Leg lamps are back: Ralphie still has his eye on a new Christmas Story in aHannah Montana world
It’s a modern day classic. If you haven’t seenA Christmas Story, A) get cable, and B) why are you reading this? On Tuesday night, Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks hosted a ruckus screening of the 1983 holiday stalwart with a special appearance by Peter “Ralphie Parker” Billingsley, a rarity for the child actor-turned-director and producer.
The setting was surreal, with a Red Rider BB Gun signed by Billingsley auctioned off for nearly a grand by a large, bearded man in a bunny suit. The audience was game, hollering out lines (Oh Fudge!) and hooting catcalls at appropriate moments — Ralphie beating up Scut Farkus, the leg lamp, the Ovaltine commercial, the pink bunny suit, etc. (Think the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show without the fishnets and hyper-sexuality.)
It’s an easy film to watch in a large group. The story is universal with enough cynicism to transcend the saccharine trappings of the holiday genre, and it provides a fun peak into the unpolished realness of Jean Shepherd’s nostalgic Golden Age America.
In true Alamo Drafthouse fashion, the experience was enhanced by plenty of grub and suds. Highlights included the aptly named Farkus Eye Soup (an appropriately yellow-orange butternut squash slurry) and the Oh Fudge! mint chocolate mousse dessert. The beer pairings from Alamo’s beer guru Jason Murphy featured four mini pints, one of which was Saint Arnold’s Altered Amber, a revelation for those who prefer their beers Belgian.
Billingsley, whose brother Neil owns the Houston theater, appeared after the film to answer questions from an amorous sold-out crowd. He’s come a long way since schlepping Hershey’s Chocolate syrup in TV commercials as “Messy Marvin” back in the late ‘70s, but before the screening, Ralphie sat down with CultureMap for an exclusive interview:
CultureMap: You've had a remarkably long and successful career in show business — first as a child star and now as a director and producer — while avoiding the trappings that seem to hound so many of today's young stars (meth addiction, sexy Twitpics, etc.). What do you think it would be like if you were 9 years old and playing Ralphie in 2010?
Peter Billingsley: It is honestly a different business, because it is a business now post-Macauley Culkin. He was a game changer. There used to be kid salaries and adult salaries. Now there are just salaries.
Isn’t Hannah Montana the highest paid person on television?
CM:A Christmas Story was not a huge commercial success upon its initial release, but has since grown into a cultural signpost. What is it about A Christmas Story that resonates so well with audiences?
PB: I believe that good comedy is the over commitment to the absurd. I think this movie is the over commitment to the mundane and the contrite, but most importantly the relatable. Dad’s profanity; fighting the furnace for warmth. He’s fighting at Gettysburg.
Anything that’s important to you can mean the world. People said Seinfeld was about nothing. It’s a good lesson in movie making. If you give importance to something as a moviemaker, it will be important to the audience.
CM: What was the inspiration for the stage musical version of A Christmas Story that you're currently executive-producing in Seattle? Any chance we'll see it here in Houston?
PB: This movie lends itself very well as a musical. If you think about Ralphie’s point of view, he’s a dreamer, which lends itself well to songs.
There is a leg lamp kick-line in the musical. It can take you places where the movie had to stop because of the format. You can sing about something — wanting the BB gun for example — and it’s a thing of beauty. That would require so much context in a movie. It’s a fun show. It really is. It has the nostalgia of the film.
Will it show in Houston? I really hope so. We did it in Seattle and are planning to do it regionally. The numbers have been excellent, so I hope it goes national.
CM: A buddy of mine dumped his girlfriend because she didn't like A Christmas Story. His rationale was that she had no soul. Is he right?
PB: He’s a good man.
CM: Given the glut of remakes these days, are we in any danger of an A Christmas Story remake? If it were to happen, who would you like to see play The Old Man?
PB: They say in Hollywood you’re supposed to remake the bad movies, not the good ones. I hope we’re in no danger of seeing it, and I don’t think anyone could top the performance of Darren McGavin as The Old Man.
CM: You worked with frequent collaborator Jon Favreau as executive producer on Iron Man, a big-budget film based on a pre-existing intellectual property that was hugely successful by any measurement. You've also dipped your toes into rom-com territory with The Break Up and Couples Retreat, each boasting a cast of A-listers.
Given the movement toward big-budget spectacles, what would a 2010 version of A Christmas Story need to get the green light in today's Hollywood?
PB: I can’t imagine you could get the movie made. You’re pitching a movie about a kid who wants a gun for Christmas. Not a good Idea.
You’d have to call it A Holiday Story because “Christmas” is a dirty word nowadays. I’m glad we did it in ’83.
CM: So are we, Peter. So are we.