NEW YORK - On a recent airplane ride, actor Peter Billingsley - you know him as the blond and bespectacled fourth-grader Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" - was almost recognized. Almost.
"I had a flight attendant come up to me and say, 'Boy, you look so much like the kid from "A Christmas Story," but you can't be because that movie was shot in 1940,' " Billingsley said.
Actually it was filmed in 1983. But Billingsley, who chuckles remembering the encounter, didn't bother setting the record straight. "I just said, 'Oh, that's so sweet,' " he said.
"A Christmas Story," which the television network TBS still broadcasts on a 24-hour loop every Christmas eve, traces Ralphie's December-long quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. The cult classic captured the essence of 1950s main-street America so well that plenty of people mistakenly assume the movie was made back then, a coup for filmmakers constrained by a "very low budget," Billingsley said.
"A lot of people don't realize we had to do creative things to get the production value," he said. "We asked downtown Cleveland to keep their Christmas decorations up - we shot in January - so they did. But it was like Christmas morning every morning going to work, which was fun as a kid."
Three decades later, Billingsley is producing the musical adaptation of the story on Broadway. "A Christmas Story: The Musical" is showing through Dec. 30 at Manhattan's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Many have tried reviving "A Christmas
Story" before but Billingsley says he has had "zero" participation until now. (Instead, he's been busy writing, directing, producing and acting in various movies and television shows.) One 1994 sequel focused on Ralphie - played by another then-child star, Kieran Culkin - and his summer vacation misadventures. Another, which was released straight-to-DVD this year, depicts a different actor as teenaged Ralphie as he tries to get the car of his dreams.
"There have been a lot of bad ideas out there," Billingsley said. "I never wanted to participate in anything. But this [musical] was so inspiring, I just couldn't be more proud."
Reviews have been good. "You'd have to have a Grinch-size heart" not to warm up to the tale, New York Times theater reviewer Charles Isherwood wrote last month. But fans often get uneasy when a beloved story is rejiggered. Billingsley says you have to be especially careful to find the right balance between featuring parts of the story people love and want to revisit, and adding enough so that you're not just producing a weaker duplicate.
"There are certain things the audience wants to see, so there are certain iconic moments: The flag pole is there, the leg lamp becomes a leg-lamp kickline,"
Scott Schwartz (tongue stuck on poll) and Peter Billingsley in a memorable scene from the movie "A Christmas Story," made in 1983. (TNT Network)
he said. "There are also some moments that aren't in the film. You get to go deeper and really understand some of the characters, like the mother."
The adaptation works so well, he says, because there were already daydreamy sequences built into the original. A series of cutaway moments in the film made for a seamless way to add music and dancing numbers. But the underlying tone at the heart of the story - Ralphie's persistent earnestness, his mother's concerned refrain of "You'll shoot your eye out," the family's sweet dysfunction - remains the same.
The original film felt authentic largely because it was based on writer Jean Shepherd's own memories of growing up in the Midwest. Shepherd, who narrated the film, died in 1999. On Broadway, actor Dan Lauria takes his place. (You know Lauria as Jack Arnold, the dad from "The Wonder Years," another nostalgia-heavy favorite.)
"I was taught that no actor ever leaves the theater so this is like my 59th play," Lauria said. "Especially with all the computers and the iPads, all of the sudden things swing back to where when something's live it becomes very, very special."
Lauria says he has watched the film "at least every Christmas," and that the fictional family in "A Christmas Story" reminds him of his longtime TV family.
" 'The Wonder Years' was very much a real family, a realistic family," he said. " 'It's a Wonderful Life' has a very real family. And this has a very realistic family. That's why we return
to 'A Christmas Story' every Christmas."
Yet Lauria and Billingsley both agree that the movie isn't really about Christmas.
"It happens to be over the holidays, but so many of the moments - trying to cook a turkey, trying to deal with school, daring your friends to do something that they shouldn't be doing - it's just all those things and they become such heightened things when you're a kid," Billingsley said. "It's just so relatable."
At the end of the "A Christmas Story," Ralphie finally gets his wish: a Red Ryder BB gun complete with a compass and a sundial. Billingsley says he got to keep the toy gun after filming ended.
"You know," Billingsley said. "I still have it."
Merry Christmas ONTD !!! Feel free to use this poast to talk about ur gifts and things like that