Now that it’s been 30 years since “A Christmas Story” came out, I think I can tell you the real story about what went on during the filming of what’s now become a holiday favorite.
I was just a cub copywriter back in 1983, working my first job at Higbee’s Department Store in Cleveland, Ohio. And yes, that was a real store, back before all the mergers and acquisitions started (and unbeknownst to me at the time, it probably was the main reason I got my job here at Lands’ End 20+ years later).
Back in late 1982, we started to hear that there was going to be a movie filmed in Cleveland, and that part of it would be filmed in the store. Also, they wanted employees to be extras. Well, this was going to be the big break for all of us. We’d be discovered, become big Hollywood stars, live the good life. We started to hear details of what was going to go on. The store would be decorated for Christmas. There was going to be a parade scene shot in Cleveland’s Public Square – which was right outside the front door. They’d be shooting at night so that some of the modern buildings in the area wouldn’t show up.
When we heard what the story was, hardly any of us knew anything about Jean Shepherd’s novel, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” (which the script was taken from). We recognized Darren McGavin’s name, so there was some star power at least. We all got our “extra” applications in (just a formality, really, so they had your Social Security number and other payroll-type information) made our plans to become stars.
Filming took place the week of January 17. Extras reported to a “holding area” the lower level of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, which was a fairly large concourse for the rail station the tower sat above and which Higbee’s was connected to. The first step was visiting wardrobe where we got our outfits. Mine consisted of some fairly shabby pants, a work shirt, tattered overcoat and newsboy cap. And I was told I’d have to lose my glasses when I was on set as they did not fit the era of the film. Then we were told to wait until they were ready for us.
So we sat. And sat. And sat some more. During this time, though, a few people were selected for special roles. My boss was chosen to be the Christmas queen on the float in the parade scene. And another group was picked to be in costumes of Wizard of Oz characters (scarecrow, tin man, wicked witch, etc.). What these had to do with a Christmas scene was somewhat puzzling, but hey, this was Hollywood, you know?
As we sat, occasionally a few people would get pulled out to go up to the store to shoot a scene. I don’t remember exactly what time, but it was pretty close to midnight when I got called and then spent a few minutes walking around the aisles of the main floor with a wrapped package as they shot the scene where Ralphie gets to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas. Then it was back downstairs to sit some more. Later, we heard that one of our co-workers who had been picked to be the wicked witch was given a speaking role. Man, what luck. Around 3 o’clock, they wrapped the first night’s shooting, so it was time to go home, get a couple hours sleep and be back to work the day job by 8:30.
The night they filmed the parade scene, Public Square was filled with antique cars supplied by collectors in the area, my high school marching band was chosen to play, and we were instructed to continuously walk around. There was my boss on the float as the Christmas Queen, waving to the crowd. The band played, cars drove around the Square again and again, and boy, was it cold. Filming went later that night – since this was the last night of filming in the downtown area – and I seem to recall getting back to my apartment around 4:30 or 5 a.m. And I still made it to work on time the next day.
By the time the movie came out, I had moved to Baton Rouge, LA. So I went to see the movie the weekend it opened, right before Thanksgiving. I watched closely to see if I could spot myself.
There was the store, in all its Christmas glory. There was the wicked witch (and her line); there was my ex-boss and a few other people I recognized from the store. But, alas, I wound up on the cutting room floor. At the time, I didn’t think much about it, since the film was sort of a bomb. Who would have thought it would become the classic it is now thanks to television?
And while Higbee’s is gone (and the building has been turned into a casino), it continues to live on thanks to the adventures of Ralphie and the Red Ryder bb gun.
Oh, and the story on how I got my job here at Lands’ End because of it goes like this: the guy that hired me said the one thing that stood out on my resume was that I had worked at Higbee’s, and he loves watching “A Christmas Story” every year. It was certainly a fun experience, and I’d certainly do it again, but what I really want to know, is how much that wicked witch made in residuals.
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