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Gary Nelson
"Gary's World"

Published Dec. 17, 2004

A Christmas Story always feels like home

Each year at Christmas I'm reminded of my roots of growing up in Northwest Indiana near Hammond and Gary. It's not the Christmas-related ripoffs and outrageous crime stories I hear from family members who still live there. It's not the tales of wicked snows and bitter temperatures that keep people locked in their homes like prisoners or walking around like zombies -- it's the annual 24-hour broadcast of Jean Shepherd's classic movie A Christmas Story. The film is loosely based on events that occurred during Shepherd's childhood in the town of Hammond, IN.

I've written about this once before, but this movie no doubt has become a classic that many Americans look forward to watching every year. In my family, watching the film has most certainly become as much of a part of our Christmas tradition as trimming the tree and listening to carols.

I know you've seen this movie. The story is about young Master Ralphie Parker and his quest to get an official Red Ryder BB gun. Throughout the movie Ralphie is plagued by the response, "You'll shoot your eye out" when talking about his desire for the blue steeled beauty. If you haven't seen the movie, then you must.

This movie has become such a commercial Christmas icon that products from scenes in the movie have even been manufactured recently. You can go online and purchase your very own leglamp for the front room window. You can buy your own major award certificate. There are also bobbleheads of the main characters in the film. Much of this stuff was launched last year in honor of the film's 20-year anniversary.

Many people don't realize this film almost didn't make it to the silver screen. Many companies wouldn't consider it. But film producer and director Bob Clark made a package deal with MGM in order to make the film. Clark had a tremendous success in the early '80s with the film Porky's. When the company wanted Clark to do a sequel, Porky's II, Clark agreed as long as they would allow him to film and release A Christmas Story.

One thing I am fortunate enough to say is that I actually knew Jean Shepherd's brother, Randy Shepherd. Randy's character was the whiny kid brother in the film.

I knew Randy as an adult from the early to late 1980s. Randy and I attended the same church in Northwest Indiana where, after the film's release in 1983, he was a glorified celebrity - at least in the church, anyway. Randy brought a copy of the movie for all to watch at church one Sunday after the service.

Jean Shepherd's Christmas tale is a story of what it was like to grow up in Hammond, IN, during the 1940s on Cleveland St.

The film features several stories of his early childhood when he attended Warren G. Harding Elementary in Hessville, IN, a section of Hammond.

The movie script of A Christmas Story was based on stories published in Shepherd's 1967 book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, the old man is at the kitchen table in the house on Cleveland St. reading a newspaper story about some "clodhopper in Griffith" who swallowed a yo-yo. Griffith is a town neighboring Hammond where my mother lived. Indiana references abound in the movie, but it was actually filmed in Cleveland, OH.

Shepherd's younger brother, Randy, my friend from church, told me that most of the action stories Shepherd wrote were really about Randy, who always appeared in Shepherd's short stories as the runny-nosed, whiny kid brother.

Although Jean Shepherd insisted the characters in his books were made up as well as the town of Hohman, according to Randy, the town in the stories was Hammond and the characters were based on real people the two brothers knew. However, these characters were so exaggerated they practically were imaginary, Randy said. Hohman is actually one of the main streets in downtown Hammond.

"You don't really think I was that whiny as a kid do you?" Randy once asked me.

Flick from the movie even owned a tavern in Hessville called Flick's Tap. Cleveland St. and Warren G. Harding Elementary School do exist in Hammond.

Jean Shepherd supplied the voice-over narration to the film and also makes a cameo appearance as the man who stops Ralphie from cutting in line at a department store to see Santa.

Jean Shepherd had a successful career in radio in New York long before the movie. Randy Shepherd was a good storyteller as well and lived in Northwest Indiana, where the two brothers grew up. He lived there until the early 1990s. I heard from other friends from the church that he had moved to Florida near his brother, Jean. I also heard that Randy died in the middle 1990s. Jean Shepherd died of natural causes in October 1999 in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, FL, home.

"Shep," his nickname given to him by friends and fans, created several works aside from the movie A Christmas Story. He authored books, hosted radio programs and wrote many short stories. He will mostly be remembered, though, for A Christmas Story.

It has become one of the great Christmas classics of all time. I find myself drawn to watching it every year. Although I'm not old enough to have experienced growing up in Indiana during the 1940s, the Indiana humor and deep seated sarcasm sit well with me. I experienced it first-hand growing up in Northwest Indiana. The movie airs each year on TBS for 24 hours straight from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.

I'm not sure what you'll be doing on Christmas Eve, but my family and I will invariably be watching A Christmas Story again and again.

Gary Nelson is a Chronicle staffwriter. His column appears periodically in the Crossville Chronicle.

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