Joe Lavey has always had a special affection for “A Christmas Story.”
Each holiday season, the North Tonawanda man follows a ritual of watching the classic movie, setting up models of the story’s houses and shops under the tree and putting his “leg lamp” and BB gun on display in his front window.
This year, he is on to a bigger, nerve-racking project.
Sunday afternoon, he has arranged for Ian Petrella, the actor who played Ralphie’s bratty little brother, Randy, to give a talk an hour before a 3 o’clock showing of the movie in the Riviera Theatre. And the fire truck used in the movie will be on hand, too, offering rides for all, starting at 12:30 p.m. Festivities also will include a chance for pictures with Santa and a raffle of autographed BB guns.
Money raised will go to the restored old movie palace on Webster Street and the volunteer Sweeney Hose Company No. 7, of which Lavey is president.
Petrella is a fan of old-time movie theaters and posted an offer on Facebook to appear to help with fundraising. Now, six months after taking Petrella up on the offer, Lavey is worried.
What if too few people come? “I think they’ve only sold 134 tickets out of 1,200,” he said.
The 1983 comedy about Ralphie Parker, a 9-year-old boy, growing up in the late 1930s and longing for a BB gun for Christmas, has a modern cult following and even a museum across the street from the house where some of the movie was shot in Cleveland.
When it came out, it was a flop, lasting two weeks in 900 theaters, said Petrella, 38, an animator who sells autographs on the side. “It wasn’t one of those films that catapulted you into stardom,” he said.
Years later, “A Christmas Story” became a beloved holiday classic after it started playing on television, including a 24-hour holiday marathon on TBS.
“That’s one of the things that I love the most. That you have fans like Joe out there,” said Petrella, who counts Lavey as one of his oldest social media fans. “It’s just kind of interesting how with this film, people like Joe add to the idea of the connection between the fans and film and how much the film means to them.”
The movie still makes Lavey, 32, feel like his boyhood self.
When he was a kid, he cut out Brand Names’ catalog pictures of BB guns for his Christmas list. And, just like the mother in the movie, his mom always protested, saying what turned out to be the movie’s most famous line: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
“When that was on TV, you knew it was Christmastime,” said Lavey, equipment and supply manager for Twin City Ambulance.
Now that he is the father of two, his life has begun to mirror the movie’s version of grown-up life. Lavey’s wife, Katie, likes seeing how happy he gets when he finds a new bobblehead doll character or another ceramic house for his Christmas village scene, but there are limits.
No more than one leg lamp at a time. “I can’t have both of them up at the same time,” he said. “That’s the rule.”
For most of the year, the bigger one gets banished to the basement crawl space with the totes that hold a piece of siding from the Cleveland house and the rest of the tchotckes.
The lamps are replicas of an object in one of the more famous scenes in the movie, based on anecdotes in books by Jean Shepherd:
Ralphie’s delighted father wins a sweepstakes from a soda pop company and the prize arrives in a wood crate marked “FRAGILE.” Ralphie’s mother finds the enclosed fringe lamp of the Nehi logo of a woman’s leg so ugly that she “accidentally” knocks it off the table, and breaks it into pieces.
“Which I’m very surprised it hasn’t happened in my house yet,” Lavey said.
In one of Katie Lavey’s far more supportive efforts, she arranged to have her husband’s first lamp delivered in a wood crate for his 30th birthday, along with a custom, crate-shaped cake, topped with a little leg lamp.
But, a year later, she was not happy to come home and find a second, smaller version of the lamp – autographed by all the actors – in the dining room.
“Some of the words she actually used you wouldn’t want to put in the paper,” he said. “She was surprised.”
One day, she says, when their children – Brittney, 1, and Collin, 4 – are out of the house, they might have room for a full display of his collection.
Of that, her husband is hopeful – but doubtful. “She’s a liar,” he said jokingly. “If we had a room for it, it wouldn’t be up.”
Still Katie Lavey caters to her husband’s “Christmas Story” side when she can.
She has gone with him three times to see the movie-family house in Cleveland, which has a museum in another house across the street and features the snowsuit that Petrella wore. “That’s like my Graceland,” Lavey said.
She makes cutout Christmas cookies shaped like leg lamps and the bunny suit Ralphie gets from his aunt for Christmas.
And, once a year, she agrees to watch the movie. “It’s not that I don’t like it; I just don’t have the love for it that he does,” she said. Reflecting on what the movie means to him, she said, “I’m trying to think of a word – without saying, ‘obsessed.’ ”
If all goes well Sunday, Lavey intends to aim higher: Next year, it would be cool if Buffalo hosted a 30th reunion for the actors and a “Christmas Story” convention.
So far, this season, he has reveled in the evening pleasure of looking outside and seeing cars stop and cameras flash as people take pictures of his front window. For the third year, has set up a BB gun leaning against a piece of crate marked “FRAGILE” and left his big leg lamp shining on.
Lately, he has been wondering if the night visits are becoming a tradition with people saying, “Let’s go by the house that has the ‘Christmas Story’ stuff.”
Thinking of that, he said, makes him feel pretty good.