would talk and play golf together.”

Billingsley said he had reached out to “other filmmakers that I worked with and did not get a very warm reception. But Bob was incredibly supportive and encouraging. I’m eternally grateful.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the anniversary on Dec. 10 with screening and a panel discussion featuring Billingsley and members of the production team at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

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