A Christmas Story

In 1983, moviegoers were introduced to little Ralphie Parker. And even though A Christmas Story looms large today with 24-hour marathons, sequels, and merchandise, it was a slow climb to the top.

Fun links

  • A Christmas Story House: Web site for the house / museum from the movie
  • Triple Dog Dare: Book by Joanna Wilson (who appears in episode 16 this season), recounting her experience watching the entire 24-hour movie marathon
  • Criminally Intrigued: Web site by Anthony, who shares a Christmas memory in this episode

Music from this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:00
The best movies have a few things in common: memorable scenes, quotable lines, characters your route for an engaging story, and timeless appeal. And if that movie also happens to be a Christmas movie, well then it’s all but destined to become a Christmas classic. In 1983, movie goers were introduced to little ralphie Parker in Indiana schoolboy who wanted just one thing for Christmas, a red Ryder bb gun. And in the 34 years since its release, A Christmas Story has become one of America’s favorite holiday films.

You might even say it’s become a modern Christmas tradition. And it’s taken on a life beyond itself. What with a 24 hour marathon and the various merchandise and stage adaptations and sequels? The house in the movie was made into a museum and there’s even a bronze statue of flick licking the flagpole at the Indiana Welcome Center. It’s hard to imagine it now but the movie wasn’t a big success at first. In fact, it was already gone from theaters by the time Christmas of 1983 rolled around. Its popularity grew organically from word of mouth and a little help along the way from the VHS tape. So put on your pink bunny one day because I triple dog dare you to learn the history behind a modern classic.

I’m Brian Earl. This is Christmas Past

There are just so many memorable lines from the movie. I double dog dare you. You’ll shoot your eye out. Fragile LA. Oh fudge, electric sex gleaming in the window. There’s more but you get the point in those scenes, like when ralphie meets Santa Claus at the mall, the showdown with scut farkus. And yes, it’s scut farkus as cu t not Scott, the leg lamp, the pink bunny onesy the Chinese restaurant and of course that iconic scene. I mean the one commemorated in bronze at the Indiana Welcome Center where ralphie is friend flick is triple dog dared into licking a frozen flagpole

Scott Schwartz 2:12
there was a real pole there but they put a piece of plastic over it that they had painted to look like a pole

Brian Earl 2:18
that Scott Schwartz. Yeah, the Scott Schwartz, the actor who played the part of flick,

Scott Schwartz 2:25
The first time we shot it, it was 12 and a half hours from beginning to end for the whole thing. It was hysterical. You know, we had hand warmers and leg warmers, and we had battery operated socks and long johns. I mean, it was a riot. It was freezing, but it was a riot. So we shot it once the first time after 12 and a half hours. And unfortunately, due to some not too many good people at the lab up there in Canada, they underdeveloped the film, and we had to do it again. And we did a good job. We cut an hour off we did an 11 and a half hours.

Brian Earl 2:58
I just had to ask Scott, what’s it like to be basically a living, breathing Christmas tradition?

Scott Schwartz 3:04
Maybe because I’m Jewish. I don’t know. I don’t really celebrate Christmas. You know, I celebrate Hanukkah, which is very funny. You know, I’m going to an American iconic Christmas. So I’m going I’m Jewish, but I see how people react and I see what their feelings are and how they project the care and love for all of us. I think it’s cool to be a part of something that people 30 years later still want to watch. It’s like we’re a part of their family.

Brian Earl 3:30
The movie is based on a 1966 book by James Shepard, really a collection of stories he had previously published in Playboy magazine. And that’s Shepherd’s Voice we hear narrating the story. And it was directed by Bob Clark, whose previous movie was the R rated comedy Porky’s.

Scott Schwartz 3:48
I mean, it has to look at the history of Bob Clark. This guy has done some incredible stuff. He does black Christmas, which is a small little movie and becomes this iconic type film. Then he goes Porky’s and it becomes this monsterous thing that he does Christmas story and it becomes just this iconic christmas film and he somehow connected with the American psyche. You know, he was the one that wanted to do this. He kept pushing for it. Christmas story was a labor of love. He wanted to do it because you love Jean Shepard, and he wanted the movie.

Brian Earl 4:24
It was all done on a shoestring budget and a short 10 week shooting schedule, most of it being shot in Canada. Bob Clark even returned his director’s feet to the studio to keep everything within budget. And when it was released in 1983. It was a bit of a sleeper

Scott Schwartz 4:39
the film did okay. The first week it had more theaters the second week and more theaters the third week. And by the fourth week it was done because all the theaters were taken for the big holiday films.

Brian Earl 4:50
One little behind the scenes tidbits Scott told me was that the kids who played ralphie flick Schwartz and Randy weren’t allowed to hang out on set with the actors who played Scott Farkas and his Tony Grover dill.

Scott Schwartz 5:02
Bob literally wanted us to be scared to death of the bullies. So therefore he kept us away from them.

Brian Earl 5:09
So when and how did it go on to become the juggernaut it is today. Well, about five years after the movie released in electronic device was gaining mass market appeal in America, the video cassette recorder with movies now available on video cassette, people could not only watch them whenever they wanted to, but they could also share them. It was a very retro example of something going viral.

Scott Schwartz 5:34
It kind of became this cult classic on VHS. People would say to their friends all year long. Hey, have you seen a Christmas story? No. What’s that you’re taking my VHS tape, just people passing around the VHS tapes.

Brian Earl 5:45
But probably the real turning point was when Turner entertainment company bought the rights to the movie and started presenting 24 hour movie marathons on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The movie marathons has been aired on the channels TNT, TBS, and TCM,

Scott Schwartz 6:01
the rocket ship to the moon is really like 96 thanks to Ted Turner buying the MGM package, and then needing more films and whatever one of the last films that they bought was a Christmas story. They didn’t really know what to do with it, and they suggested a marathon.

Brian Earl 6:17
Now maybe one of the things that really appeals to people is the sense of nostalgia, the movie evokes, not only nostalgia for having grown up watching the movie, but the nostalgia for a bygone era depicted within the film. So it’s interesting to point out that we don’t know for sure when the movie is supposed to take place. There is a reference to the Wizard of Oz. So that means it’s set no earlier than 1939. And the soundtrack includes being Crosby’s version of Santa Claus is coming to town, which came out in 1943. So it’s set in a sort of a morphus period of late 30s to early 40s.

But like I said earlier, there’s that sense of timelessness about it, the story of the young boy and that one special Christmas gift he dreams about is something anyone who celebrates Christmas can relate to regardless of time and place. And that’s why even though I can probably recite the movie by heart, I will most definitely be revisiting ralphie and the gang this Christmas, just as I’ve done every Christmas for the last 20 odd years. And no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it’ll never be as many times as our friend Scott Schwartz.

Scott Schwartz 7:25
I watched it probably five or 600 times by the time I was 18 years old, you watch it during the holidays. So even if you watch it five times, six times over the course of the holiday, it’s going to take you 30 years to watch that movie as many times as I’ve seen it already. I’ve seen it six 800 times.

Brian Earl 7:49
Of course after that famous flagpole seen the fire department and the police show up. That’s what happens when kids get a little too mischievous. As our friend Anthony can surely tell you,

Anthony 7:59
when I was three years old, my grandmother came to visit, I had just learned a new game that I love to play with my dad, I would hide around the house and just kind of wait for someone to find me. I decided to myself, I would play this game with my grandma. My parents left for work. It just left me and my grandma, and she found herself occupied with something I slowly crept behind the Christmas tree. She came back to the room and said my name. I covered my mouth to stop from giggling. She called my name multiple times and still nothing. I was determined to impress my grandma and how good of a hider I could be. I was too young to realize how terrified she was. But in my mind, I was thinking I was going to get a real treat. My grandma ends up calling my mom worried and I’m still nowhere to be found. My mom she starts to drive back home. And as that’s happening, my grandma decides to call the police. Just as she hangs up the phone, I jump out from behind the tree and you know surprise. She was incredibly startled and it was quite upset with me. Once she canceled the police presence, she scolded me about why it’s not okay to do that and went back to Cooking things in the kitchen for later that day, helping me make one of my family’s best Christmas memories.

Brian Earl 9:04
Anthony is a blogger and soon to be podcaster who’s interested in true crime. You can check out his blog at criminally intriqued.com well guess what guys? That was the last regularly scheduled episode of Christmas Past for the 2017 season. When I say regularly scheduled I mean episodes like this, where I dig into the backstory behind a tradition. But if you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that last time I told you, I’ve got a special bonus episode lined up. It’s coming out this Friday. And that’s why this episode arrived on a Wednesday and not a Thursday, I needed to make room for the bonus episode. The bonus episode is dedicated to more of your Christmas memories. People have been asking me if I could do an episode full of Christmas memories. And I’m happy to say that this year, I can make that happen. So make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast so you’ll get it automatically. Also, there’s not much time but there is time. If If you’re interested in being part of that episode, you know the drill by now, if you want to share a Christmas memory, record a memo into your phone’s voice recorder app and send it to Christmas pass podcast@gmail.com but hurry. The bonus episode may also include another surprise or two. I’m still working that part out. And of course I’ll be back on Christmas Eve just like last year to wish you a Merry Christmas, do a Christmas 2017 year in review, and a little year end wrap up for the show. Until then, let me tell you that Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly Brian Earl. I’d like to say thanks to Scott Schwartz. I had such a great time talking to him. And this episode wouldn’t have been possible unless Eric Norton, the host of the fat PACs podcast hadn’t introduced me to Scott. So thanks again Eric. Search for Christmas pass podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to follow along and find more information about the show at Christmas Past podcast.com. I hope at this point, you’re ready for the big day and now you can just relax and enjoy the rest of the season. And I know I would enjoy it if you join me again next time for more stories including your stories from Christmas Past.