For kitsch connoisseurs, a movie icon

This Just In...

July 21, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

BY NOW, millions of us know the "leg lamp" from one of the best holiday films ever made, "A Christmas Story," based on a Jean Shepherd novel set in the Indiana of 1940-something. The leg lamp is as much an iicon of the American cinematic Christmas as Zuzu's petals.

We know, as well as we know George Bailey running through the streets of Bedford Falls, Ralphie Parker's old man screaming, "I won! I won!" as the neighbor's dogs (the Bumpuses' hounds) chase him through the snow. We know, as well as we know anything in the holiday film canon, Ralphie's old man (played by Darren McGavin) excitedly hoisting from a wooden crate his "major award" from a contest -- the magnificently hideous leg lamp, with its stripper curves, high heel and fishnet stocking, crowned with a tasseled, bordello-style shade. Ralphie's dad, drunk with victory, can't see how ugly the lamp is. For him, it's a "major award," to be displayed proudly in the front window as Christmas approaches. ("Damn hell," says a neighbor, gawking from the sidewalk, "you say you won it?")

"A Christmas Story" opened the week before Thanksgiving 1983 but was out of theaters by mid-December. Its popularity has grown, however, through home video and an annual marathon cable broadcast.

The leg lamp, which plays a role in the film's early story line, might have been a product of Jean Shepherd's imagination. But it's just tacky enough for connoisseurs of kitsch to believe such a thing once existed in somebody's knotty-pine club basement.

Turns out, you can buy a pretty good reproduction of one in Glen Burnie.

While the leg lamp in the window of The Neatest Little Shop on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard isn't for sale, the one inside is. For $195. (If I didn't have a basement waterproofing bill coming up, I'd have taken the plunge.)

Sherry Mercer, who's had the shop for a decade, has sold about 15 of them over the past seven years. The one in the window -- "the original" -- was a gift from Ray and Laura Burket, who used to sell antiques out of Mercer's shop. They knew how she adored "A Christmas Story."

Ray found a female mannequin, cut off a leg, wired it, slipped it into fishnets and a high heel, anchored it on a pedestal, topped it with a tasseled lamp shade. Then, following the "Christmas Story" script, he had it packed in a wooden crate marked "fragile." (In the movie, when the crate arrives at his door, Ralphie's dad says: "Frah-gee-lay. ... That must be Italian.") Burket had it delivered to Mercer and scored big laughs.

Every Christmas, she takes it home from The Neatest Little Shop and displays it in her front window.

She and her right-hand man, Chuck Bramble, sell a few each year. "As many as I can have made," Bramble says. "The problem is getting the [appropriate] mannequin leg. It's not as easy as you'd think."

"Some people buy them for retirement parties," Mercer says. "Some parents buy them for sons going off to college."

Everyone who buys a leg lamp from The Neatest Little Shop must be familiar with the movie, right?

"Yeah," says Mercer, "but some people walk in and buy one without ever knowing the movie. That worries me."

Movie news

John Waters reportedly has secured long-sought financing for his next film, "Cecil B. Demented," with Melanie Griffith rumored to be leading the cast. How Waters describes the plot: "A young moviemaker and his band of cultists kidnap a Hollywood A-list movie star and force her to be in their underground movie." Watch this space. ... The filmed-in-Maryland "Runaway Bride," the cinematic reunion of "Pretty Woman" stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, opens July 30. The Eastern Shore town of Berlin, where a lot of the film was shot, holds a big premiere party July 29. ... Barry Levinson's next film, "Liberty Heights," is due this fall.

Doing it for the team

Remember when some of the Orioles were groaning about having to play an exhibition game in Rochester against the Red Wings? Somehow I don't think we're going to hear groans over the next "mandatory" team event: a charity golf outing Monday at Hunt Valley Golf Club. Though it's not technically "mandatory," players and coaches have to have a good reason for not attending.

Her cue to exit

The legendary Julia Child might have visited a lot of fancy restaurants while she was in these parts over the weekend, but for Sunday breakfast she ordered the special at good ole Jimmy's in Fells Point: two eggs over easy, pancakes and bacon. After tipping waitress Vicky Oxendine, JC spotted a Channel 11 reporter by the front door -- assigned to get public reaction on the JFK Jr. disappearance -- and opted to depart through the kitchen, giving chef George Alatzas a smile.

Sign of humility

Howard County TJI reader, the Rev. Scott Schuler, got a smile from one of those Adopt-A-Road signs that acknowledge the anti-trash efforts of civic groups (not including, though they tried to get in on the act, the Ku Klux Klan). Schuler, a Methodist minister who knows virtue when he sees it, appreciated the humility in a sign that credits the cleanup of Route 144 to "10 boys and a trash bag." ... Spotted in Federal Hill: white sedan with a dashboard card reading, "Lt. Governor's Chief of Staff," parked at William and Warren, blocking a crosswalk, and -- here's the best part -- two tickets under the wipers. ... He's back: Hon Man has struck again on Baltimore-Washington Parkway. You go, boy! is the e-mail address for Dan Rodricks. Letters should be addressed to TJI at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. The TJI hot line is 410-332-6166.

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