The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Bill Eggert

December 14, 2013

BILL EGGERT | 'A Christmas Story' turns 30

— It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, all around the town.  My neighbors have put up their annual Santa Grinch in their front yard, and other neighbors have adorned their houses with festive lights and blowup snowmen and Santas.

Kids are inexplicably behaving and listening to their parents, as Santa tweaks his ‘naughty and nice’ list. Networks are airing those classic Christmas shows we have loved for decades.  And then we come to the “A Christmas Story” marathon on cable.

Has it really been 30 years since Bob Clark’s nostalgically irreverent Christmas tale made its debut? It opened with little fanfare during the Christmas season of 1983. I took my then-girl friend, a cute fitness instructor in Atlanta, to see it. She was about 21, and while she enjoyed it, she did not catch all of the period references that I did, having been a student of history. It dawned on me, however, that my parents would love this film, since it dealt with the era of their childhood: the late 1930s-1940. As World War II is not referred to during the film, I would say the late 1930s.

The plot, of course, revolves around our protagonist, Ralphie, (and the story’s narrator from the future, played by the author himself, Jean Shepherd) a 12-year-old-boy who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Unfortunately for Ralphie, every adult he mentions this to warns him that “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Undeterred, Ralphie devises several schemes to win his prized rifle, only to have fate and adults conspire against him. Aided and abetted by his younger, 8-year-old brother, Randy, Ralphie valiantly trudges on to get his rifle.

The movie depicts life in that era from a child’s point of view, dealing with bullies, flat tires, triple dog dare bets, leg lamps, deranged Easter Bunny costumes, neighborhood dogs and secret messages from Little Orphan Annie.

Add to the mix, Ralphie tries to scam his parents into getting his ultimate Christmas gift. Even his teacher and Santa himself are unsympathetic to his plight! Ralphie eventually has to resort to his own, Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy to deal with his real-life predicament.

Sadly, some from the film are gone for this 30th anniversary. Director Clark (who played the neighbor discussing the leg lamp with Ralphie’s dad) died in 2007. Author Shepherd (who played the well-dressed gent in line waiting to see Santa) passed in 1999. Darren McGavin (The Old Man) passed in 2006. Melinda Dillon (Mom) is 74, Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) is now 42 and Ian Petrella (Randy) is 38.

When I flew home for Christmas in 1983, I took my parents to see this film at the nearby Bantam Cinemas in Bel-Air Plaza. Mom and Dad liked to sit in the back of the theater, so I had to relent. As the movie unreeled I could see Mom and Dad laughing at the jokes, and catching all the references to their childhood back then. I was right; they loved the film. It was incredibly funny, and in their wheelhouse, era-wise.

As we left the theater that night I did not notice how cold it was; I had spent two wonderful hours of joy and laughter with my parents. I was able to relive their childhood with them vicariously. The parents in the film (played by the wonderful McGavin and Dillon) reminded me of Dad and Mom as much as they reminded my parents of their own parents. Over the ensuing years the movie has become an annual staple of Christmas programming, as our family and countless others gather around their televisions to watch this Christmas classic. Despite the satire involved, I think Shepherd’s story concluded that while Ralphie finally got his beloved rifle, the real Christmas gift was the time shared with his family.

Maybe that is a lesson for us all. What I would not give to have my dad back with us for Christmas one more time, as well as other relatives. Maybe that was what Shepherd and Clark were telling us. That being the real magic of Christmas is as tangible as a snowflake, but as strong and powerful as the love of a family. And so dear Readers, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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