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'A Christmas Story' Has Lasting Impact on Northeast Ohio

Andy and Lorrie Gardner wearing pink bunny suits.
David C. Barnett

A frozen tongue on a metal post, a children’s toy that might put your eye out, and a leg lamp glowing in the living room window.  Those familiar movie images come from a popular holiday film that was shot over 30 years ago in Cleveland.  A cottage industry has developed that celebrates the city’s connection to A Christmas Story.

Cleveland Play House artistic director Laura Kepley says a stage version of A Christmas Story is a gift that keeps on giving.

"It brings in the most amount of people," she says.  "This is our most popular show every year.  This show sells the most tickets."

Kepley says it also offers an alternative to shows like The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol.

"A lot of holiday shows are British imports, but A Christmas Story is an American story, it’s a Midwest story, it’s a Cleveland story."

Although the story is set in Indiana, the beloved holiday movie was shot on the South Side of Cleveland and released in 1983.  It tells the story of Ralphie Parker and his desperate desire to get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, despite his mother’s warning: "You’ll shout your eye out.”

The film’s other iconic prop is a tawdry leg lamp that arrives at the house one day in a mysterious big wooden box.

Six people dressed in black and white striped long sleeve shirts and black knit caps.
David C. Barnett
Ralphie nabbed these criminals in a dream sequence.

As the movie’s popularity grew over the years, San Diego businessman Brian Jones and his family started making and selling leg lamps.  Then one day, he saw a notice that the house where the movie was filmed was on the market.

"The leg lamp business was doing well when I saw the house was up for sale," he says.  "I thought, why not?"

He took out six credit cards to pay for a full renovation of the deteriorating structure.  It opened as a tourist attraction in 2006.

"I opened the place on financial fumes," he recalls.   "If it wasn’t a hit, we were going to be in trouble."

A mustard yellow house with green trim and Christmas lights.
David C. Barnett
Brian Jones restored this Tremont house to its 1983 glory.

Jones says the first holiday season, there were four-hour waits to get into the tiny, mustard-yellow house on Rowley Avenue.  Attractions include a visit to Ralphie’s bedroom, the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink where his brother hid and, of course, a leg lamp in the window.  Though the biggest crowds come during December, the Christmas Story House is open year round.

"We’ve had more attendance every year since," says Jones. "80,000, last year.  Probably 100,000 this year."

There’s also Christmas Story gift shop, featuring everything from plates and cookie cutters to leg lamps.  A Medina candy company manufactures a product called “OHH…FFFFUDGE.” Great Lakes Brewery bottles “Tripel Dog Dare” (an insider beer joke: “Tripel” is the name of a strong German pale ale).

Earlier this month, there even was A Christmas Story Run from the house to Public Square downtown. 

Other ties can be seen all over Northeast Ohio. A Cleveland donut shop sells a line of Christmas Story pastries, and a Christmas museum in Medina even claims to have the original department store slide that Santa kicked Ralphie down in the movie.   

Across the street from the Christmas Story house, a leg lamp also glows in the window of the 111-year-old Rowley Inn.  Ted Polanski owned the bar for 37 years before selling it in 2014.  He still comes in three days a week to work the early morning shift.  Polanski grew-up here on the South Side and his wife and kid had bit parts in the movie.

“I liked it,” he says. “It was good for the bar, good for the neighborhood, good for the city.” 

At 76 years, Ted Polanski’s seen a lot of changes in his city and his neighborhood.  If you stop by sometime, maybe he’ll pour you a Red Ryder cocktail and tell you some stories.

Ted Polanski stands beside a leg lamp and Christmas decorations by a window.
David C. Barnett
Ted Polanski poses with a familiar item at the Rowley Inn.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.