Starring roles for Oakville, St. Catharines in enduring popularity of ‘A Christmas Story’


Published November 16, 2023 at 10:00 am

Christmas Story flagpole scene
The flag pole scene from 'A Christmas Story' was shot at the former Victoria School in St. Catharines

A Christmas Story – sometimes called ‘America’s favourite Christmas movie’ – is a movie shot mostly in Canada, set in a time that very few of us can remember and boasts a couple from Oakville as perhaps the film’s biggest fans.

The iconic movie, about a boy who wants – more than anything else in the world – a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of its release Saturday.

The film is set in 1940, making Ralphie Parker, our protagonist (played by Peter Billingsley), 92 years old, and yet the film has wide ranging appeal. It’s not just Golden Generation folks – those who are still with us – and Boomers (their kids) who make watching the movie every Christmas season a holiday tradition.

Tyler Schwartz, probably Canada’s leading expert on the Christmas classic (and a super fan), believes nostalgia is at the heart of the movie’s enduring popularity.

“It’s riding that wave of nostalgia for times gone by,” he said. “People can look back at growing up, especially around Christmas time, where their memories are warmer and fuzzier.”

Tyler and his wife Jordie have even carved out a bit of living off the film, selling the kitsch/ugly Leg Lamp made famous in the movie; a product that launched their e-commerce store Fifteen years after the launch, RetroFestive and Schwartz has been on Dragon’s Den twice and he continues to ship nostalgic Christmas items to thousands of Canadians each year.

A Christmas Story is set in Hohman, Indiana (a fictionalized version of creator Jean Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, outside of Chicago), with some of the exterior shots filmed in Cleveland. But the movie was shot mostly in southern Ontario, with the famous tongue-stuck-to-the-flag-pole scene – featuring a vintage red truck from the Chippawa Volunteer Fire Fighters’ Association in Niagara Falls – filmed at the former Victoria School in St. Catharines

The ‘only I didn’t say fudge’ scene was filmed at the foot of Cherry Street in Toronto; as was the Christmas tree-buying scene. Other Toronto locations in the movie include Leslieville, Gerrard Street East, Queen Street West, John Street and a sound stage in Scarborough where filming of interior shots of the Parker home was shot.

“It was the Canadian connections that got us into it,” said Schwartz, who admitted people have been calling he and Jordie “super fans” for years.

In 2006 the Schwartz’s set out to visit all the locations from the movie on both sides of the border, “Back then not all the information was readily available,” he said of those still early days of the internet. “We had to see the Toronto Film Commission first, and they were able to pull file folders from their archives with the shooting permits.”

The result was 2008’s ‘Road Trip for Ralphie’ an adventure spanning two years and two countries by two mega-fans who uncover forgotten facts, discover little-known locations and recover long-lost movie memorabilia.

“We figured this was our way of contributing to pop culture,” Schwartz noted.

Though the movie is set in a distant past and the movie’s release is 40 years ago, Schwartz believes there are followers of the film of all ages; especially among those who grew up watching it every holiday season.

“I’m not sure it speaks to 25-30 year olds but some of the charm of the movie is because people grew up with it,” he explained. “Movies like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ are really old movies, but they still have legs and people look forward to watching them. Even for Gen Xers, it’s a real thing to look back fondly on the past.”

“A lot of people make it a tradition to watch the same Christmas movies every year. They look forward to it.”

The air rifle – a 200-shot Range Model, to be precise – may seem dated to modern sensibilities and an unlikely Christmas gift for a nine year-old boy of today but that has not affected the movie’s popularity with contemporary audiences, Schwartz said. “Whether it’s a BB gun or a GI Joe Battle Set, we all remember the feeling of wanting that special gift on Christmas Day. The trick is to substitute in your mind what you really want with the BB gun.”

“It’s something that everyone can relate to.”

(That GI Joe Battle Set, by the way? “I never did get it,” Schwartz remembered with a tinge of sadness.)

Ralphie’s dream gift was rejected by his mother, his teacher (Miss Shields), and a grumpy Santa Claus at the local department store, who all gave him the same dire warning: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Schwartz, who also authored ‘A Christmas Story Treasury’ (Running Press, 2013), has collected hundreds of stories about the movie from both those who grew up watching it and the actors who appeared in the film, from Hollywood stars to kids at the Victoria School (now a women’s shelter) in St. Catharines, who just happened to be hanging around when filming began in the late winter of 1983.

“The movie producers saw the kids,” Schwartz learned, and said, “hey, you want to be in a movie?”

Peter Billingsley in 1983 and 2011

A couple of those kids who participated in the famous flagpole scene were at a reunion last weekend “signing autographs” and just generally enjoying their small role in a what AOL (remember them?) called in 2007 the “#1 Christmas film of all time.”

A Christmas Story, which also starred Darren McGavin (who famously played Mike Hammer in the Mickey Spillane television series) as Ralphie’s father (the ‘Old Man’) was originally a box office failure but gained fans over the decades with television audiences, spawning two TV adaptions, a theatrical production and two sequels, A Christmas Story 2 – which went straight to video on its release in 2012 – and A Christmas Story Christmas (starring Billingsley), which came out last year.

The film, directed by Bob Clark, is presented in a series of vignettes, with narration provided by the adult Ralphie Parker. The main story line is the air rifle, which Ralphie does receive, courtesy of his father, and promptly takes it to the backyard where his first shot ricochets back and knocks his glasses off, leading to him stepping on said spectacles and breaking them.

Still, after lying about the broken glasses to avoid punishment, Ralphie sleeps with his rifle by his side as his adult persona declares it to be the best Christmas present he would ever receive.

Other vignettes include the Old Man’s ceaseless battle with a wonky furnace and with the neighbours dogs and his joy at winning the ugly leg lamp in a newspaper contest; Ralphie’s  horror at receiving a pink bunny onesie from his Aunt Clara and disappointment at learning the secret message on his long awaited decoder ring was just an Ovaltine ad; and the tongue-on-the-flagpole scene, which has become almost as synonymous with the movie as Ralphie shooting himself in the eye with his BB gun.

“It’s a movie that’s a little off-kilter and a little unexpected,” Schwartz said in trying to explain the film’s popularity. “It’s been 40 years and people are still celebrating it. And it’s an even bigger phenomenon in the U.S.”

Scut Farkus

Zack Ward as Scut Farkus

FUN FACT#1: Scut Farkus, the infamous bully that Ralphie and his friends have to contend with is played by Zack Ward, who was Christopher Titus’ brother Dave on the sitcom ‘Titus.’ For all the Titus fans out there.

FUN FACT#2: Ralphie’s dad – ‘The Old Man’ –  was played by Darren McGavin, who starred as Kolchak as well as his Mike Hammer character. But the producers were also looking at  Jack Nicholson of all people for the role.

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