When A Christmas Story was first released in 1983, it was a sleeper that attracted only a small (but quite cultish) following. Over the past three decades, however, the film has steadily become a holiday staple on par with classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street. And as the film itself has grown in popularity, so has one of its most recognizable props: the leg lamp, that glowing gam otherwise known as “A Major Award.”
1.THE LEG LAMP WAS INSPIRED BY AN OLD-SCHOOL SOFT DRINK
Before A Christmas Story was a movie, it was a series of short stories that appeared in two different volumes by the late writer and radio personality Jean Shepherd. The books, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters, were fictionalized accounts of Shepherd’s childhood in Depression-era Indiana (though the movie was filmed mostly in Cleveland). Shepherd describes the leg lamp and his father’s obsession with it in a 1966 story titled “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.”
According to A Christmas Story House and Museum (yep, there’s an entire museum dedicated to the subject), Shepherd imagined the leg lamp after seeing an illuminated Nehi Soda advertisement, which featured two shapely disembodied legs up to the knee. Shepherd gave cloaked credit to Nehi by writing that the Old Man’s crossword contest was sponsored by an “orange pop” company whose name “was a play on words, involving the lady’s knee.”
When the lamp finally arrives in Shepherd’s essay, he writes, “From ankle to thigh the translucent flesh radiated a vibrant, sensual, luminous orange-yellow-pinkish nimbus of Pagan fire. 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…’”
2. BUT IT WAS IMMORTALIZED BY PRODUCTION DESIGNER REUBEN FREED
Uncertain of just what a leg lamp should look like, A Christmas Story’s production designer Reuben Freed created a quick sketch and showed it to Shepherd, who surprisingly approved it right away. “I immediately thought of something I had seen in my mother’s front room, which was sort of a gold-colored silk lampshade, pleated with fringe around it,” Freed told Cleveland magazine in 2009. “I thought of it immediately and never thought of anything else—just that classic, big ugly shape.”
3. THE “ORIGINAL” LEG LAMP NO LONGER EXISTS
Finding an original leg lamp is considered the ultimate feat for A Christmas Story aficionados, according to Caseen Gaines in A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic. But “the likelihood of finding one is about as great as locating Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle in the basement of the Alamo.” Freed produced three leg lamps for the movie, but none of them survived the production. All three were broken during filming.
4. THERE’S A SIMPLE EXPLANATION FOR “HIS END UP” (THOUGH NOT FOR THE OLD MAN’S MISPRONUNCIATION OF “FRAGILE”)
When the leg lamp arrives at Ralphie’s house in the movie, it’s in a crate labeled not only with the infamous “FRAGILE,” but also “HIS END UP.” Though the use of “his” in place of “this” might seem like a subtle joke, the crate was indeed originally labeled “THIS END UP,” but no one had bothered to measure the container before trying to wheel it through the door. Jim Moralevitz, an actor who played one of the leg-lamp delivery guys, told Cleveland’s News-Herald, “I had the pleasure of delivering the major award 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the crate was so wide that it wouldn’t fit through the door. So they called in the carpenters and they took four inches off.”
5. THE LEG LAMP IS BIG IN CLEVELAND
Because much of A Christmas Story was filmed in Cleveland, the city has embraced the movie as its own (possibly to the resentment of Shepherd’s native Indiana). As part of Cleveland’s annual Winterfest and to celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary this year, Terminal Tower in Cleveland’s Public Square was turned into a giant leg lamp, complete with a red garter.
The tower can be seen, sans leg-lamp accoutrements, in A Christmas Story’s first few opening shots, looming over Higbee’s department store, where Ralphie first spots the coveted Red Ryder BB gun.
6. AND ALSO IN…LONG ISLAND.
Eight years ago, the Reichert family, owners of the Northport Hardware Store in Northport, Long Island, got a goofy idea after attending the mayor’s Christmas-tree lighting ceremony. They rustled through the store’s generous stock of leg lamps, called over some of the guys from the bar next door, and ceremoniously lit one of the lamps in the store’s picture window. Then they all cheered.
Somehow the Reicherts’ lighting of the leg lamp caught on and it has become an annual Northport tradition. It’s even included in the mayor’s rounds after the Christmas-tree shebang, according to Northport Hardware Store co-owner Jim Reichert. “It’s really ended up building in popularity,” Reichert said. “We had between 800 and 900 people this year.”
The event has become much more sophisticated since its inception, with the high school dance team forming a kick line, a local child actor named Chris Gentry playing the part of Ralphie, and the town electrician dressing in the movie’s iconic pink bunny suit. “Everything goes pitch dark, and Ralphie throws the switch,” Reichert says with glee. “If it isn’t snowing, we put a snow machine on the roof.”
7. IT’S A HIT ON HALLOWEEN
The leg lamp has become so popular that one can now purchase ready-made Halloween costumes in its likeness. But Josh Sundquist, a paralympian, motivational speaker and author who lost his leg to cancer when he was nine years old, won Halloween last year when he decided to make his own leg lamp costume. He even shaved his leg for authenticity.
8. AND A STAR ON THE STAGE FROM NEW YORK TO L.A.
Ralphie (Matt Walker), Randy (Beth Kennedy), Lampy (Monica Schneider) and Old Man (Rick Batalla) in Troubadour Theater Company’s A Christmas Westside Story at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Chelsea Sutton.
Last year, A Christmas Story: The Musical opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Much like at the Northport Hardware spectacle on Long Island, the leg lamp was celebrated with a kick line—only the Broadway chorus kicked up not only their own legs but also fishnet-clad leg lamps.
The year before, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, CA, the Troubadour Theater Company performed “A Christmas Westside Story," a mashup of A Christmas Story and the epic tale of the Sharks and the Jets. What song did the leg lamp get to sing? None other than “I Feel Pretty.”
9. THE LEG LAMP HAS SUMMITED MT. EVEREST (IN A WAY)
According to a post-Christmas press release that highlighted Amazon’s seasonal sales last year, the online retail giant boasted: “If you stacked every Christmas Story Leg Lamp purchased by Amazon customers this holiday season, the height would reach the top of Mt. Everest.”
10. AND GIVEN RISE TO A HILARIOUS CATCHPHRASE
Fra-gee-lay. It must be Italian!