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Director Randal Kleiser talks filming in Chagrin Falls, Hudson ahead of Cinematheque appearance

Randal Kleiser in a knit hat, striped scarf and black-rimmed glasses talks to Ed Asner on a snowy day.
Randal Kleiser Productions
Director Randal Kleiser talks with actor Ed Asner on the set of “The Gathering.” Though set in New England, scenes from the 1977 TV movie were filmed in Chagrin Falls and Hudson.

Although this year marks the 40th anniversary of “A Christmas Story,” it wasn't the first holiday classic filmed in Northeast Ohio.

“The Gathering” starred Ed Asner as a man trying to reconnect with his family at the holidays in the face of a terminal illness. The 1977 TV movie was not quite as cheery as a leg lamp, but it won the Emmy for Outstanding Special and has become a tradition on home video – especially in Chagrin Falls and Hudson, where several portions of the movie were filmed.

Its director, Randal Kleiser, will be back in Northeast Ohio on Dec. 2 presenting two of his other films at the Cleveland Cinematheque: "Big Top Pee-Wee" and "Grease."

Filming 'The Gathering' in Chagrin Falls

“I remember my parents took me to Chagrin Falls when I was a kid,” Kleiser said in an interview with Ideastream Public Media. His mother’s college friends, Nan and Ed Osborne, lived in the small village.

That visit inspired Kleiser when he was choosing locations to film "The Gathering." He recalled that the area had a downtrodden reputation in the late 1970s, but the film's producer trusted Kleiser’s instincts.

"When I was asked to direct 'The Gathering,' I remembered that town," Kleiser said. "I said it would be great to start the movie off right by Chagrin Falls because it's so beautiful in the winter time, especially with all the icicles.

"So, we went there and shot exteriors. It was February when we shot, but the town put up all the Christmas decorations. And we put a note in the newspaper, 'Please come out into the streets with packages and dress like Christmas and wander around.' The town really supported us."

Although set in New England, "The Gathering" made good use of the Western Reserve. Many portions were shot in Hudson at Pierce House, on the campus of Western Reserve Academy.

“We got to take over that house and shot there and put out fireworks in the front yard,” he said.

A Travolta double feature

“The Gathering” was Kleiser’s first assignment after “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” starring John Travolta. The success of the two TV movies led to what would become his first feature film and biggest hit, “Grease.” Looking back, the director said, he’d change nothing about the classic musical.

“We did shoot one scene that was cut,” he said. “The studio wanted an explanation of why Rizzo threw the milkshake on Kenickie. So, we filmed a scene where they had an argument outside the Frosty Palace, and it didn't make any sense and it was cut.”

Randal Kleiser headshot
Randal Kleiser Productions
Randal Kleiser has been directing TV and film for five decades. His credits include “Grease,” “The Blue Lagoon,” “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

He’ll present the 1978 film at the Cinematheque and answer questions. Kleiser said he's also happy to sign copies of his books — 2019’s “Grease: The Director’s Notebook” and a book of portrait sketches, “Drawing Directors,” released this year.

“For the last 40 years, I have been around so many other movie directors that I have secretly been drawing them,” he said. “I also write about the directors and my experiences meeting them or loving their films.”

The only one to actually notice Kleiser drawing is also the one on the cover: Cincinnati-native Steven Spielberg.

“He said, ‘That looks like me,’” Kleiser said. “Later on, when I was finishing the book, I called him and said, ‘Hey, you remember that picture I drew of you? Can I put it on the cover?’”

Paul Reubens, 'a comedy genius'

In 1988, Kleiser directed Paul Reubens in “Big Top Pee-Wee.” The sequel to “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” has grown in stature over the years – something which surprised Kleiser. He saw the film again after Reubens passed away in July.

“He was really a comedy genius,” Kleiser said. “We brought giraffes and hippos and all these things out to the Disney ranch and set up camp and just worked for weeks and weeks.”

Although a flop on release, it did provide Benicio Del Toro with his first role in a major film.

“When I was producing the surfing movie ‘North Shore,’ Benicio came in to audition,” Kleiser said. “He wasn't right for any of the parts, but I thought, ‘This guy's going to be a star.’ I said to him, ‘The next movie I do, I'm going to send you the script and find a part for you.’ He chose to play the dog-faced boy, which is funny because years later he played the Wolfman.”

A five decade-long career

Kleiser’s directing credits include “The Blue Lagoon,” “White Fang,” and “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”

He also directed the short "Foot Fetish," which aired on “Saturday Night Live” in 1980. The stop-motion picture featured two shoes getting intimate and was inspired by last-minute shoe-shopping on the way to the beach.

“I improvised this whole thing with the shoes moving around and… having a baby,” he said. “It was just one take. I really hadn't thought of what I was going to do. I just was intrigued by this and, as it happened, it turned out fantastically.”

Looking back on his career, Kleiser said the two films he’s most proud of are the English comedy “Getting It Right” and “It's My Party,” about the AIDS crisis. Kleiser called it a “very personal movie” – a trait which he advises young filmmakers to consider.

“The best kind of movie to make is a film that comes from your personal life," he said. "Something about some emotional moment in your life that's painful to talk about. A deep secret. Anything like that will really, really resonate."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.