Posted with permission from The Washington Times

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid."

" Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian."

"Now where did you hear 'that word'?"

"They traded Bullfrog, I don't believe it."

The memorable lines from "A Christmas Story" are so numerous that a rundown could become a drinking game - and likely has. But rather than simply reciting the dialogue among your friends, why not take a trip to the actual house where that holiday classic was filmed in 1983?

On an unassuming street in the Tremont section of Cleveland, the house used as the fictional Parker family home has been bought up and turned into a museum called, appropriately, A Christmas Story House and Museum, dressed up - outside and in - to resemble precisely the setting of the yuletide adventures of Ralphie and his family leading up to that magical morning when he finally got his hands on that treasured Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.

Poetry, sheer poetry.

Begin your visit across the street in the gift shop, where every conceivable bit of ephemera is on sale, from a mockup of said firearm to scale models of the leg statue lamp - The Old Man's "major award." Here you can also get your hands on a "Christmas Story"-themed version of Monopoly or, if you really want to go full-out, a life-size replica of the bunny costume from Aunt Clara poor Ralphie was forced to wear.

And, of course, Ovaltine.

As you peruse, TVs in the shop play not only "A Christmas Story" but also "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," with Griswold family tchotchkes like the Wally World punch bowl set used by Clark and Cousin Eddie on sale nearby. As it's summer, it's a great place to stock up on any holiday-related gifts before the November-December rush.

For the tour, you will meet a docent near the front door of the gift shop, who will offer up a rundown on the history of the home at 3159 W 11th St., built in 1895, and which dubbed as the Parker family home in fictional Hohman, Indiana (on, appropriately, "Cleveland St." in the film).

Our guide informs us how radio host, humorist and longtime Playboy writer Jean Shepard had tried for years to shop around a holiday film based on his anthology, "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash," portions of which had already been adapted on PBS as "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters." Filmmaker Bob Clark loved the idea and agreed to co-write the script with "Shep," but no studio in Hollywood was biting for Clark, a director then known for low-wattage thrillers and Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

But things changed thanks to "Porky's," the 1981 teen sex romp that grossed over $100 million at the box office with Clark at the helm. MGM agreed to finance "A Christmas Story," and Clark and Shep headed to Cleveland to scout locations. They found the house on 11th St. and got to casting Peter Billingsley (Young Ralphie), his bratty younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), Mother Parker (Melinda Dillon) and, of course, the cantankerous paterfamilias known simply as "The Old Man" (Darren McGavin).

Shepherd, the radio veteran, would narrate "A Christmas Story" from the perspective of adult Ralph, just as he had done for "The Great American Fourth of July," which featured a then-up-and-coming Matt Dillon as teenage Ralph.

As we walk across 11th St., the guide tells of how the producers offered the home's owner a rather hefty sum to use his house during filming - even putting him up at a nearby hotel. The house was eventually purchased for use solely as a museum.

As we walk up the front steps the guide says that, ironically, the weather during filming was uncooperative, requiring the local fire department to spray firefighting foam onto the streets and lawns to turn them wintry. (The only real snow seen falling in the film is in one shot when the vile Scut Farkas and Grover Dill march menacingly down an alley toward Ralphie and his friends.)

Entering the home, you walk right into the Parkers' living room, just as you remember it appearing on that Christmas morning. Portraits of the Parkers adorn the walls, and near the door is the coat and hat rack upon which to hang winter clothing - though such is unneeded at the height of summer.

Not only are you allowed to touch the artifacts, it's encouraged. "This is an interactive museum," the guide says.

Don't need to tell me twice.

I find the Red Ryder BB Gun box hidden behind the desk, where The Old Man - "Santa Claus must have put it there" - stashed it for Ralphie to find (with some help, if you recall). The outlet of many, many, many plugs is there, all but begging for just one more to short out the fuse box. Vintage '40s tunes and ads play on the radio from the pre-television era, and you can make-believe you're nestled up there with Ralphie and Randy to hear of Little Orphan Annie's adventures.

Pressies sit unopened beneath the tree, and among them are Randy's Zeppelin and the blue bowling ball The Old Lady "helpfully" deposited on The Old Man's lap. ("Thanks a lot," he responded in falsetto.)

And who could forget The Old Man's "major award"? The giant crate in which it showed up is there, with its admonishment "his end up" - if you look closely in the film, the "T" is in fact missing - and the letters of "fragile" in bold face. " Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian," The Old Man mused before his wife corrected him.

The infamous leg lamp sits in the crate, and you can pick it up for a photo. Even better, another leg lamp sits "right in the middle of our front room window!" where The Old Man placed it for all the neighborhood to see - including Swede, the nosy neighbor who asks, "Hey, Parker, what is that?" - before its untimely, uh, "accident" at the hands of the mother.

I next step into the kitchen, with its mid-century America crockery, cooking range and newspapers on hand, the latter with which I take for a photo in The Old Man's chair to mimic his complaints about those lousy White Sox and their off-season trades.

If you're feeling especially intrepid, you can also duck into the cupboard where Randy hid in fear that his father would whomp Ralphie something good for his four-letter-word-laced tirade while pounding on dastardly bully Scut Farkas.

I learn that much of the location and interior filming was in fact accomplished in Toronto, including the upstairs of the Parker home. But since the house was purchased to be turned into the interactive exhibit it is now, the second floor was entirely renovated to include Ralphie and Randy's bedroom as well as the bathroom where Ralphie solves Little Orphan Annie's "secret" message. The boys' bedroom is resplendent with a map of Indiana, Red Ryder and other contemporary pop culture ephemera, as well as Ralphie's theme essay of what he wanted for Christmas, with Miss Shields' C+ and "You'll shoot your eye out" emblazoned in angry red ink.

Exiting the house and crossing the street, you then enter a museum that warehouses the authentic costumes and props from the film. (Those inside the house are replicas.) There are also Shepherd's various spoken word albums from across his lengthy showbiz career, Randy's extremely ungainly snow costume and a local fire truck that was dressed up to sub as the Hohman Fire Department, which came to the rescue when silly Flick stuck his tongue to the flagpole thanks to Schwartz's nudging.

The guide fills in other trivia, such as that it was director Clark himself who played Swede, the Parkers' neighbor who wanted to know what it was The Old Man was putting into the living room window. Clark hurriedly wrote the dialogue between "Swede" and The Old Man, believing the scene needed something extra besides the father simply directing his unwilling wife on the lamp's placement.

(If you look closely, the guide says, you can see that Clark in fact wore a Miami Dolphins winter hat in the scene, but the team wasn't even founded until 1966, well after the film's setting.)

Back in the museum I see a lady signing memorabilia for fans. She somehow looks familiar - and for good reason. An employee informs me her name is Patty LaFountaine, and she played one of the two surly elves in the scene where kids tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. Patty dragged the kids up to Santa, after which they were tossed down the slide by her elven compatriot (Drew Hocevar).

"I was a theater actor. I never had done film. But like everybody else who's a theater actor, I worked with agencies and did industrials and voiceovers," Patty tells me during a break from signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.

The Cleveland-based actress, then 32, got wind of the casting call for local talent. It was a SAG gig, meaning she could accrue points toward getting her union cards if she wanted to pursue film acting full-time.

"Nobody could believe it. No film was made here," she says.

A talent broker Patty worked with set her up with an audition with the casting director of "A Christmas Story."

"They were looking for an elf with a really bad attitude. I said, 'That doesn't seem very flattering.'"

Nervous but excited to make the jump from stage to screen, Patty headed down for the screen test.

There was just one little problem.

"The assistant director said, 'You have a lot of the qualities that the director is looking for, but he wants to cast a teenager,'" Patty said. "So I went ballistic and [yelled], 'Why am I down here on this turkey shoot? I have other things I need to be doing! You need to be specific; this is very disrespectful to actors!

"'Good luck with this whole teen thing, but if you want a professional elf, you know where I am!' And I stormed out."

In an age before cellphones, Patty went about her business for the rest of the day, working and already searching for her next role. She came home to a rather insistent telephone call.

"It's the casting agency, and they said, 'They want you to meet the director tomorrow,'" the actress says of the sudden turnaround. "I found out that the hissy fit I threw at the casting call [worked]. They said, 'We need an elf on the edge. We've got one,'" she said, with a big laugh.

Less than a week later, she was in costume as the grumpy elf at the old Higby's department store - since closed.

These days Patty and the cast attend reunions and screenings around the country, but there was a time, not long after "A Christmas Story" came out, when she was loathe to even add the credit to her CV.

"When the movie was first released, it got bad reviews. I was totally deflated," she said. "And then it got some traction. Now it's on my resume," she said, chuckling.

Even more than reuniting with the cast, Patty says she enjoys hearing fans' stories of how "A Christmas Story" has become part of their holiday traditions.

"One couple told me their first date was to see it in the movie theater. They watch it now every year on their anniversary, and it's become part of the Christmas tradition with their children," she said. "It's so interesting to find the personal stories from the people that we get to interact with."

Patty doesn't act much anymore, spending her days as a personal fitness trainer and drama coach to children. But in addition to attending cast reunions and screenings, she has one more "Christmas Story"-related project still to realize.

"I've been on the side writing a backstory on the elf [for a] one-woman show," she said.

After shaking hands with Patty - and getting my own selfie with her - I walk next door to The Rowley Inn for a pint, beyond thrilled to have literally walked into the holiday classic.

The "A Christmas Story House & Museum" is open year-round except for, ironically, Christmas Day. You can even pay an additional fee to overnight in the house where, just as in the old cartoon, it's Christmas every day.

The "A Christmas Story House & Museum" is located at 3159 W 11th St, Cleveland, Ohio, 44109. Visit AChristmasStoryHouse.com for details.