Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

The Real “Christmas Story” House

   One of the delights of the holiday season is the annual rebroadcast of A Christmas Story. If you’ve somehow missed this movie, it is a tale set in a fictitious Midwestern city, in an unspecified year around 1940, centering on the everyday adventures of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker. The hook is Ralphie’s ongoing yearning for a particular Christmas present, namely an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

   Radio raconteur Jean Shepherd’s short stories are the inspiration for the movie. Before filming began in 1983, Shepherd scouted locations that reminded him of his boyhood in Hammond, and settled on a cottage in the Tremont section of Cleveland. In 2005 that house at 3159 West Eleventh Street was purchased by an enterprising entrepreneur who converted it into the Christmas Story House Museum. Across the street is a gift shop that sells such artifacts as bunny playsuits and electric-sex leg lamps.

   But if you are looking for a closer connection to the real events behind the story, you can join the fans who make a drive-by pilgrimage past Shepherd’s actual boyhood home. The frame bungalow is located at 2907 Cleveland Street, just off Kennedy Avenue in Hammond. 

The REAL “Christmas Story” House

   Jean Parker Shepherd Jr. was born on Chicago’s South Side in 1921—about ten years before Ralphie Parker—the son of a dairy clerk. Along with his younger brother Randall, he grew up in Hammond and attended Warren G. Harding Elementary School. Jean graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. During World War II he served stateside in the army.

   After the war Shepherd began his career as a radio broadcaster in Hammond. He moved up through several larger markets, finally landing in New York in 1955. All the while he was establishing himself as a storyteller, gentle yet biting. Before there was Garrison Keillor, there was Jean Shepherd.

   Shepherd also began writing short stories for magazines. The first collection of his tales, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, appeared in 1966. Many of the incidents in the movie are drawn from this book. At various times he hosted different idiosyncratic series on public TV, most memorably Jean Shepherd’s America. By 1980 he had a nationwide cult following.

   Yet it was the 1983 release of A Christmas Story that introduced Shepherd to the greater population. Though he continued to churn out stories and do the occasional radio or TV gig, the movie’s popularity fixed his reputation. When he died in 1999, the lede sentence of his obituaries usually referred to him as the “author and narrator of the beloved holiday film . . .”

Jean Shepherd’s cameo in “A Christmas Story”

   The Shepherd family lived in various places around Hammond during the 1930s. They moved into the house at 2907 Cleveland Street in 1935. The 1032-square foot bungalow dates from the early twentieth century. A carving in the attic contains the autographs “17 yrs. old. Jean Shepherd. 2/18/39” and “15 yrs. old. Randall Shepherd. 2/28/39.” 

   Unlike the museum in Cleveland, the Cleveland Street house in Hammond is a private residence, and does not welcome visitors. When the movie came out, the current occupants knew nothing about its pedigree. Then one day Randall Shepherd arrived in a limousine and asked to look around. The lady of the house turned him down because she “didn’t know him from Adam.” Not until years later did the residents discover the graffiti in the attic.

   The Shepherd boys’ alma mater, Warren G. Harding Elementary School, still educates young Hammondonians at 3211 165th Street, a few blocks east of their onetime home. Their cinema counterparts Ralphie and Randy had a much longer commute. The school used in the movie is in Saint Catherines, Ontario, over 200 miles from the Christmas Story House in Cleveland.

   Shepherd’s stories are set in the Indiana town of “Hohman,” an obvious reference to one of Hammond’s main streets. During his lifetime he did not foster a close relationship with his hometown. However, in more recent years, the City of Hammond has recognized its most famous son with the Jean Shepherd Community Center in Dowling Park, and an annual Jean Shepherd Holiday Kickoff Festival in November.

For this story and 59 more, buy a copy of my fifth book, HIDDEN CHICAGO LANDMARKS. Available at bookstores or on Amazon.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!