As I drive through Cleveland, the streets and sights of its charming Tremont neighborhood look eerily familiar. Then, as the mustard-colored house with green trim appears, I know just where I’ve seen this place before.
There may be no snow, excessively bundled-up boys, bullies with yellow eyes, or smelly, ravenous hound dogs from the Bumpus house next door on this early November day. But the giant leg lamp in the front window makes it unmistakable: This is Ralphie Parker’s family home from the beloved 1983 holiday movie A Christmas Story.
The classic film, set in the 1940s, tells the story of 9-year-old Ralphie (played by the bespectacled Peter Billingsley) and his desperate quest to get the object of all his Christmas desires: a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. Jean Shepherd, an author and radio personality, narrates the movie, inspired by stories in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Shepherd’s stories came from his upbringing in Hammond, Indiana, although Cleveland anonymously represents his hometown in the movie. Cleveland was chosen over 19 other cities to stand in for the Indiana steel town, because the Higbee’s department store management there was willing to let the crews film scenes inside the store.
A Christmas Story did reasonably well at the box office, pulling in about $20.8 million worldwide. But it was the rising popularity of home video and cable television that turned the movie into a megahit in the years to follow. It has long aired on a 24-hour TNT marathon on Christmas Day, cementing its scenes and lines in the memories of many adoring fans, myself included.
No doubt some of these die-hard fans have been anxiously awaiting the new sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas, now available on HBO Max. Set in the early ’70s, the film features Billingsley reprising his role as an adult Ralphie with a family of his own. The death of his father (originally played by Darren McGavin) at the beginning of the movie gets him reminiscing about his glorious childhood Christmases. Other original cast members, like Scott Schwartz (Ralphie’s friend Flick) and Ian Petrella (his brother Randy), return, as does a replica of the iconic Cleveland house.
The real house still stands at 3159 West 11th Street; about 20 percent of the original film was shot there. It has been a passion project for Jones for nearly two decades. When he heard that the house was up for sale on eBay in 2004, Jones snapped it up, sight-unseen, with a $150,000 offer. At the time, the former Navy intelligence officer living in San Diego was running a business making and selling novelty leg lamps like the iconic one in the movie; he had sold about 1,800 of them. It just seemed so meant-to-be to buy this matching piece of pop culture history. Initially, he didn’t know what he would do with what he describes as a “beat-down rental property,” but he ultimately also bought other properties on the street, turning what amounted to a 1.3-acre campus into a tourist attraction in 2006.
The site has become a once-in-a-lifetime trip for some and a beloved annual tradition for others. The house appears much as it did in the movie, decorated with many replicas of props allowing fans to remember and even reenact their favorite scenes. A red bar of soap, for instance, sits on the bathroom sink. (Who could forget when Ralphie got his mouth washed out with that soap after saying “Oh ffffffudge”—only he didn’t say “fudge”?) And visitors can climb into the cabinet below the kitchen sink where, after Ralphie beats up bully Scut Farkus in a fist fight, little brother Randy hides in tears and cries out: “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”
Across the street is a museum full of A Christmas Story memorabilia, like costumes, toys from the magical Higbee’s department store window and, of course, one of six Red Ryder BB guns thought to be used in the movie. A gift shop sells leg lamps in several sizes and other souvenirs, and both the house and the Bumpus house next door, which Jones purchased later, are available for overnight rentals.
“This adventure has been awesome, but it’s time for something different,” says Jones, after news broke early this week that A Christmas Story House & Museum is again up for sale. While he cannot reveal much detail at this point due to an agreement with Warner Bros., which owns the distribution rights to the original movie and sequel, Jones explains that he will only sell the properties to a buyer who will keep the popular attraction going and hopefully expand it further. A competitive offer, he says, will be upwards of $10 million. “It’s gone so far beyond what I expected it to be,” he adds.
Visiting the house and museum brings back so many nostalgic memories of the movie, which came out when I was 10 and has a way of making viewers of any age feel and believe in the magic of Christmas again. I giggled during a visit a few years ago when I pretended to stick my tongue to a flagpole like the unfortunate Flick, whose tongue froze to the metal in the movie. The funniest part of touring the house for me is picking up the wall telephone on the second floor and listening to a recording of the scene where Flick’s horrified mother punishes him for supposedly cursing, when Ralphie blamed his own foul mouth on his poor friend.
On this most recent visit, about a dozen people—all tourists from outside of Cleveland, including visitors from Kentucky and Maryland—join my tour. One of them, Kurt Roettjer of Minneapolis, paid $10 at the gift shop to rent and wear a replica of Ralphie’s pink “Deranged Easter Bunny” suit, from the memorable scene where Ralphie’s mother forces him to put on the garment his clueless Aunt Clara made for him.
“This makes me happy,” says Roettjer, an Air Force veteran who invites people over every year to watch the movie, and sometimes watches it three nights in a row. “This is my favorite Christmas movie. I just love it. It never gets old.”
Jones believes that the appeal of A Christmas Story comes from the way it captures a real-life Christmas through the eyes of a child. The plot delivers strong yearnings for out-of-reach gifts, joy, disappointment, bullies, a cranky father, mischievous dogs and an annoying little brother.
“It’s a real family trying to get through Christmas,” Jones says. “It’s not always perfect, but you’re trying to make the best out of it.”
Not ready for my nostalgic day trip to end, I pop into the Rowley Inn, a neighborhood bar and grill just next door to the museum, for a bite to eat. During the filming, the building’s upstairs served as a location for makeup and wardrobe, and cast members gathered there for post-filming meetings. In a nod to this history, the menu includes “Red Ryder” and “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine” cocktails.
From there, I continue to follow the A Christmas Story trail into downtown Cleveland to Jack Cleveland Casino, formerly Higbee’s department store, where the opening scenes of kids gathering outside the toy-filled window display and Ralphie’s later visit to Santa Claus were filmed. As I drive around the window-heavy casino at night, I can picture the saucer-eyed kids pressing their noses up against the glass. Right across the street from the casino is Cleveland’s Public Square, where the movie’s Christmas parade was filmed; it passed by the elaborate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument for Civil War veterans.
As I drive the two hours back to my Pittsburgh home, I am eager to watch one of my favorite Christmas movies for the umpteenth time, as well as the new sequel.
Channeling Ralphie’s determination, I’ll also be adding an item to my Christmas wish list: I want my own leg lamp.
A Christmas Story House & Museum is open every day—except for major holidays, and February 13-24 for yearly maintenance—from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Overnights at either the main house or the Bumpus house, which cost $245 to $995 per night, can be booked online.