Friday, December 05, 2014

New cast brings added cheer to ‘A Christmas Story” at Cleveland Play House

Little did I realize as I stood many years ago, as an extra, in front of Higbee’s Department Store in downtown Cleveland at 3 AM, that I was participating in the filming of what would become one of the most popular winter holiday movies of all times. 

The filming was done in the middle of the night because in daytime, the Erieview Tower and Federal Building were visible from Public Square, as was the shell of the BP Tower, that was under construction.

I also didn’t know, as I stood on the stoop of a house, a couple of doors down from 3159 West 11th Street, in the heart of Tremont, that the single sentence I spoke on camera, would wind up on the cutting room floor, eliminating my actual role in “A Christmas Story.” Ah, show business, cruel show business!

Many Clevelanders think of “A Christmas Story” as “our” movie, a movie set and made in Cleveland.  They are only partially right.  Our fair city was selected as the place to film the low budget flick because Cleveland, in the winter, has lots of snow.  Right?  Wrong!  A freak of nature caused 1982 to be mild.  Little snow.  The movie mavens had to flood the scenes with fake snow.  Finally, frustration set in and the powers that be moved the filming to Canada.

Before the flight across the lake took place, the now dubbed “The Official Christmas Story House” was used for external shots, including the footage of the stocking lamp in the front window.  Interior scenes were shot on a sound stage.  The actual house, after falling into disrepair, was bought, turned into a museum which displays rooms rebuilt to duplicate the images on the sound stage decorated with props from the film, as well as hundreds of rare, behind-the-scenes photos, which are now on display.

(Nope, though I was posed for some pictures, and interviewed Peter Billingsley (the film’s Ralphie) and Scott Schwartz (Flick) for Continental Cable, I’m not on display their either). 

The house gets about 50,000 visitors a year.  Across the street there is a gift store that sells such goodies as Lifebuoy soap,  pink bunny suits and leg lamps.

The interior of the beautiful Higbee’s Department Store, now the home of the Horseshoe Casino, was actually used for “the visit to Santa” scene.  Santa’s house and slide, where Ralphie and his friends went to sit on the lap of he great-giver-of-gifts, which was built for the movie, was left in the store after the film crew departed.  The slide was used from that time until the store closed in 2002.

The film, “A Christmas Story,” was released in 1983.  It takes place on Cleveland Street in Hohman, Indiana, in the 1940s.  It centers on Ralphie, a 9 year-old boy whose goal in life is to have Santa bring him “an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”

Ralphie and his best friends, Flick and Schwartz, try to negotiate life as tweens. A life filled with sophomoric wishes, eluding Scut Farkas, the neighborhood bully, putting up with Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, escaping the grasps of Esther Jane, who has a crush on our hero, and the need to convince every one in his life, that he won’t shoot out his eye with the sought after bb gun. 

The tale is narrated through remembrances relayed by Ralph, the adult Ralphie.  (In the film Ralph’s voice was supplied by Jean Shepherd, the films co-author.)

The play, written by Philip Grecian, is based on Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark’s film script and Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”

The stage version is filled with the memorable lines of the film, including, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!,” “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’  I said the WORD, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!,” “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics, my father was an Oldsmobile man!,” “Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes.  He had yellow eyes!  SO HELP ME GOD, YELLOW EYES,” “Aha, aha, it’s a clinkerrrr!!! That blasted, stupid furnace. Dadgummit!.”  And, the never to be forgotten epithet by Flick before he succumbed to the , “I TRIPLE-dog-dare you!”
Yes, “Stick my tongue to that stupid pole, that’s stupid.”

Again this year, the Play House production is directed by John McCluggage.  Last time around the production was sluggish and lacked some of the requisite charm.  McCluggage replaced much of the cast, has refined some of the technical aspects, and added zing that previously was missing.

Jeff Talbott revived his role as Ralph, the on-stage narrator, with great ease, charm and empathy. 

Skipper Rankin grew enough to move from being Randy in last year’s production, to portray Ralphie.  Though his voice got a little into the high range, making it difficult to hear some words, Skipper was real, believable and delightful.

Ethan Montoya was amusing as the put upon Flick, though he needs to work on projection.  Yumi Ndhlovu was properly full of herself as Helen, and Giovanna A. Layne was on point as the crush-struck Esther Jane.  Jake Spencer nearly stole the show as probably the best, “I have to go wee-wee” Randy, in the long history of local staging. 

Newcomers, Christopher Gerson, was wonderful as The Old Man, and Madeleine Maby was perfect as the gentle, put upon, June Cleaverish-mom.  Laura Perrotta was nicely fierce as Miss Shields, the teacher who turns in the Wicked Witch of the West!

Robert Mark Morgan’s set design worked well, but the Higbee’s Santa house and slide are still flimsy and underwhelming.  James C. Swonger’s sound design was outstanding.  The audio special effects, especially the “clinkers” and “Bumpuses’s dogs” were terrific. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  This year’s “THE CHRISTMAS STORY,” now a seemingly permanent installment as CPH’s holiday show, was a step above some of the recent stagings of the epic.  Many of the opening night audience seemed to be long time devotees, as many of the laugh lines were preceded by pre-giggles and oral  forecasting of the now famous lines.  It was almost like a midnight viewing of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Yes, a good time was had by all.  No “bah Humbug” here!

“A Christmas Story,” runs through December 21, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to