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Frizzi: Another 'fra-gee-lay' Christmas story

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I can honestly say that I have never ever laughed so hard and so long at a movie than I did on the night I first saw "A Christmas Story." It's hard to believe that this hilarious holiday classic is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

It was December of 1983, a year that just couldn't end fast enough. Earlier that year, I had split up from my "college sweetheart". I had also buried two very close friends, one as recently as November. I was 26 at the time, complete with a Bachelors Degree from "Indiana State University – Home of Larry Bird" and was quite rudderless at this stage.

To top it off, I was working in retail at a "Mart". Now, if you have ever had to work in one of these "Marts" you know they're not the place to be during the three long months that is the Christmas season. The phrase "Peace On Earth – Good Will Toward Men" melts away as fast as the dirty snow from your shoe when a customer heats up and publicly rakes you over Santa's coals, all because the "Mart" was sold out of that special gift for their little Sandra.

So, that was the festive mood I was in when I went with four friends (five if you count Jack Daniels) to see "A Christmas Story" at a movie theater in a strip mall in Terre Haute, Ind.

I had seen commercials for "A Christmas Story" on TV. It was based on stories by the great Indiana humorist Jean Shepherd. It was directed by Bob Clark, who unleashed the outrageous comedy "Porky's" onto the world the previous year. And it starred Darren McGavin, the star of TV's "Kolchak – The Night Stalker". But the closer for me was seeing a surly Santa Claus tap the forehead of a youngster with the business end of his Florsheim shoe. This sent the kid sliding down into a pile of cotton snow and me to the theater to see it.

It was a typical winter night in Terre Haute, a place covered in black cruddy snow. "Haute" was a dismal, drab place straight out of a Dickens novel. It was well known as a place gangsters would come to if Chicago was getting too hot. One of the downtown thoroughfares was named "Cherry Street" in honor of the rows of businesses where ladies would entertain gents. "Haute" was always encased with a hazy dome of rank, pungent stink belching from the local creosote plant. Hey! That stink meant jobs! One time, a cub reporter asked the mayor how much of the city's budget would go for snow removal and got the reply, "Well, son, the Good Lord put the snow there, the Good Lord can take it away."

With that backdrop, my friends and I joined a huddled crowd of locals, shuffling across the icy parking lot, making our way to the theater.

From the moment I saw Ralphie and his pals pressing their little snotty noses against Higbee's Department Store window, I burst out laughing and I couldn't stop. The movie immediately hit home. I looked just like Ralphie did when I was nine. I had those ugly kid glasses that I broke regularly. I had a bad haircut courtesy of "The Old Man." I was a bit on the "husky" side. I had a stupid looking winter hat with the ear flaps. I had a pair of those black rubber snow boots with the metal clips that I never buckled. I wore those homely flannel pajamas. My Mom sang "The Hut-Sut Song" while chain smoking and making breakfast. My friends and I religiously used words and phrases that we had learned from our fathers. I remembered the first time I said "Fudge" in front of my parents. We attended that same type of school. We were chased by a green toothed bully. We saw a kid stick his tongue to a frozen flag pole. I had a crush on a girl who looked like Esther Jane.

The fictitious city of Hohman, Ind. turned out to be Jean Shepherd's hometown of Hammond. In fact, I thought Shepherd, who narrated the movie, was saying "Hulman, Indiana"— Hulman being Anton "Tony" Hulman, Terre Haute's main business magnate. For you foodies, Hulman's company makes Clabber Girl Baking Powder. Tony Hulman is best known as a benefactor of Rose-Hulman University, one of the best engineering schools in the country, as well as resurrecting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The audience was laughing pretty hard, too. They did groan when "The Old Man" pronounced Terre Haute as "Terre Hut". Of course, they all got a kick out of hearing, "The line waiting to see Santa Clause stretched all the way back to Terre Haute...and I was at the end of it." I did too as that line also served as a metaphor for my life at that period of time.

Up to that point, what other movie in cinematic history had a segue from the raising of a toilet seat to a pot of Mom's cooking on the stove? What other movie had Mickey Mouse being attacked by the flying monkeys from "The Wizard of Oz," or a snarling Santa that surely reeked of Hiram Walker and Lucky Strikes, or "The Old Man" getting a blue ball for Christmas, or a cook in a Chinese restaurant chopping the head off a roasted duck — right in front of Mom?

By the time the movie was over, I was howling so hard my stomach hurt. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and dripping off my Dinty Moore beard. I was the last one out of the theater because I just couldn't get out of my seat. By the time I got to the theater exit, I was laughing so hard I slipped and fell on the ice in the middle of the parking lot. Cars were honking since I was blocking their way. My friends told me to get the Hell up.

"I can't get up", I laughed and rolled around on the grimy ice, both feet flailing away, like Randy did when he fell on the sidewalk on his way to school. And I laughed and laughed as my buddies grabbed each foot and dragged me to back to our car.

Let's fast forward to adult life. Heddy (my wife) had a conference in Cleveland and asked if I wanted to go. Well, hey, who doesn't want to go to Cleveland? After all, Ian Hunter and Drew Carey did say that it rocks!

The conference would finish with a party at The Hard Rock Café, the place to go while in Cleveland. While Heddy was in meetings, I decided to check the web to see where else to visit.

I then remembered that the Christmas Story house on Cleveland Street was actually in Cleveland, just south of downtown. Actually, it was on West 11th Street. The house was purchased by Brian Jones, owner of the Red Ryder Leg Lamp Company, which makes replicas of the leg lamp. (I got one from Heddy as a Christmas gift. I promptly and proudly placed this holiday beacon in the front window of our house. Then, I went out into the street, just like "The Old Man" did and screamed at the top of my lungs, "Oh, you should see what it looks like from out here!")

While much of the movie was filmed in Ontario, Bob Clark chose Cleveland for the outdoor scenes mainly because Higbee's Department Store was the only department store that would let them film the Santa scene. There really was a Higbee's Department Store in downtown Cleveland. It was the flagship store of The Public Square, which is known by its iconic Terminal Tower. The store itself was recently remodeled into a casino. During the holiday season, I hear the casino is decked to the halls with Christmas Story trimmings, including leg lamps atop the slot machines. I can only imagine them doing the "can-can" when some lucky soul hits the jackpot.

The Higbee Company plaques were still on each corner of the building. I went to the then-vacant window and imagined that I was hanging out with Ralphie and his buddies, ogling the "golden tinkling display of mechanized electronic joy."

The house is in Cleveland's Tremont district. It has been remodeled inside and out to resemble how it looked in the movie. It is conveniently located across the street from The Christmas Story Museum and Gift Shop, where you can purchase tickets to tour the house. Catty-cornered across the street is a corner bar called the Rowley Inn, where cast and crew of legal age would wrap up a day's shooting. Darren McGavin stayed in a RV parked alongside the inn and would use its pay phone to call his wife.

I wanted to visit the Rowley Inn until we saw grown up versions of Scut Farkus and Grover Dill skulk inside its dark, dank doorway and Heddy decided she really wasn't thirsty after all.

With Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters singing through my brain, Heddy and I went up the front porch and into the very parlor where "The Old Man" ripped open the casket sized box containing his major award. Of course, they had a replica of the leg lamp. You could hold it, touch it, caress it and pose for pictures with it. I could see why "The Old Man" loved it so. Another leg lamp proudly illuminated the living room window. Heddy and I sat on the couch in front of the fireplace for our picture, in which I proudly held a blue bowling ball.

You could also have your picture taken hiding in Randy's happy place, underneath the kitchen sink (sans the box of household poisons). There was also a rack of pink bunny suits of several different sizes that you could slip into. No doubt many families got all "bunnied up" for their Christmas cards, as the bunny costumes looked like they were long overdue for a bath in Mom's wringer washing machine.

We followed the tour upstairs and saw the wall phone on which Ralphie's Mom heard Schwartz "getting his..." The bathroom's toilet even had an old overhead tank and a red bar of Lifebuoy by the sink. Heddy cringed when I asked her to take a picture of me sitting on the john while washing my mouth out with the bar of soap. Jean Shepherd was right. Lifebuoy tasted lousy. Like Ralphie, I also had my mouth washed out with soap on many occasions and I agreed that Palmolive tasted just like grownup Ralphie said, "heady but with a touch of mellow smoothness."

Then we went to the backyard, which still had the garage. From there I had a panoramic view of the finest steel mills that Cleveland had to offer. I looked around the garage to see if I could find any BB gun pit marks and see where "The Old Man" buried the sad remains of his shattered major award.

The museum had many of the props and costumes shown in the movie. It also had security cameras for those with sticky fingers. Good thing it also had quite a gift shop. So we bought things. Lots of things. Along with the leg lamp in our front window, we also have a replica of an old cathedral radio (tuned to the '40s Christmas music channel on satellite radio), a smaller leg lamp given to us by a good friend, a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring, a zeppelin and a figurine of poor Schwartz stuck to the flag pole. It's our little village underneath the "tree".

On Christmas morning, Heddy and I will wake up, the Christmas Story marathon still going strong on our bedroom TV. We'll stumble down the stairs and turn on the family leg lamp, its ethereal glow wishing our neighbors a happy holidays. We'll open the gifts that Santa brought our way. We'll enjoy our holiday breakfast with cups of Ovaltine (actually coffee and Irish cream) and smile as our cats devour their holiday bowls of tuna.

And all will be right with the world.

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.