PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — Readers familiar with A Christmas Story, the beloved holiday classic set in small-town America in what is believed to be the late 1930s, will recall that the film’s central plot revolves around nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) hoping and praying he’ll discover a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun waiting for him under the tree on Christmas morning.
Robert Lilley’s father obviously remembers that storyline because the moment he learned his adult son was being interviewed by the Free Press for a feature on his collection of A Christmas Story memorabilia, he contacted MacDonald’s Sporting Goods in Portage la Prairie, where both men reside, to see if they stocked the one item his son wanted most for his ho-ho-horde: the same, 200-shot model rifle Ralphie’s heart is set on in the movie.
"Got an early Christmas gift," Lilley wrote on his Facebook page a few days ago, attaching a photo of his latest treasure, the aforementioned peashooter.
No surprise; fans of the flick, the 1984 Genie Award winner for best screenplay, immediately reached out to the married father of two, warning him to be careful not to shoot his eye out. (If you haven’t seen A Christmas Story and don’t get the reference, ask somebody who has.)
Lilley, 40, guesses he was 13 when he viewed A Christmas Story for the first time on TV.
Five years ago, his mother, aware he makes a point of rewatching it every year with his wife and two teenage daughters, gave him a gag gift for Christmas, an oversized green stocking with an image of a leg lamp, one of the "stars" of the show, emblazoned upon it.
Already a collector-type — one wing in his basement is devoted to rock band AC/DC while another is stocked with old-school Nintendo games — he immediately went online to see if there were any other A Christmas Story keepsakes out there.
He didn’t have to look far. Faster than you can say, "Fra-gee-lay? It must be Italian," he began turning up officially sanctioned board games, popcorn tins, T-shirts, decks of playing cards… even a Ralphie bobblehead doll.
"I get that there is a ton of stuff out there to do with Star Wars or some of the superhero movies but holy crackers, never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find so much from A Christmas Story," he says, replying yes, that is a glass tumbler stamped with the phrase, "I triple-dog-dare ya!" the line one of Ralphie’s buddies employs to convince another of their pals to — Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it! — affix his tongue to the school flagpole on a particularly frosty winter morning.
With the blessing of his understanding wife, Lilley begins displaying his A Christmas Story artifacts around the house the first week of December, leaving everything in place until just before New Year’s. That includes a full-sized replica leg lamp that rests on a coffee table prominently stationed in front of their living room bay window.
"It’s funny you should ask because I’ve often wondered the same thing myself," he says, when questioned what neighbours must think if they aren’t acquainted with A Christmas Story and spy the luminous limb while they’re out walking the dog.
"So far nobody’s knocked on the door asking what’s up with the lamp so who knows? Maybe everybody in Portage has seen the movie."
About that; although A Christmas Story wasn’t exactly what you’d term a blockbuster when it first hit theatres in November 1983 — gross earnings were just under US$20 million — its following grew by leaps and bounds after it reached the small screen a few years later.
By 1997 the 94-minute motion picture had become so popular that American cable station TNT began airing it 24 hours straight, from 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve until 8 p.m. on Christmas Day. (More good tidings: in a 2007 poll conducted by AOL, it was ranked the No. 1 holiday film of all time, edging out It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf for the top spot.)
Florida resident Brian Jones guesses he saw A Christmas Story for the first time in the late 1980s, likely on HBO. Years later, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, Jones started his own business by turning out leg lamps fashioned to look precisely like the one Ralphie’s father, played by the late Darren McGavin, found so alluring.
In 2004 Jones went a step further when he forked over US$150,000 for a two-storey house situated on West 11th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, the very abode where a majority of the scenes from A Christmas Story were shot. Following two years of renovations, Jones began welcoming people to the freshly minted A Christmas Story House & Museum in the fall of 2006.
"People come from all over the world to see the house; it is a tourist mecca for A Christmas Story fans," Jones says when reached at home in Florida.
The site is open seven days a week year-round. Owing to travel restrictions associated with COVID-19, this year Jones expects his staff to welcome roughly 50,000 fewer visitors than they normally would during the holiday season. Overnight stays, which are still available, are generally booked for December a year or two in advance, he adds.
In addition to the museum and guestroom components, the dwelling also contains a giftshop where the bestselling item is — you guessed it — a leg lamp.
"We sell all sizes and shapes, from the exact movie replica all the way down to night lights and (tree) ornaments," Jones says. (That ain’t all; the shop’s online catalogue also includes links to ugly Christmas sweaters, beer koozies and Pez dispensers, to name a few other souvenirs available for purchase.)
Back in Portage la Prairie, Lilley says it’s a goal of his to one day wake up in A Christmas Story House & Museum, preferably on Dec. 25. Given that the pandemic put that dream on hold this season, he’ll do the next best thing; that is, curl up on the couch today or tomorrow and enjoy A Christmas Story for the umpteenth time.
"The rest of the family doesn’t get as big a kick out of it as I do but that’s OK. I won’t mind if I’m stuck watching it myself while they’re busy wrapping presents or whatever," he says.
Oh, that reminds him; if the cousin who borrowed his Betamax machine three years ago is reading this, he is going to need that contraption back, pronto.
"There’s a guy in Winnipeg who has a Beta copy (of A Christmas Story) and the next time I’m in the city, I’ll be picking it up from his place," he says, adding he also owns two VHS copies and another on Blu-ray.
"I tell my kids all the time how this stuff isn’t an investment for me but rather for their future children, my future grandkids, who will hopefully grow up loving A Christmas Story as much as I do."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.