To truly appreciate visiting the house where "A Christmas Story" was filmed, you probably have to be a little bit fanatical about the movie.
But then again, who isn't?
If you didn't grow up quoting the 1983 cult classic, about a boy named Ralphie and his quest to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, you probably caught on as an adult during one of TBS' 24-hour marathon runs on Christmas Eve and Day.
In 2004, one such fanatic took his love for the movie even further. He bought the Ohio house where the movie was filmed and restored it to its 1940s-era glory. It is open year-round for tours and brings visitors by the thousands.
A few weeks ago, I packed up my husband, daughter, brother, sister-in-law and nephews and we set out for the Christmas Story House from Tonawanda. We made the drive in just three and a half hours, without a single "Dadgummit blowout" or "Oh, fudge," moment to speak of.
The house is nestled in a seen-better-days, working-class neighborhood five minutes from downtown Cleveland. Neighbors offer $5 parking on their lawns with hand-drawn signs this time of year, but even in the thick of the holiday crowds, we found a free spot on the street just around the corner.
We were in line for a few minutes before we realized we had to purchase our admission tickets from the gift shop across the street -- which had a zigzagging line of its own. It was like that part in the movie where Ralphie and Randy realize the line for Santa is much longer than they think it is. It would have been perfect if the people in front of us had said, "The line ends here. It starts there!" and pointed to the gift shop.
I would have said it myself, but a local in a 1980s Fiero came tearing around the corner and cursing me. They must get really sick of tourists standing on their lawns. (Fun fact: The guy who delivered the leg lamp to Ralphie's house was an extra from the neighborhood and still lives nearby.)
The combined wait time for the tickets and entry to the house was probably 15 minutes, made pleasant by a girl in a pink bunny suit asking trivia questions about the movie and handing out candy canes for right answers. (Think fast: What was Ralphie's teacher's name? Who broke up the fight between Ralphie and Scut Farkus?)
Once in the door, the inside of the house would be unremarkable if it weren't painted by your fond memories of the movie. The house is small, there's not much to see, and the dining room is nearly empty.
But it's amazing how far a little imagination can take you. And the house's caretakers really encourage you to relive the movie's moments. You're invited to touch, sit on and pick up almost everything. And you can take as many pictures as you want.
In the living room, the focal point is obviously the leg lamp. But while the line for photographs bottlenecks beside it, there is plenty more exploring to do. The Red Ryder BB gun sits hidden in the corner -- just like in the movie -- half unwrapped. The Old Man's bowling ball ("It's a blue ball! It's a bowling ball,") sits unwrapped under the tree.
Upstairs, you can pick up the old black phone Ralphie's mom used to throw poor Flick under the bus. The bathroom is stocked with Lifebuoy soap, and you're welcome to sit on the toilet, hunched over the hamper deciphering Little Orphan Annie's secret message with the provided decoder ring. Someone has already scrawled on the notebook, "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine." Yep, a crummy commercial.
A roped-off ironing room has 1940s furniture and assorted Look magazines. Down the hall in Ralphie and Randy's room, you're urged to try on Aunt Clara's pink bunny suit and pose for more pictures.
In the kitchen, amid the period appliances and boxes of Oxydol detergent, you can "Show Mommy how the piggies eat" or curl up under the sink out of fear that "Daddy's gonna kill Ralphie."
Outside, you can re-enact the shootout with Black Bart ("You win this time, but I'll be back!") or see the very spot where Ralphie nearly did shoot his eye out, just like Santa, Mother and Mrs. Shields had warned.
In yet another converted house across the street sits A Christmas Story Museum. It's just as much fun as the house itself, yet admission is free.
Inside are delightful behind-the-scenes photos taken during filming. Costumes used in the movie are on display, including Randy's "I can't put my arms down!" snowsuit and Flick's aviator hat. Other artifacts include Mrs. Shields' chalkboard, classroom door and the chattering teeth from her drawer of confiscated goods.
But even more wonderful are the people you'll sometimes find inside.
Ian Petrella, who played Randy, was there in person the day we visited. Patty Johnson, who played the scary elf in the mall ("Come on kid, the store's closing!"), was there, too. They sell autographed pictures for $10, but you can gawk for free.
The kicker? When we came out of the museum, there was a German shepherd mix barking at us from a second-story porch. Could it really have been one of the Bumpuses' dogs?
> Off the set
Unfortunately, the Chinese restaurant where the family eats on Christmas is nowhere to be found. That scene was filmed in Toronto. And corner bar Bowley's Food and Spirits looks fun, but not with a toddler and two young boys in tow.
Luckily, a picturesque village called Chagrin Falls is just 30 minutes away. We stopped at Rick's Cafe, a fantastic family-friendly restaurant that was full and bustling. The art deco interior and fine food were a treat (entrees were $15 to $25), but the kids' menu and friendly staff made us feel comfortable despite my cranky 13-month-old.
Lined with small, independent boutiques and shot through with a roaring waterfall, Chagrin Falls is the perfect backdrop for a holiday getaway. The streets are decorated with lights and wreaths. The village green has giant, dazzling Christmas trees. A red, candy-cane embossed mailbox offers a fun spot to drop off letters to Santa Claus.
Oh, and there just so happened to be a frozen flagpole, should anyone feel like re-creating that favorite scene.
> If you go:
A Christmas Story House, 3159 W. 11th St., Cleveland (216-298-4919; wwww.AChristmasStoryHouse.com). Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tours run every half-hour, with the last tour starting at 4:30 p.m. Closed all major holidays, including Christmas.
Tickets are $10; $8, seniors; $6, children 7 to 12; 6 and under, free.
For more information about Cleveland, visit www.PositivelyCleveland.com.