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An Enduring (and Kitschy) Gift From ‘A Christmas Story’

How the leg lamp became Cleveland’s unofficial mascot

Matthew Hollister
Matthew Hollister

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Anyone who has seen A Christmas Story knows the scene: The Old Man receives a delivery — a so-called “Major Award” for winning a crossword contest — and it is deposited in the Parker family living room. “Frah-gee-lay,” he says, mispronouncing the word “FRAGILE” that has been stamped on the oversize crate. “That must be Italian.”

You know what’s inside the box: a gloriously gaudy lamp whose base is a woman’s shapely, fishnet-clad leg. The kind of leg you might see swaying late at night on a dark corner in North Hollywood. And it is for that reason that Mrs. Parker is horrified when her husband chooses to display it in the living room window facing the street, for all to see.

That scene was filmed 33 years ago on a quiet block in Tremont, an old working-class neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, that has since been remade into a hip enclave filled with trendy restaurants and monthly art walks. Though the movie is a cult classic, it has unique meaning in Cleveland as a beloved record of the American Midwest’s modest idiosyncrasies. So much so that residents hold a special reverence for the very leg lamp Mrs. Parker despised. What was once just a clever movie prop has been gloriously reborn as Cleveland’s unofficial and delightfully ornate mascot.

The leg lamp’s most obvious advantage over Ohio’s generally boorish, and sometimes racist, mascots is that it is simply fun. It’s fun for Clevelanders to decorate the front windows of their American Foursquare homes with a vaguely taboo hat-tip to their city’s history. (Drive around Tremont and you will spot at least four or five. I am told the numbers multiply during the holidays.) It is fun for hundreds of people to dress in Aunt Clara–inspired pink bunny suits and compete for leg lamp–shaped medals in the city’s annual Christmas Story 5K/10K run. It is fun for First Federal Lakewood, a local bank, to automatically enter new clients into a raffle to win their very own leg lamp replicas. It is fun to shine a giant red-and-green light projection of the prop on the Terminal Tower during the city’s annual Winterfest. It is fun to make swag featuring Browns- and Cavaliers-themed versions of the leg lamp, as the local apparel vendor We Bleed Ohio does. (They are by far the business’s most popular designs.) It is fun for Destination Cleveland, the city’s visitors bureau, to include leg lamp night-lights in the welcome packets that it distributed to the hundreds of journalists who are visiting the city for the Republican National Convention.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

“There’s kind of just a great connection to it that Clevelanders feel,” Emily Lauer, the senior director of PR/communications for Destination Cleveland, told me. “A little bit of fun, a little bit of kitsch, and just a little bit of scratch-your-head.”

Vince Grzegorek, editor-in-chief of local alt-weekly newspaper the Cleveland Scene, sees the leg lamp’s appeal as a mix of sentimentality and pride for the underdog. Grzegorek’s dad grew up in Cleveland and visited Higbee’s department store during the holidays just like the movie’s main character, Ralphie. For many longtime Clevelanders, he says, rewatching the movie during the holidays is a way to reminisce about a different time in the city’s past.

“Anyone who was a kid during that time, it’s very representative of how life actually was,” he said. “But also, it’s something quirky that’s ours. The movie was a complete underdog story from its origin to where it is now as this cult favorite. It screams Cleveland to anyone who lives here.”

The very first iteration of the leg lamp came from the imagination of author Jean Shepherd, who first described the appliance in a 1966 short story titled “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Shepherd’s description was inspired by ads run by Nehi (pronounced “knee-high”) Soda that he remembered from his childhood. “From ankle to thigh the translucent flesh radiated a vibrant, sensual, luminous orange-yellow-pinkish nimbus of Pagan fire,” he wrote. “All it needed was tom-toms and maybe a gong or two. And a tenor singing in a high, quavery, earnest voice: ‘A pretty girl / Is like a melody …’” Those few sentences — and a memory of a “big, ugly” lamp his mother used to own — were all that A Christmas Story production designer Reuben Freed needed to draw a couple of quick sketches of the prop, which Shepherd immediately approved. Freed made three leg lamps for the movie, but none of them survived.

Decades later, the appliance’s near-omnipresence in Cleveland would’ve never been possible if it weren’t for the first pioneering leg lamp manufacturer, Brian Jones. Leg lamps, believe it or not, were not his original calling. Jones dreamed of becoming a jet pilot for most of his life. But after graduating from the United States Naval Academy, he promptly failed his vision test. As a result, his life goal was unceremoniously cancelled, and he was reassigned to a new position in San Diego. Jones was obviously disappointed, and his parents wanted to comfort him. So, they did what any supportive family members would do: They gave him ... a leg lamp.

“I asked where they got it, and they said they couldn’t find one, nobody made them, so they had to make one themselves,” Jones said. “Then my mom kind of offhandedly said, ‘You know, that would be a decent business.’”

The idea stuck with Jones for the next four years as he finished up his time with the Navy. The moment he got out, he set to work attempting to make his own leg lamps. He drove to L.A. on supply hunts, securing a deal with a lighting manufacturer to provide the same bell-shaped gold silk, pleated, fringed lampshades from the movie. Jones also discovered a store that “basically sold hooker shoes” for the base of the lamp. And he picked up some loose plastic legs in the industrial district.

Once he collected all the supplies, he set up an assembly line of the different parts on the floor of his 1,000-square-foot condo, and began furiously gluing the parts together. He made 500 on his own that first year, and sold them for a healthy profit on eBay. Eventually the demand for the lamps grew so large that he couldn’t keep up. So he formed the Red Rider production company, and like many a successful American business, outsourced the task to a manufacturer in China.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

A version of this story is told during tours of 3159 West 11th Street — the actual Tremont home that A Christmas Story was filmed in — which Jones bought in 2004 and turned into a museum. When I recently visited the landmark, a young, red-headed tour guide named Eric was sure to tell me and a group of adorable families that Jones overpaid for the place: The starting bid was $99,900 on eBay, and, in an effort not to be outbid, Jones offered the owners $150,000 (what he described to me as “leg lamp money”) to take it off the site. “They immediately accepted his offer, took their money, and ran the other way,” Eric told us in the original living room, as a few toddlers circled a Christmas tree. “Brian comes to Ohio to check on his purchase, and what he discovers is a house that is about one month away from being condemned. The floors are buckled because the previous tenants had been using the inside of the house as a motorcycle repair shop.”

Jones spent the next two years, and about another $250,000, restoring the house, based mostly on his thorough frame-by-frame analysis of the movie. The result is a small, interactive space, where tourists hide under the sink, don a pink bunny outfit, explore the backyard where Ralphie shot his eye out, and pretend to look under the skirt of the (fully intact) leg lamp in the exact same location that made Mrs. Parker cringe.

Across the street is the Christmas Story gift shop, another home that Jones bought and renovated, that is stocked with every piece of movie merch imaginable. Red Ryder–brand BB guns line a wall next to Pepto-Bismol-colored bunny suits, representing the full spectrum of Ralphie’s wish list from most to least desirable. As for Ralphie’s prized decoder ring? There’s a plastic bin of them. The Ovaltine it was sponsored by? Hope you like chocolate. The obvious star of the shop, though, is and always has been the leg lamp. Jones estimates that he sells anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 of them a year, to people who visit the shop and online to Christmas Story fans in Europe, South Africa, and Russia. In the shop, there are $200 50-inch replicas, night-lights, mugs, glasses, Christmas lights, necklaces that resemble Christmas lights, temporary tattoos, bottle openers, ice cube trays, ornaments, stockings — all cut in the sensual silhouette of the iconic stripper’s leg. In the great American tradition of questionable landmarks, I even paid 50 cents to imprint the appendage onto a penny.

The day I visited, one man on my tour with his family who had earlier declared it to be “the best day of my life,” approached a wall of the leg lamp night-lights, all packaged in cardboard boxes that read “FRAGILE.” “We’re getting one of those,” he said grabbing a box. “I want one too,” his daughter replied. Her mother made eye contact with her husband and said nothing. As I left, I imagined her harboring the same disgust for the object as Mrs. Parker had, racking her brain for the most discreet outlet where she would reluctantly plug in her family’s new possession. Clevelanders may have claimed the leg lamp as their freak flag, but not everyone can stomach such a heavy dose of Midwestern camp.