There was a time before “A Christmas Story,” believe it or not – a time before some smart-aleck family member could crack, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” in random conversation at the Yuletide dinner table and get a big laugh.
When the movie opened in 1983, it didn’t make much of a splash. But as cult classics often do, this 1940s tale about a boy hoping for a Christmas BB gun crept up on the popular culture, becoming over the past 30 years a beloved repository of catch-phrases, favorite moments and – thanks to the Turner Classic Movies Christmas Eve-marathon tradition – a sort of background wallpaper to new holiday memories.
Good Company Players has had great success with the nonmusical theatrical version of the title, including in 2006 with “Glee” star Chris Colfer playing the leading role of Ralphie, the elementary-school boy who anchors the tale. Now it offers a new musical version from the acclaimed composing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dogfight”) in a production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Here’s a rundown.
1966: American humorist Jean Shepherd publishes “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” a collection of short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes
1983: Movie version directed by Bob Clark and starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker opens in theaters
2000: Philip Grecian writes a two-act stage play based on Shepherd’s book. GCP produces it in 2002, 2006 and 2011.
2012: “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” based on the film, opens on Broadway with music and lyrics by Pasek and Paul and book by Joseph Robinette.
Top 5 pop-culture moments
You’ll find these both in the movie and musical stage version
▪ The “leg lamp.” When The Old Man receives a “major award” in a contest, he revels in his prize. His mother begs to differ.
▪ The flagpole scene. A tongue touched to frozen metal creates a minor medical emergency.
▪ The bunny suit. The dreaded present from Ralphie’s aunt, who’s convinced he is much younger than he is ... and a girl.
▪ The soap-in-the-mouth moment. Ralphie drops the hubcap lugnuts and says, “Oh FUDGE” (but not really “fudge”) and gets his just punishment.
▪ The “I can’t put my arms down” scene. Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, has to wear so many layers for the snow that he practically can’t move.
This BB is king
We can all remember a gift we really, really wanted for Christmas. In “A Christmas Story,” that gift is, of course, a BB gun, the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” Ralphie wants the gun more than anything.
▪ Dan Pessano, managing director of GCP, who plays the narrator, has a similar BB gun story. Says daughter Emily Pessano, who is co-directing the show: “He wanted a BB gun and his mom said no. Then his stepdad asked him to help unload some wood from the back of the truck and there it was, unwrapped, in the lumber. We use his old gun with his name carved in it in the show in some scenes.”
▪ There wasn’t actually a Red Ryder BB gun that matched the “memory” in the play, but the company did come out with a movie tie-in version the year the film was released. Suzy Jane Edwards, a GCP veteran, kept that original model all these years and loaned it to GCP to use in the show.
What makes a cult classic?
We can all relate.
Most movies are made and forgotten, but a very few become cult classics. The reason why remains mostly intangible, but you can make some good guesses about “A Christmas Story.” Consider:
▪ You can never want something as much as when you’re 9 years old.
▪ How can you not forget a bad trip to Santa? Christmas memories over the years become indelible, reinforced by ritual and repeated storytelling (and embellishing).
▪ From a lamp shaped like a leg to a shocking pink bunny suit, the things that parents do to embarrass us are myriad and all-encompassing.
The result: an experience in which viewers can latch on to the specifics of the plot and the generalities of childhood. The 1940s setting evokes an affection for a simpler, less materialistic time, set far enough in the past to inspire nostalgia in just about everyone.
“It’s one of the most relatable Christmas movies of all time,” says Fresno Bee movie critic Rick Bentley.
There’s also something to be said for the silly irreverence of the film, which can balance the overwhelming sentimentality of the holiday season. (“It’s a Wonderful Life” is, well, wonderful, but sometimes you need a little spice with your sweetness.) You get to laugh at a family in which things don’t go according to plan.
And for some, the traditional marathon screening of the film on television makes it a treasured ingredient in the “perfect” Christmas memory, along with the tree, stockings and cookies for Santa.
For Emily Pessano, co-director of the GCP production, the reason “A Christmas Story” is so popular is that it makes the mundane special.
“We all remember having different priorities about what was important around Christmas time as kids, but when you look back at those moments, those gifts, they take on a whole new importance for you as an adult because of the memories they give you,” she says. “In the long run, it’s not so much about the memory of the gift, but the memory of the person who gave it to you, and that is why it’s universal.”
A Christmas Story: The Musical
- Through Jan. 10
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494