Nov. 29, 2013 at 9:48 AM ET
Forget the pseudo-space travelers with their pointy ears and Worf masks. If you want to experience true fandom, consider a trip to Cleveland this weekend, where several thousand people are expected to gather to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that kitschy classic of holiday cheer and childhood trauma: “A Christmas Story.”
“Star Trek has its trekkies,” says Tyler Schwartz, who may just be the world’s biggest fan of the movie. “’A Christmas Story’ has its Ralphies.”
For those who have never seen the 1983 film, the original Ralphie is Ralphie Parker, the bespectacled 9-year-old who wants nothing for Christmas except a “Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot Range Model air rifle.”
His efforts, as told via voiceover by author Jean Shepherd, generate the oft-quoted adult response — “You’ll shoot your eye out!” — and form the backdrop for a series of universal childhood experiences involving tongues and flagpoles, the distasteful consequences of using the “f-dash-dash-dash word” and confrontations with neighborhood bullies and menacing department-store Santas.
“It’s a delightful take on family dynamics and all the rituals around Christmas,” said Matthew Bernstein, chair of the Department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University. “It’s a much-beloved film that sits alongside 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'It’s a Wonderful Life.' ”
So much so, in fact, that the film was one of 10 films named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board last year because they’re considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Not bad for a movie that received mostly negative reviews when it was released. Rex Reed of the New York Post groused about it being “a silly piece of tinseled fluff” while Ernest Leogrande of the (New York) Daily News dismissed it as “bizarre and boring” and “as real as wax fruit.”
Roger Ebert may have captured its offbeat style best when he described it as “Norman Rockwell filtered through the pages of Mad Magazine or National Lampoon.”
Critics notwithstanding, the movie has since taken on a life of its own. It runs in 24-hour TV marathons (Christmas Eve on TBS); it’s been remade into a stage play and musical; and it’s been credited with creating a cottage industry for leg lamps, pink bunny outfits and other movie-themed collectibles marketed to die-hard fans.
Schwartz, for example, grew up in Toronto watching the film with his family — “I was about Ralphie’s age the first time I saw it” — and became such a fan that he and his soon-to-be-wife Jordie embarked on a two-year adventure back in 2006 to chronicle the film’s original shooting locations in Cleveland and Toronto.
Along the way, they rescued movie props, found long-forgotten costumes and produced a documentary DVD called Road Trip for Ralphie. Now 38, the couple makes a living selling “Christmas kitsch,” including enough Parker-phernalia to outfit a whole horde of Ralphies.
“We’re the Canadian leg of the leg-lamp business,” he said.
But even the Schwartzes may pale in their passion for the movie compared to Brian Jones. Like millions of other fans, Jones also grew up watching the film but he achieved uber-fan status in 2005 when he bought the house in Cleveland that served as the film’s main setting and restored it to its former glory.
Today, the house is one-third of complex that includes a gift shop and a museum filled with movie props and other memorabilia. The main attraction, of course, is the house itself, which looks just like it did in the movie, complete with a lopsided Christmas tree and a leg lamp in the window.
“The idea of the house is that you can relive your favorite Christmas movie inside and out,” said Jones.
That’s also the idea behind Friday and Saturday's 30th anniversary celebration, which will feature tours, theatrical performances and appearances by cast members, including Ian Petrella (Ralphie’s brother Randy), Scott Schwartz (Flick the flagpole-licker) and Zack Ward (aka, neighborhood bully Scut Farkus).
Attendees will also be able to buy signed copies of Tyler Schwartz’ new book, “A Christmas Story Treasury,” attend a charity luncheon — think meatloaf, mashed potatoes and red cabbage — and see if they can avoid shooting an eye out with a genuine Red Ryder BB gun and a target.
All told, Jones expects 4,000 to 5,000 people to attend the weekend festivities, which is certainly a testament to the movie’s continued appeal for both kids and adults.
“It was the first Christmas movie told from a kid’s perspective but the story’s told by an adult looking back,” said Jones. “It’s real life for kids — doing dares, dealing with bullies — but adults can also relate to it.”
The film and the festivities celebrating it also speak to the nature of fandom itself, Bernstein said. “People are proclaiming their affection for the movie but they’re also asserting their identity. To gather and celebrate together; that’s great. I wish I could go.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.