A present that puts others in the shade

Cult movie favorite `A Christmas Story' inspires extreme kitsch for holiday gifts

December 22, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

It's a wonderful leg.

On mild-mannered Cottonwood Drive in Severna Park, Raymond Murphy's "leg lamp" shows off its fishnet stocking and black stiletto heel in the front window of his home. Shaded by black fringe, the thigh is lit for almost all to admire.

"I can't tell you what my wife called me," Murphy says. But it was said in love - just not love for the leg lamp, which has become a highly personal gift for fans of A Christmas Story. The 1983 holiday cult classic again airs for 24 hours on TBS beginning at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Although It's a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas probably get more attention this time of year, A Christmas Story has cultivated its own following. Movie Web sites and message boards have sprung up. And the movie's centerpiece - its famous leg lamp - has become a cult fixture for fans. Leg lamps are sold on eBay and can be seen in select Maryland homes this season.

For the uninitiated, the story is about a 9-year-old boy named Ralphie who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder, carbine-action air rifle for Christmas. His mother, as mothers will, believes he will shoot his eye out with the BB gun. But his father surprises Ralphie on Christmas morning with a Red Ryder, practically a gift from the Magi.

Fans of the movie know another scene by heart: After winning a newspaper contest, the father - known as "the Old Man" - receives his "Major Award" that arrives in an enormous crate marked FRAGILE. The Old Man climbs into the crate, flings out the stuffing, searching for his Holy Grail. Buried inside ... a lascivious appendage normally not displayed on Cleveland streets in the 1940s. The family is speechless. "The old man's eyes boggled - overcome by art," the narrator says.

The Old Man is beside himself with joy; Mom is beside herself with embarrassment. He accuses her of being jealous of the lamp, which is broken in a mysterious house-cleaning incident. The Old Man, like the lamp, is broken.

But the leg lamp lives on - in body and spirit.

Raymond Murphy paid about $140 for a replica of the movie's leg lamp from an online store run by a Naval Academy graduate. After serving his country, Brian Jones pursued another calling.

"After I graduated in 1999, I failed the vision test to get into flight school. My mom sent me a leg lamp to cheer me up," says Jones, 31. "Now I sell leg lamps. Isn't that hilarious?"

His affair with A Christmas Story didn't stop with lamps. In 2004, Jones paid $150,000 on eBay for the Ohio home used as the movie's exterior set. He turned the home into the "Christmas Story House" - a museum and shop where the now-grown actors from the movie come for signings and where leg lamp merchandise is sold (the replica crates sold out last week). Most of his customers - about 15,000 across the country so far - buy leg lamps through his online shop.

"It's for the someone who is hard to buy for," says Jones, who has three lamps in his San Diego office.

In Arbutus, 19-year-old Lewis Lane has a miraculous surprise for his fiancee. Erin White watches much of the entire A Christmas Story marathon each year and recites movie lines with reckless joy. Her parents once bought her a BB gun, but the young woman didn't have a leg lamp. Lane saved up two paychecks this fall and dropped $400 on a leg lamp T-shirt, night light, string of leg lamp ornaments and, of course, one 45-inch, full-sized leg lamp.

"I already got her a ring, so I was running out of ideas," Lane says.

As for location, his fiancee can put the leg lamp anywhere she wants. "But if I didn't like the movie, it would be a different story."

Nancy Curley of Chestertown also has a leg up on gift shopping for her significant other. She and her husband, Matthew, often drive by a Victorian house in Centreville that features a leg lamp in the front window. Her husband always wants to stop to take a picture. He, too, is a marathon fan of the movie. So, this Christmas, she knew what to buy him.

She didn't opt for buying a replica of the special "FRAGILE" crate that was featured in the movie. At $140, the lamp was enough. Soon enough, their Eastern Shore town will have its own leg lamp.

"He can put in a front window. He can put it anywhere. It doesn't bother me. I think it's funny," she says.

In all its kitschiness, the leg lamp should be claimed by Baltimore (can't you just see the lamps lighting up Hampden?). Turns out, Christmas Story T-shirts sold through Jones' online store and at major retailers come from Thunder Creek, a Baltimore-based apparel company. Co-owner Jeff Schalik says the company sells about 300,000 T-shirts a year. Schalik watches the movie marathon, too.

A Christmas Story sprang from the memories of Jean Shepherd, a popular radio host at WOR in New York. He first wrote about his childhood in short stories that appeared in Playboy in the 1960s. The stories later became the basis for A Christmas Story, which Shepherd narrated and co-wrote with Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark of Porky's fame.

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