Silver Screening

Clevelanders share memories of a holiday classic.
It’s no surprise that kids and their parents often do a double-take when they see Patty LaFountaine Johnson at this time of year.
Sure, the Cleveland Heights resident is well-known around the city for the fitness classes she has taught in her hometown for more than 30 years. But back in 1983, Johnson answered a casting call for a role that would make her face synonymous with Christmas in Cleveland.

The movie: “A Christmas Story.” Her part: The head elf with a bad attitude –– the one who, when faced with a sea of kids at Higbee’s that included the lead character, 9-year-old Ralphie (played by Peter Billingsley), uttered the infamously ornery line, “Get moving kid! Quit dragging your feet!”

“I’m so proud to be part of that movie,” Johnson, 58, says. “Who knew back then it would have this impact? It was just very fortunate for me that all the pieces fell into place, and here we are 25 years later.”

On the advice of her agent, Johnson –– who was juggling a full-time job, along with caring for her two children and squeezing in acting roles at Cain Park and Playhouse-Square –– rearranged her schedule for the audition. But unbeknownst to her, director Bob Clark had a teen-ager in mind for the role –– a fact Johnson didn’t discover until she arrived to try out.

“When I found that out,” Johnson says, “ I went ballistic.” She didn’t mince words telling Clark how she felt about him wasting her time. That attitude –– which she describes as more than a little witchy –– won him over. He rewrote the part.

“If they had cast a teen-ager, it certainly wouldn’t have been the same,” Johnson says. “Having an adult play the part added an extra edge of creepy that just wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”

Johnson and fellow elf, Drew Hocevar of Broadview Heights, shot their scenes over a six-day period in January 1983. They reported for work at 6 p.m. when the store closed, and wrapped at 6 a.m., before heading to their day jobs.

“It was pretty intense,” Johnson says. “After awhile, it was no longer acting. It was just me. We were pulling all-nighters and it showed.”

Hocevar, 51, worked in the store’s special events department when he was chosen for the part. A designer who built scenery for Lyric Opera Cleveland, Hocevar –– now an intervention specialist for the  Westlake school district — enjoyed his time on the set, including the many hurry-up-and-waitmoments that were inevitable.

“I was overwhelmed and blown away,” he recalls. “It was a neat experience.”

And, Hocevar adds about his sardonic line, “Come on, kid,” which he delivered with a simpering smile, “the part is so unlike me that it was great fun to do.”

The two are grateful for the film’s many fans, and will participate in the movie’s 25th anniversary celebration November 28 and 29. The extravaganza features meet-and-greets with cast members, along with screenings of “A Christmas Story” and a documentary about the making of it. Many of the festivities will take place at the house in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood that served as the Parker family home.

“I totally understand why ‘A Christmas Story’ means so much to so many people,” Johnson says. “It’s a great reminder of a simpler time — when you could leave your children in a Santa line and not worry about their safety. But it’s also about reality –– the father going crazy about the furnace and the mishaps with the car.

“No matter if it’s now or 1939, this film is about how life really is for all of us.”

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