By FRANK RIZZO, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
November 10, 2013
You know him as Ralphie, the bespectacled fourth-grader with the December-long quest with getting an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle in 1983's "A Christmas Story," the film that grew from under-the-radar movie, to cult favorite to beloved holiday classic.
Peter Billingsley, now 42, is a producer and director (the films "Iron Man," "The Break-Up," "Couples Retreat," and the TV series "Sullivan & Son") and occasional actor. He also is a producer of "A Christmas Story: The Musical," which opened for a limited run on Broadway last year and received a Tony Award nomination for outstanding new musical.
The show is being remounted in Hartford and opens Tuesday, Nov. 12 for a week's run at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, before moving on to Boston and then for a return visit to New York.
"I've been approached over the years to be involved with variations of the 'Christmas Story' brand," says Billingsley in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "But nothing made sense to me until the creative team of this production. It had just the right fit."
But what makes "A Christmas Story" sing? (The show has music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of Westport, who also created the score of "James and the Giant Peach" at Goodspeed Musical's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester in 2010.)
"So much of the style of the movie is Ralphie being such a dreamer and that lends itself for song and dance," says Billingsley, who was 11 years old when he made the movie.
Indeed there's a fantasy song inspired by one of the movie's iconic lines: "You'll shoot your eye out."
And, of course, says Billingsley, there's a big chorus kick-line number centering off the fishnet stockinged high-heeled "leg lamp" that Ralphie's father — who is only referred to as 'The Old Man" — covets.
Billingsley also says the musical allows for more insight into the relationship of the characters of the mother and father, played in the movie by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin and played in the musical by John Bolton and Erin Dilly. Jake Lucas plays Ralphie.
"It's a great way to take the brand and hit a whole new generation," says Billingsley.
Making the Film
But the movie almost didn't get made at all.
Director Bob Clark and writer and radio humorist Jean Shepherd spent a dozen years trying to get the film produced. But it wasn't until Clark had a series of box office smashes with the "Porky's" series of raunchy teen comedies in the early '80s that he had the clout to get the green light from the studio for his personal little project, "A Christmas Story."
Based in part on the stories in Shepherd's "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," the film, with a script by Shepherd, Clark and Leigh Brown, was a compilation of anecdotal remembrance of the author growing up with his off-beat family in Indiana in the '40s. (Shepherd, who died in 1999, did the narration for the film. In the musical it's done by Dan Lauria who played the father in the TV series "The Wonder Years," which also was a nostalgic family show.)
The film was shot over two months in Cleveland, which kept up its Christmas lights through January for the filming. The city was a stand-in for the fictional town of Hohman, Ind., based on Shepherd's hometown of Hammond.
Billingsley said Shepherd was on the set a lot and not just for his cameo role — he played the man in Higbee's Department Store who tells Ralphie to get to the end of the line. "He was on the set a lot. Both Bob and Jean has a lot of passion for the project," says Billingsley, who began his career as a 2-year-old for a Geritol commercial with Betty Buckley. (His most famous commercial was for Hershey's chocolate syrup in which he portrayed "Messy Marvin.")
The actor says he has fond memories of playing on "the Santa Slide" between takes.
When the film came out, the reviews were mixed, and the box office was modest at best.
New York times film critic Vincent Canby wrote there were "a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments…but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them."
But audiences found them
When TV's TBS broadcast "A Christmas Story" 24-Hour Mararthon in the '90s, the movie gained further momentum, as well as the accessibility of video and DVD versions.
What's made it an enduring classic?
"Most importantly, it's about a family," says Billingsley. "We've seen the 'dark' families of the '70s and in some cases 'perfect' families. But this was a family in which people could relate.
There were also, he says, the great set pieces in the movie involving a kid's tongue getting frozen to a flagpole, pink bunny pajamas and a leg lamp.
Those scenes are in the musical and "you can feel the excitement in the audience when they know what's coming up," says Billingsley.
"A Christmas Story" Trivia:
•Jack Nicholson was interested in playing Ralphie's dad.
•Jean Shepherd and Clark did a follow-up film in 1994 — though not officially a sequel — called "My Summer Story" (also titled "It Runs in My Family") with Charles Grodin as the father, Mary Steenburgen as the mother and Kieran Culkin as the kid.
•Though "A Christmas Story" never had a feature film holiday sequel, last year there was "A Christmas Story 2" which takes place five years later and centers on Ralphie wanting a car was released directy to home video. The film starred Daniel Stern.
•The house that served as the family's home is now a private museum in Cleveland.
•Versions of the leg lamp can be purchased in the lobby during the run, just in time for holiday giving.
•Billingsley still has the Red Ryder BB gun.
A CHRISTMAS STORY plays the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, Nov. 12 to 17. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.50 to $95.50, not including fees. Information: 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant