A CHRISTMAS STORY: The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976)

I saw someone whining that the new A Christmas Story Christmas recast the mother and was a sequel to a movie that didn’t need a sequel. Little did they know that it was the ninth — if you count the A Christmas Story Live! TV movie — story of the Parker family, a series of films that began seven years before its best-remembered installment.

All of these stories are based on the writing of Jean Shepherd, who often told stories of his childhood in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (he grew up in Hammond) on the radio. After publishing those stories in Playboy, but he never intended to be a writer.

Hugh Hefner claimed that The Giving Tree author Shel Silverstein asked Shepherd to write down his radio stories, but he never saw himself being a writer. So Silverstein recorded the shows off the radio, transcribed them and worked with Shepherd to turn them into written works.

His first book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, contains many of the stories of the Parker family, stories that despite having the names of real people and real places, are all from Shepherd’s imagination. These memories come in the form of Ralph, who has returned to his home town as an adult, telling these stories to his friend, Flick, who now runs the bar where their fathers used to drink.

Four of the stories in the book — “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or The Asp Strikes Again,” “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art” and “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil,” as well as “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds” from Shepherd’s second book Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories make up A Christmas Story.

But before that, on December 23, 1976, The Phantom of the Open Hearth aired as an episode of PBS’s anthological television series Visions. It features Shepherd as the adult Ralphie and David Elliot as the teen version in a story of Ralphie trying to decide between taking Daphne Bigelow (Tobi Pilavin) or Wanda Hickey (Roberta Wallach) to the school dance, all while his father (James Broderick) anticipates winning a major award that this film explains is a leg lamp because the contest was sponsored by Ne-Hi Soda and that was their logo. While all thatis going on, Randy (Adam Goodman) annoys Ralphie and mom (Barbara Bolton) is obsessed with getting free fine china from the movie theater.

Directed by Fred Barzyk (Jean Shepherd’s AmericaThe Lathe of Heaven) and David Loxton (Countdown to Looking Glass) from a script by Shepherd, this led to another PBS movie, The Great American Fourth Of July and was almost a TV series in 1978. The pilot was directed by John Rich and written by Shepherd and was also called The Phantom of the Open Hearth. That’s where the line “Oh, fudge (but I didn’t say fudge)!” comes from.

Its a little jarring to see the adult adventures of Ralphie while still interesting to get a different perspective.

You can watch this on YouTube.

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