Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie
It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.
The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.
Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa
There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)
If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.
Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published
I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.
His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:
She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.
Formerly St. Henry School, Now Bishop Lyke School
It was the third grade, and at the tender age of eight I was deeply in love. At that age, it was very much like Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl, except that my inamorata had curly brown hair and flashing eyes. Her name was Laura Sowinski. At that age, I somehow thought she was Swiss because Sowinski sounded like the word Swiss. (Eight-year-old logic!)
Did I ever whisper sweet nothings to her? No, I don’t think that ever happened at that age. Mrs. McCaffery ran a tight ship in our basement classroom, and any kind of childish spooning would have been nipped in the bud right quick.
Catholic schools like Saint Henry had, in those days, many off days. Sometimes, we did not know until the day before that we would be off the next day. When one of these sudden free days was announced, I was home with a cold and didn’t get the word. So, naturally, I walked to Saint Henry the next day, only to find the school deserted.
The word got around quickly. At the time, Saint Henry had a newsletter, for which the gifted and cruelly beautiful Laura Sowinski was the artist. On the next issue of The Golden Knight, there I was on the back page, in a particularly goofy rendition, walking up the drive to class with a bunch of books secured with a belt. The caption read, “James Paris Going to School on a Free Day.” I was appalled, shamed before the entire school, devastated—my heart had been minced up and handed to me on a lead platter by la belle dame sans merci. My love had turned to ignominy and shame.
I do not know what became of Laura Sowinski, and frankly I don’t care. The bitch!
Geauga Lake: The Abandoned Amusement Park of My Youth
There are few things so pathetic as an abandoned amusement park. When I was a kid in Cleveland, I remember going at least once every summer to Geauga (pronounced JAW-gah) Lake in Aurora, Ohio. My father’s union, MESA Local 17, frequently held its summer picnics there. My brother and I always had a ball.
The park had a great fun house, complete with naughty mechanical peep shows that had nekkid ladies for a penny, and you could crank the cards to turn over at whatever speed. By the entrance, one had to maneuver a tricky labyrinth. There was a carney employee stationed by a button that released a jet of air to blow women’s dresses up above their heads. (I guess that wouldn’t go over too well now.) Also there was a giant rolling wooden barrel that one tried to traverse without falling on one’s heinie.
The Fun House at Geauga Lake
What my parents liked was the big open launch that circled the lake, creating a breeze that refreshed the passengers in the humid Ohio air. There was a roller coaster and a lot of fast rides that I was too chicken to try. (It was enough just to battle the car sickness en route.) No, I mostly hung out at the fun house, or I would pick a nice shady spot to read—ever the bookworm. I even remember one summer in high school reading J. E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth I to pass the time after I became sated with my crude fun house pleasures. I still have the volume on my shelf.
As I grow older, I see parts of my past being annihilated by the passage of time. Geauga Lake was founded in 1887 and finally closed down in 2007. I guess 120 years was not a bad run. Hell, I wish I could last as long!
I Was Always Into Drawing Castles in the Air
When my mother died in August 1998, I spent a whole day going through old photographs and other memorabilia relating to Mom, Dad, my brother, and myself. In the end, I think I barely scratched the surface; but I was not able to spend more time at the task. One of the things I rescued from the trash was this drawing of a castle I made at the age of six.
In the upper left-hand corner, Mom wrote in Hungarian, “Little Jimmy drew this 1951 February 1.” At the time, she was pregnant with my brother Dan, who was born on April 5. We were living at 2814 East 120th Street in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side. Already, I had gotten into trouble at school for not speaking English, so by this time my Dad was probably looking into getting a house in the suburbs so that I could become a regular Americano.
What does this drawing say about me? If I were a psychologist, no doubt it would speak volumes. I always had grandiose visions which were fueled by the stories my Mom told me, either of her own invention or from children’s books she took out of the library next to my school (Harvey Rice Elementary) on East 116th Street. According to one website about interpreting children’s drawings:
Children who draw fortresses or castles want to communicate their feelings of power and richness. But they may also be creative kids who love to create imaginary friends with whom they have long conversations or games. These children are full of fantasy and creativity but they generally have problems at school because they get easily immersed in their imaginary worlds.
That sounds about right to me, actually. Thanks to my Mom, mine was a richly imaginative world. Perhaps that’s why I write these blogs. I want to share my imagination with the world, or at least a small corner of it.
This night inside him, yes these tangled hidden roots that bound him to this magnificent and frightening land, as much to its scorching days as to its heartbreakingly rapid twilights, and that was like a second life, truer perhaps than the everyday surface of his outward life; its history would be told as a series of obscure yearnings and powerful indescribable sensations, the odor of the schools, of the neighborhood stables, of laundry on his mother’s hands, of jasmine and honeysuckle in the upper neighborhoods, of the pages of the dictionary and the books he devoured, and the sour smell of the toilets at home and at the hardware store, the smell of the big cold classrooms where he would sometimes go alone before or after class, the warmth of his favorite classmates, the odor of warm wool and feces that Didier carried around with him, of the cologne big Marconi’s mother doused him with so profusely that Jacques, sitting on the bench in class, wanted to move still closer to his friend … the longing, yes, to live, to live still more, to immerse himself in the greatest warmth this earth could give him, which is what he without knowing it hoped for from his mother.—Albert Camus, The First Man
Yep, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months
This is a picture that has a history in our family. My Mom thought it was ever so cute, so she showed it to all her friends and their good-looking daughters as I was growing up—while I cringed and swore offstage.I think the very existence of this picture postponed the beginning of my sex life by several years.
At the time the picture was taken, we were living in Lake Worth, Florida. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was a separate city; but now it’s more or less merged into the West Palm Beach metro area. While Mom worked as a supermarket checker, Dad had the all-time worst job in the world, especially for one with his delicate stomach: He was part of a crew that removed dead alligators from the waterways around Lake Worth. He didn’t last a year, so we moved right back to Cleveland.
I was a born critic even then. There was a family that I didn’t like that lived on Federal Highway, so I would go there and have my ripest bowel movements right on top of their welcome mat. After all, the sign did say “Welcome.”
The Young Would-Be Chess Master at Age 11
Ever since I first learned the moves at the age of eight, I loved chess; but I had to love it from afar. The fact of the matter is that I was never very good at it.
My high point was about thirty years ago when I was a correspondence chess Class B International player. In the day before e-mail, I played chess—move by move—using special postcards that I purchased from the U.S. Chess Federation. I had up to three days to formulate a response and send a card to my opponent. To avoid making mistakes, it took a lot of time, up to three or four hours per move once we had reached the middle game. Because of computers, I don’t think that correspondence chess exists any more in the snail mail world.
Now, when I have a lot of time on my hands (which is almost never), I like to go over the moves of famous historical chess games. There are some excellent compilations of these games available from Dover Publications at a reasonable price.
The photo above was taken in our kitchen at 3989 East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area of Cleveland. You may notice that there is a parakeet perched on my right shoulder, making me feel very much like a pirate. (It bothers me that I cannot remember, after all these years, the name of our parakeet.)
Notice the string tie.It must have been a school day, because we were required to wear ties to our classes at St. Henry School. For convenience, I usually opted for a string tie. You can also seen the bottom of the cord for our rotary wall-mounted telephone.
I could tell that I was eleven when the above picture was taken because that’s when I started to wear glasses. It made me look very intellectual, I thought.
Me on a Tricycle Circa 1950
That’s me on a tricycle, sometime around 1950. We were living at 2814 East 120th Street off Buckeye Road in Cleveland. The whole place was filthy with Hungarians. There were so many, in fact, that I did not know the English language existed until two things happened: First, we got a television set late in 1949, and I started watching the Howdy Doody show at 5 pm every day, just after Kate Smith closed her show by singing “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” (It took me a while to understand what Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith were saying.)
Secondly, I started kindergarten at Harvey Rice School on East 116th Street in January of 1950. My parents thought that, living as we did in a Hungarian neighborhood, the public school teachers would speak Hungarian. Nothing doing! Mrs. Idell sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt that asked, “What language is this child speaking?” As if she didn’t know!
That last factor decided my Mom that we had to leave our little Hungarian womb on the East Side and move to the suburbs. Gone forever would be the Reverend Csutoros and the First Hungarian Reformed Church; the Regent and Moreland movie theaters; Kardos’s Butcher Shop with its delicious Hungarian sausages; the College Inn, where my Dad would take me for French Fries; and the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled and I kept score.
It was a cohesive little world, but my parents ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge when they decided to raise me as a Hungarian. You know what? I’m grateful that they did. I made my adjustment to English (and I’m still making it), but my heart belongs to the Magyar Puszta.