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‘A Christmas Story’ reunion in Cleveland: Peter Billingsley still has Ralphie's bunny suit

Produced on a moderate budget 40 years ago, "A Christmas Story" came and went from theaters with little notice. It took another decade for the film to reach classic status, and another decade after that before the Christmas Story House museum opened on Cleveland's west side, in the neighborhood where much of the movie was filmed.
MGM/UA
Produced on a moderate budget 40 years ago, "A Christmas Story" came and went from theaters with little notice. It took another decade for the film to reach classic status, and another decade after that before the A Christmas Story House museum opened on Cleveland's West Side, in the neighborhood where much of the movie was filmed.

It’s taken 40 years, but one of Cleveland’s favorite adopted sons is coming home for the holidays. Peter Billingsley, Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” will be in town this weekend for the first public reunion of the film’s cast. The holiday classic was partially filmed here in early 1983, a time the film’s star remembers fondly.

“I stayed at the Stouffer's Hotel - I remember that,” he said. “I ordered a lot of Stouffer’s French bread pizza! So, that was something to look forward to. The other big thing that Downtown Cleveland did for us was leaving the Christmas decorations up: We couldn't necessarily afford to decorate such a large area.”

Although it’s considered a classic now, “A Christmas Story” saw moderate ticket sales upon its release in November 1983. Billingsley recalled visiting a video store a decade later and discovering that the film was finally getting its due.

“I just went in to rent a movie, and I saw a standee, like a cardboard cut-out, of me,” he said. “I went up to the video guy and was like, ‘This is a movie I did almost 10 years ago.’ He said, ‘Yeah, well, people, they want it every Christmas.’”

Director Bob Clark chose Cleveland, in part, because of the possibilities of shooting at Higbee's department store, which was then on Public Square. The store’s iconic interior took center stage during the scene when Ralphie sits on Santa’s lap and is quickly dispatched down a long slide.

“They kept that slide open during lunch for us,” he said. “We would go on that thing, we wouldn’t even eat, we just kept sliding down the thing and having fun.”

By 1983, Clark was already known for the cult classic “Black Christmas” and the raunchy “Porky’s” comedies. He passed away in 2007, but not before mentoring Billingsley.

“I was 12 when I did ‘Christmas Story’ and, I'd started at two-and-a-half,” he said. “It was the most different energy I had ever felt on a set. I'd never seen someone so prepared: Bob had note cards of every lens, every shot, all the framing. Bob was the most encouraging and told me, ‘Get into the edit room and that's where you'll learn how movies are made.’”

The Greater Cleveland Film Commission's Bill Garvey (left) welcomed two of the movie's cast members, Zack Ward and Scott Schwartz, to announce November's "Behind the Camera: A Christmas Story Official 40th Anniversary."
Kabir Bhatia
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Ideastream
In June, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission's Bill Garvey (left) welcomed two "A Christmas Story" cast members, Zack Ward (Scut Farkus) and Scott Schwartz (Flick), to announce the 40th anniversary celebration.

Billingsley eventually transitioned to working as a producer and director on films such as “Elf,” “The Break-Up,” “Iron Man” and last year’s latest Ralphie adventure, “A Christmas Story Christmas.”

Throughout his career, he’s saved memorabilia from his most famous on-screen role.

“My mom was always good about grabbing different sorts of things,” he said. “I do have the original bunny suit, which there was only one made, and the original BB gun. I also have the cowboy costume as well.”

He does not, however, own the actual house on Cleveland’s West Side, used for many of the film’s exteriors. It opened as a museum in 2006, and reportedly is in the process of changing ownership. There is some speculation the cast has purchased the 19th-century home on West 11th St. Billingsley’s only recent comment on the house was that he’s not scheduled to visit there during his time in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Film Commission's fan expo starts Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Public Auditorium and runs through Sunday afternoon. A panel discussion takes place Friday night at the Music Hall.

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