Posted by Susan Doll on January 5, 2009
I really do enjoy visiting the sites or locations where movies have been shot, whether they are classic award-winning dramas or forgotten little b-movies. Apparently so do a lot of other people, because movie tourism accounts for the latest trend touted by the travel industry. [Okay, I confess, I actually co-wrote a book about movie tourism in Florida called FLORIDA ON FILM, published by the University of Florida Press in 2007, but even before that, I was drawn to visiting movie locations.]
I particularly like to ponder what a specific location adds to the film beyond authenticity. Most assume that scouts select a location primarily because of its authenticity; and therefore, the most important characteristic of a location must be its authenticity. But, neither is true. Locations are selected for many reasons, from practical considerations such as access and cost to aesthetic reasons like the mood created by a setting or the composition of the landscape. Once a location becomes part of the fabric of the film, it can take on additional meaning, like the setting in a painting or other work of art. Sometimes that meaning is simply the evocation of a mood or emotion; sometimes it is a complex interweaving of iconography, symbolism, and collective cultural significance. Sometimes this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers; sometimes not.
It is this additional meaning that makes a movie location special to fans of the film and inspires — or compels –them to visit it. My thoughts on movie tourism were sparked over the holidays because I kept running across articles about A Christmas Story and the special locations associated with it.
A Christmas Story became an important addition to America’s holiday viewing habits after 1997, when one Turner station or another began showing it as a 24-hour marathon on Christmas day. This past season, TNT did the honors, and while visiting relatives on Christmas, I was not surprised to see it playing softly in the background as we all made merry. But, even after the 24-hour marathon, there was no escaping the movie as I stumbled across articles about exhibitions related to A Christmas Story, tours of the locations used for the film, and massive holiday displays based on the plot. The year 2008 represented the movie’s 25th anniversary, which probably had something to do with the extra hoopla over the film.
The film’s narrative is set in fictional Hohman, Indiana, which is based on Hammond, Indiana, where author Jean Shepherd grew up. Shepherd wrote the short stories and created the characters that the script was based on, and he served as the film’s voice-over narrator. However, A Christmas Story was shot in Cleveland, Ohio, and Toronto, Canada. All three cities like to claim to be the “home” of A Christmas Story, and all three offer something to see for the movie tourist.
Currently, the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond is hosting an exhibition based on A Christmas Story with the wonderful title “A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent , Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas.” Coincidentally, the Welcome Center is located down the road from where Shepherd grew up. The exhibition consists of several displays based on key scenes in the movie, including a recreation of Higbee’s Department Store window where Ralphie first ogles the Red Ryder air rifle that he covets, a display called “Flick’s Tongue and the Triple Dog Dare,” a recreation of “The Parker Living Room” on Christmas night, “Santa’s Mountain” where an elf shoved Ralphie down the Higbee’s slide, and other displays based on iconic moments from the movie.
Additional exhibits include the Ugly Lamp Contest, which showcases some truly hideous models that rival Mr. Parker’s prize possession in the movie. And, the Welcome Center has hosted several related activities such as a Mommy’s Little Piggy pie-eating contest and an autograph signing with Scott Schwartz, who played the infamous Flick in the movie. Apparently, the exhibition has been wildly popular, with the pie-eating contest bringing in 4,000 people alone. One of the virtues of the exhibition is that it is pulling in a multi-generational audience, not unlike the appeal of the movie itself.
If you are ever motoring through Cleveland, be sure to stop and see the Christmas Story House. In 1983, the filmmakers chose a house located in the Tremont neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland to be the exterior of the Parker residence, though most of the interiors were shot on a sound stage in Toronto. In 2004, a fan of the film named Brian Jones purchased the house — on eBay of all places — and painstakingly remodeled it to look like the Parker home inside and out. Apparently, Jones based his remodeling on looking at A Christmas Story frame by frame, which reminded me of the way that the courtroom of the Old Courthouse in Inverness, Florida, was restored to its original décor by referring to a VHS copy of the Elvis Presley movie Follow That Dream. The last sequence of the Elvis film had been shot in the courtroom, and the restoration committee studied the scenes to get their duplication correct.
After opening the Christmas Story House in 2007, Jones bought the house across the street and turned it into the Christmas Story Museum, which exhibits the film’s most famous props. A smaller house next to the Museum features a gift shop that specializes in movie memorabilia. The shop’s most unique offerings are hand-crafted red and green felt hats by Patty LaFountaine-Johnson. Ms. L-J played one of the elves in the movie in the scene where Ralphie goes to see Santa at Higbee’s Department Store. Growing up near Cleveland, I remember that Higbee’s and Halley’s stores were the dream destinations for kids at Christmas. Both stores featured elaborate one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations, and all us Northeast Ohioians thought these cathedrals of consumerism to be the next best thing to Santa’s North Pole headquarters — an idea nicely captured in the movie. Too bad Higbee’s couldn’t have been restored like the house; the store became a Dillard’s in 1992 and then closed its doors for good in 2002.
Every November, Jones holds a Christmas Story convention or celebration to coincide with Cleveland’s Winterfest. Local actors from the movie show up, and the House sponsors fire-engine rides and other activities related to the movie. Last November, the convention premiered a documentary about the movie’s director, Bob Clark, titled ClarkWORLD, with the proceeds benefitting the Cleveland chapter of MADD. Sadly, Clark was killed by a drunk driver in 2007. All in all, the Christmas Story House sounds like an ideal destination for a movie tourist. If you are engaged and looking for a memorable place to be married, consider the Christmas Story House, which does book weddings.
In Toronto, A Christmas Story doesn’t seem to have the same beloved status that it enjoys here, unless the Canadians are more subtle in their devotion than Americans. According to Toronto newspapers, no local TV stations showed the movie this past Christmas, despite the film’s 25th anniversary. Only the most diehard movie tourists will be able to track down something to see from the movie in Canada. The Warren G. Harding school scenes, where Flick famously sticks his tongue on a metal pole, were filmed at the Victoria School in St. Catharine’s, Ontario. The school has since been remodeled into a women’s shelter, so touring the area is not advised. However, the St. Catharine’s Museum owns a few props from the film, including a couple of scripts. Perhaps the best way to experience the Canadian locations used in A Christmas Story is to find a copy of the documentary Road Trip for Ralphie directed by two fans who spent two years discovering and shooting little-known locations both in Canada and Cleveland.
Finally, in the tiny village of Geneva in Northeast Ohio near my own home town, this year’s large-scale Christmas display in the town square was based on the movie, complete with a giant one-legged lamp. Apparently, the display was the idea of a local high-school art teacher, and I wish had been able to see it in person. I hope town officials opt to use it next holiday season. Of course, Geneva, Ohio, was not a location used in the movie, but a giant leg-lamp in the center of town should attract all true movie tourists.
A Christmas Story was not a box-office hit when it was released in 1983. At the time, I was surprised that some reviewers did not appreciate it, but since most popular reviewing is based on personal taste and ego rather than objective criteria, mainstream critics often miss the boat on good films. A Christmas Story speaks to ordinary folk by validating their memories of past Christmases in homey midwestern houses not unlike the Parkers’ yellow house in Hohman/ Hammond/Cleveland; therefore, it is fitting that the movie was made a classic over the years through home-viewing outlets — video, cable, DVD, and now Blu-ray — where families watch the film with younger generations in the process of making their Christmas memories. Small wonder that the film’s fans flock to see the house in Cleveland, visit the exhibit in Hammond, or marvel at the Christmas display in Geneva.
”A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent , Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas” runs through January 11, 2009. The Indiana Welcome Center is located just east of the Illinois border off Interstate Highway 80.
The Christmas Story House is located at 3159 West 11th Street in Cleveland (coincidentally, just off Clark Avenue), which can be accessed from Interstate 71. A mere $7.50 gets you inside the house and the museum.
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