Handle With Care
Brian Jones' dream to turn a Tremont neighborhood home into a mecca for fans of "A Christmas Story" may be a fragile endeavor. But the San Diego resident is optimistic the new attraction - set to open Nov. 25 - will reap major rewards for both his comp
The dusty leg lamp looks out of place, standing amid the scattered lumber, new oak floor, plasterboard ceiling and light mustard walls.
|Photography by Jesse Kramer|
“It’s been here through the whole construction,” the home’s owner, Brian Jones, says as his gaze falls upon his prized amalgamation of department-store-mannequin leg, black fishnet stocking, pleather pump and fringed lampshade.
It’s unbreakable, he says.
He should know. He designed it.
We all know what happened to the iconic lamp when little Ralphie Parker’s father put it in the family’s front window in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story.” And on this August afternoon, it appears Jones’ plan to open the West 11th Street house to visitors Nov. 25 may be just as fragile — “fra-gee-lay,” as Ralphie’s Old Man would say.
Though the interior looks ready, the outside of the house hardly resembles the structure used in the film. Only a portion of the gray vinyl siding has been replaced with an old-fashioned wood counterpart. And the dilapidated shed Ralphie used for BB gun target practice is surrounded by a back yard so overgrown with weeds that the attraction’s director and curator Steve Siedlecki says he can’t even get to the structure to begin scraping and repainting it.
Across the street, in the duplex being converted into a museum and gift shop, Siedlecki shows off donations of 1940s-era household items generated by a slew of media reports: a GE refrigerator, desk, set of encyclopedias, four radios, a couple of sewing machines, rockers, boxes full of small appliances, kitchen implements and decorative knickknacks.
Still missing are must-haves such as a couch, chairs and floor lamps for the living room, twin beds for Ralphie and little brother Randy’s bedroom, and a claw-foot tub and pull-chain toilet for the bathroom. The museum, Siedlecki says matter-of-factly, doesn’t have the money to buy things from thrift stores, antique shops and salvage yards. And although Ian Petrella, the actor who played Randy, and local toy collector Don Hultzman have loaned costumes and toys (see “ ‘Christmas’ Memories,” page 131), acquiring items from the movie set has been tough, especially since most of the home’s interior scenes were filmed on a Toronto soundstage.
“How I’m actually going to do it,” Siedlecki admits, “I’m not sure yet.”
Though it’s not unusual for so much work to remain undone three months before a grand opening, what’s curious is how a 30-year-old resident of San Diego ends up starting a museum in Cleveland using only the profits from the Red Rider Leg Lamps company he started three years earlier.
And even though movie buffs routinely cruise by to catch a glimpse of the famous home, it’s fair to wonder whether the landmark will be able to generate the profits necessary to stay financially viable year after year.
For his part, Jones is as confident in its moneymaking potential as he is in his leg lamp’s durability.
“I’m like every entrepreneur,” he says. “I’m overly optimistic.”
Brian Jones’ career as leg-lamp manufacturer began with a failed vision test.
It dashed the U.S. Naval Academy graduate’s hopes of following his father’s flightpath and becoming a jet pilot. Instead, he found himself studying to become an intelligence officer. To cheer him up, his parents sent him a leg lamp — his own “major award” for successfully coping with such a huge disappointment.
“I asked where they bought it,” says Jones, still moved to laughter by the memory as he sits in an upstairs room of his soon-to-be museum. “Bought it? They don’t sell those things. We had to make it!” he recalls them saying. “Other people thought it was great, too,” his mother told him. “You could make a decent business selling these.”
He really didn’t think much of it at the time. Four years later, however, Jones remembered his mother’s words. Dissatisfied with his naval career and uninspired by job prospects outside the military, he began making leg lamps in his condominium and selling them on eBay while teaching warfare intelligence at the Fleet Intelligence Training Center in San Diego. A Navy buddy built him a Web site, and Jones used his Ford F150 pickup truck as collatoral to pay for the lamp parts. The aerospace-engineering major learned how to do the electrical wiring by reading a book and, during that first year, he sold 500 leg lamps for $100 to $140 each — enough, in his mind, to justify outsourcing his living-room assembly to China and make leg-lamp sales his full-time job when he left the Navy in September 2004.
Jones’ wife Beverly, a 32-year-old Navy navigator whom he’d married the previous year, wasn’t pleased by his sudden self-employment. But she was just beginning to accept it when he bought the “Christmas Story” house without consulting her. She was on a Navy ship near Hawaii in early December when the captain, intrigued by the leg lamp he received as a gag gift from his executive officer (an item Beverly supplied from her husband’s inventory), did some research on the Internet and discovered the house was for sale on eBay. He told Beverly, who in turn relayed the information to her husband via e-mail a few days later.
“Never did I think that he would buy it,” she says.
Jones immediately e-mailed the owner, who had started the bidding at $99,900 for a home his brother had paid $46,500 for in August 2000. Jones offered $150,000 — “all the money and more that I made with the business that year” — to stop the bidding. To a man accustomed to exorbitant California real-estate costs, the “Christmas Story” house seemed like a steal, especially if it eliminated the competition. Plus, the property could be used as a promotional tool to give him an advantage over his two leg lamp competitors and increase sales by several thousand lamps a year. “The next e-mail I got was ‘The house is mine!’ ” Beverly recalls.
She responded with her own one-liner: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Jones’ idea of buying the “Christmas Story” house and turning it into a tourist attraction wasn’t that off-the-wall. He points to the enduring popularity of the Dyersville, Iowa, farm where
Ray Kinsella carved a baseball diamond from a cornfield in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
Last year, fans from 60 countries and all 50 states passed through the gate, according to souvenir stand manager Betty Boeckenstedt. Although no admission is charged to check out the baseball field, which is open April to November, Boeckenstedt says souvenir proceeds alone warrant maintaining her brother’s farm as it appeared in the movie, even after paying seven to 10 part-time employees and forking over a percentage of sales on the site’s own line of “Field of Dreams” items to Universal Studios.
And like “Field of Dreams,” “A Christmas Story” has proven its staying power as a fan favorite. The 20th anniversary of the movie’s release produced a wave of merchandising not seen when the film originally hit theaters, everything from tree ornaments to lunch boxes and action figures to a board game. And Turner Broadcasting System’s annual 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathon, which debuted on cable network TNT in 1997 before moving to sister station TBS in 2004, continues to produce huge ratings, according to company spokeswoman Michelle Sisco.
So devoted is the movie’s following that its actors command up to $4,000 per personal appearance at private parties, movie screenings and sports shows. Scott Schwartz, who portrayed Flick, has been organizing group appearances from Washington, D.C., to Galena, Alaska, for the last three years. The 38-year-old Los Angeles County resident, who now operates a baseball-card-and-movie-collectibles store, says overall turnout is so good that he also considered buying the “Christmas Story” house and converting it into a museum when it appeared on eBay.
Yet Petrella notes that interest in his appearances is definitely seasonal, a trend he believes Jones will see at the house.
“Three months out of the year, I’m a big star,” says the 31-year-old Pasadena, Calif.-based animator and graphic designer. “Come January, it’s like, ‘Go back to what you were doing, man.’ ”
And interest in even the hottest property can dwindle. Sue Mease, manager of the Winterset, Iowa, farmhouse that Francesca Johnson called home in “The Bridges of Madison County,” says thousands of visitors paid $3 to $5 to tour the refurbished dwelling after it opened with the movie in June 1995. By the time it was irreparably damaged in a 2003 fire, however, the house’s viability as a May-through-October tourist destination had changed dramatically.
“The owners made money the first three years,” Mease recalls. “Then attendance started dwindling down to where the house was breaking even. The last year, year and a half, two years, it went from breaking even to just barely making it.”
In December 2004, Jones flew to Cleveland to see his new acquisition, “just to make sure I wasn’t buying a falling-down shack.” Over the next year, he added to his real-estate portfolio, which already included the San Diego condominium and a Virginia Beach, Va., rental property. He dropped another $82,000 on a second West 11th Street home so he’d have a place to stay while in town. The following month he snapped up a completely renovated duplex at 1103 Rowley Ave. for $129,000 to accommodate the artifact displays and gift shop, a move that allowed him to properly re-create a 1940s residence inside the “Christmas Story” house.
He didn’t want to spend the money, but figured if he didn’t get it then, there might not be another chance.
To run it all, he hired Siedlecki, a part-time Western Reserve Historical Society tour guide and Home Depot cashier, who e-mailed Jones his rÃƒƒÃ‚©sumÃƒƒÃ‚© after reading an article about his plans for the “Christmas Story” house. The two men exchanged a couple of e-mails and phone calls, and when Jones’ friend bailed out of his commitment to run the house, he called Siedlecki and hired his first full-time employee without meeting him.
“I didn’t even know what to ask him,” Jones admits. “I’d never really been to a job interview. But his rÃƒƒÃ‚©sumÃƒƒÃ‚© looked good.”
One of the novice businessman’s first major victories in converting the “Christmas Story” house and duplex into a museum complex was getting the blessing of Warner Bros., which now owns the rights to the movie, without paying any royalties or licensing fees.
“I’m just not big enough for them to spend their time on,” he says of his good fortune. (The only unlicensed merchandise the gift shop will sell is the leg lamp — a public-domain item popularized by, but not exclusive to, the movie.)
Another success involved the often-thorny issue of rezoning the properties, in this case from residential to local retail so the museum could operate a gift shop. According to Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman, Jones “conscripted an army of support” by attending monthly block-club meetings at the local Clark Bar whenever he was in town and addressing concerns with plain talk and sincerity. So great was the enthusiasm engendered for the “Christmas Story” house, says Tremont West Development Corp. director Colleen Gilson, that businesses participating in the neighborhood’s Holiday Art Hop displayed leg lamps during the December show as a sign of support.
“With zoning hearings, if the idea’s a good one, nobody shows up,” Cimperman says. “If it’s bad, the room is full. This one had people who came because they wanted to support [the change].”
Jones celebrated his first holiday season of ownership by opening the house to the public for free on weekends and staging his first fund-raising and promotional events. He hired four actors — Schwartz, Petrella, Zach Ward (Scut Farkus) and Tedde Moore (Miss Shields) — to appear at a fund-raiser at the Cleveland Play House and an autograph-signing session at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel on Thanksgiving weekend.
Priority admission to the meet-and-greet, along with tickets to a screening of “A Christmas Story” at Tower City Cinemas and transportation to and from the house on Lolly the Trolley, were included in an overnight hotel package that resulted from an e-mail Jones sent Renaissance director of sales and marketing John Zangas.
In some respects, the weekend confirmed Jones’ visions of success. He and Siedlecki estimate 1,300 people traveled to Tremont, some from as far away as California, to see the house as is, furnished only with a leg lamp and Christmas tree. The hotel sold enough packages to continue offering a modified version through December and again this year. Zangas even sold a couple dozen lamps to inquiring guests.
But Jones says he “took a bath” when he bought out the Play House’s Bolton Theatre for the opening-night performance of “A Christmas Story” and attempted to sell the tickets, which included an after-show dinner with the actors, on his Web site (www.achristmasstoryhouse.com) — a result, he says, of the Play House not following through on pledges of promotion and providing a link to his Web site. (Cleveland Play House director of marketing and communications Darcy Ballew says Jones had made his own media arrangements by the time she turned her attention to the task, and the Play House was unaware of any problems with the link.)
The “fund-loser,” as he calls it, wasn’t Jones’ only problem. Although he secured donations of everything from furniture to landscaping and paint, he wasn’t able to obtain bank financing for the project. Because the house is technically a residential structure, he was denied business loans. And because the house is a business, he was denied home loans. He expects to cover the mortgages and pay for the estimated $200,000 renovation project mostly from leg-lamp sales. “I don’t pay myself that much,” he says. “I mostly live off my wife’s salary. And I have a stack of credit cards about half an inch, three-quarters of an inch thick.”
Re-creating what moviegoers saw onscreen also proved to be a challenge. Although interior walls were removed to approximate the first-floor layout of the Parker home, duplicating the Toronto set’s U-shaped living/dining room — an area built without regard to the house’s size or floor plan — was impossible without moving an exterior wall.
“Sometimes,” Jones says, “You’ve just got to go with what you’ve got.”
That attitude perhaps best explains why Jones and Siedlecki are able to maintain a childlike enthusiasm for the project. Siedlecki stresses that his current goal is to create a reasonable facsimile of the Parker home, not a replica. “We want to get the house furnished as best we can,” he says. “Then we’ll start working on getting it exact.” Based on response to the house’s temporary opening last holiday season, Jones is certain such an attraction will gross the $75,000 to $100,000 in merchandise sales and $5 adult/$3 children admissions needed to break even each year.
“I’m not really worried about it, to be honest,” he says.
By mid-September, Jones’ belief in his project has to some extent been rewarded. He and Siedlecki have received calls from people with a claw-foot tub, a couple of couches, perhaps even a pair of twin beds to donate, a carpenter offering to make replicas of the kitchen table and chairs, a local seamstress promising to custom-make at least some of the curtains. The painter is putting a second coat of dark-green paint on the trim, and a landscaper is scheduled to begin work on the front and back yards the first week of October.
More importantly, it appears there will be no shortage of people to see the place, at least this holiday season — Jones reports that hard-core “Ralphies” have been booking flights to Cleveland and asking for event schedules since August.
And the leg lamp is still standing.
in the cle
12:00 AM EST
October 31, 2006