Over Thanksgiving I was watching the film Four Christmases and noticed in the credits that the Executive Producer was Peter Billingsley. Billingsley recently became a principal in "Wild West Picture Show Productions". The production company, founded by Vince Vaughn, currently has a first look production deal with Universal Studios. Billingsley has been involved in many film projects with Vaughn and Jon Favreau over the past few years.
Billingsley appeared in some of the '70s most memorable television commercials. But his biggest boost professionally came from A Christmas Story (1983). He played author Jean Shepherd's youthful alter-ego "Ralphie", whose repeated requests for a genuine Red Ryder B-B gun rocketed the actor into instant stardom. Each request is met with the phrase, "You'll shoot your eye out." The film is the classic modern-day Christmas tale.
Jean Shepherd was one of America's best humorists. Jean "Parker" Shepherd was an American storyteller, radio and TV personality, writer and actor. He was born in 1921 and died in 1999. A Christmas Story is a thinly disguised version of a moment in his life.
I was in the sixth grade at Navy Base School in Lakewood when I got my Daisy BB gun. My collection of lead soldiers and every plastic model I had ever put together or would ever put together met their demise with an unending supply of BBs from Lakewood Hardware, which was directly across the street from my parents' motel at Ponders Corner.
Did I ever shoot my eye out? No, but one afternoon I was playing along Clover Creek a few yards from I-5. I was in a mock sea battle with the CSS Virginia (AKA USS Merrimac). I was down to the hull, which was still floating. My BB hit the inside curve of the pale blue plastic hull and in slow-motion I saw the BB ricochet and begin its return trajectory to my right eye, which I closed just before impact. No damage. None of this information ever reached my parents, however.
A Christmas Story is iconic. Forget about White Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life. My kids know quotes from this movie by heart. I never plan on watching the film, but if I'm channel surfing and I come across it . . . I'll watch it again, and again. A Christmas Story is the November/December 2015 holiday production at Tacoma Little Theatre. It runs through December 20th.
In the movie the action is moved along and commented on via voice/over. In the stage production we have grown up Ralph Parker (played nicely by Blake R. York) reminiscing about his childhood adventures one Christmas in Hohman, Indiana (Hohman Avenue in Hammond, Indiana) at the southern end of Lake Michigan. The story involves himself (Ralphie), his younger brother (Randy), his mom, and his "old man". Ralph takes an active part in the action as he walks in, through, and around his memories. York's easy delivery lets you enjoy the story . . . and Jean Shepherd is an excellent story teller.
It was great to see lots of kids in the audience as well as in the cast. TLT has a great training program for children. From the cast notes, besides seeing who is related to whom, it also reveals that the actors come distances in southern part of Pierce County, which means dedication not only from the students, but the parents as well. Sports activities, band, orchestra, choir, and play practices take time and energy and lots of mileage.
The kids all did a great job, but I just wish they would slow down a little bit when they speak. Sometimes there was a strange comparison of delivery between laconic and Evelyn Wood.
All of my favorite moments were there in the play: Flick being triple dogged dared to stick his tongue on the metal pole, getting beat up by Scut Farkus, beating up Scut Farkus, Randy eating oatmeal with little piggy snorts, Ralphie being shoved down the slide by Santa's foot, the kid's teacher first as someone in love with Ralphie's theme presentation of why he wanted the Red Ryder air rifle and then as the green Wicked Witch of the West with her flying monkey, winning a "major prize," buying the family Christmas tree, and of course Ralphie losing the lug nuts as the old man was being timed for changing the flat tire, which resulted in Ralphie uttering the "F" word and being punished by having his mouth washed out with .
I liked the sharing that he had heard the "F" word from his father about ten times a day all his life, but he couldn't say that. Instead, he named his best friend Swartz as the source of his knowledge. Isn't that what best friends are for? If you're going to get in trouble, why not share it?
Blake R. York, who wore many hats besides playing grown up Ralph was the set designer and master carpenter.
The set was wonderfully laid out. Using a lazy-susan design, a section of the stage turned for individual scenes offering the interior shot of a classroom, the interior living room of the Parker home with cut away upstairs bedroom, stairs, kitchen, and doorway down to the basement, and finally an external shot of the house showing the living room window featuring the net-stockinged leg of lamp major prize.
The lamp is a major source of humor. From the moment it is delivered in a man-sized crate marked "FRAGILE," which the Old Man pronounces "Fra-gee-lee" as if it were imported from Italy, to the catastrophic accident one evening that renders the leg broken in numerous places (living room and garage). During intermission "The Fragile" featuring vodka, vermouth, and peppermint schnapps was a drink special along with Red Ryder Cider.
The best laid plans of bunnies and men sometimes go astray. As each stratagem appeared to fail, Ralphie continued with a constant mailing campaign of BB gun flyers with hand drawn stamps and never gave up hope even though he had to turn to "in-house marketing." Finally, broken with the one Christmas Eve gift, "Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl," he was thrown for a loss with pink bunny jammies. This one scene endeared the audience to Ralphie's and Ralph's plight and nearly brought down the house with laughter. Well, deserved laugher.
There were two arcade scenes where Ralphie (Liam Loughridge) showed off his marksmanship skills. Loughridge did an excellent job portraying exasperation and disapointent followed by pure joy . . . and then fear. It reminded me of my friends out golfing.
The Old Man, played by Andrew Fry, last seen in the Fox On the Fairway, did a really good job. When he was in the basement or out on the driveway, I would have loved hearing his made-up swear words more clearly. Mother, played by Heidi Walworth-Horn was warm, sweet tempered, and protective of her brood. Isn't that how we all want our mothers to be?
Director Jen York, did an excellent job working with both adults and children. She delivered a play that will bring back ticket buyers and actors for more.
p.s. Yes, I own a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. A present from my son, Del.