One of Philip Grecian's fondest memories as a dad was snuggling up with his three children and reading them a bedtime story from the latest edition of Playboy.
In the early 1980s, the American playwright was a big fan of Jean Shepherd's semi-autobiographical stories, which occasionally appeared in the men's magazine better known for its racy pictorials of undressed women. But to his kids, the arrival of the latest Playboy in the mail brought a chorus of "Is there a Jean Shepherd in this one?" An affirmative answer offered the exciting prospect of another episode in the adventures of Ralphie, Randy, Flick and Schwartz, best remembered as the focus of the film comedy A Christmas Story.
While the kids hung on every word he read, the Kansas-based Grecian had to pay special attention to making sure that the centrefold did not fall open inadvertently to reveal the Playmate of the Month, which would mean he'd have to start telling them, and his wife, a different story.
"I was very careful," he says, chuckling. "It never happened. And just so you know, I did read Playboy for the articles."
Those stories, which Shephard later collected in a book called In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, became the basis of A Christmas Story, which opened in movie theatres with little fanfare 30 years ago this week. Grecian and his family were sitting in the theatre as the film began, the credits read "based on a book by Jean Shepherd." His daughter Roxanne leaned in to her father and asked, "Our Jean Shepherd?"
It was, and the movie about a Ralphie, a nine-year-old boy in 1940s Indiana who's desperate to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun under the tree Christmas morning, became a Grecian family favourite.
Fast-forward to 1999: Grecian was anxious to pen a new stage version of the yuletide staple It's a Wonderful Life, but when his editor at Dramatic Publishing informed him that another writer had already done that, she inquired, "Have you ever heard of A Christmas Story?" Of course he had, and he was thrilled to try bringing it to the stage. He negotiated with Shepherd and media mogul Ted Turner, who held the movie rights, for eight months before agreeing to allow Turner to take three points off of his 10 per cent playwright's cut.
The play was published in September 2000, too late, it was thought, to get any theatres interested in productions for that Christmas. To everyone's surprise, more than 20 stage companies dumped their announced shows and substituted A Christmas Story in their place. Grecian's script has been the basis of about a 100 productions a year in North American. The latest begins Thursday at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which also presented Grecian's radio version of It's a Wonderful Life in 2009. (He says that if a theatre does one of his Christmas shows, they will often stage the other.)
A Christmas Story usually sells out -- parents are often helpless against having their pockets picked by arts groups offering nostalgic holiday fare -- and has been known to rescue several theatres from bankruptcy, he says.
"Both have become somewhat iconic among Christmas plays -- and there are not a lot of good Christmas plays, so when a good one is spotted people tend to pass it around from theatre to theatre," says Grecian.
Meanwhile, the movie was enjoying a second, wonderful life thanks to Turner's cable network TNT, which in 1997 began screening it for 24 straight hours on Christmas Eve and continued presenting it on the Turner sister station TBS in 2004. The marathons drew an average audience of near 50 million people and will continue again this holiday season.
"Suddenly, everybody knew the movie and that's what really popularized it," Grecian says. "Thank you, Ted Turner -- it was worth my three per cent."
Shepherd, who was a late-night radio host and storyteller/humorist with a cult following, died at the age of 78 in 1999 and never saw Grecian's script, although he had made only one stipulation -- the narrator had to be retained. It is Shepherd's wry voice narrating the $4-million film that earned $19 at the box office. Shepherd's demand posed a playwriting problem.
"One of the first rules of theatre is that you don't have a disembodied voice narrate, so I chose to have grown-up Ralph walk down the aisle of the theatre, talking about his childhood," says Grecian. "It has become a memory play."
The story often brings back memories of simpler times, when everyone sat down to listen to the radio, kids joined fan clubs with secret-message decoders and families went out together to buy a Christmas tree. Others respond to the humorous and bizarre scenes in which Flick gets his tongue stuck on a pole, the neighbour's dogs steal the Christmas turkey and dad wins a major award: a leg lamp.
"It taps into your childhood and mine and everybody's," says Grecian. "You recognize yourself in those stories. Whoever you may be, it's about you. Some of the things that happened in the play are not from Shep, but my childhood. Everybody has longed to get something special at Christmas."
Ben McIntyre-Ridd, who plays Ralphie in the RMTC production, says he never wanted anything as badly as his character, especially not a firearm.
"Guns are banned in my house, so it's kind of ironic," says the home-schooled 12-year-old, who has appeared in a couple of recent kids fringe shows, The Tempest and As You Like It.
That said, his favourite moment in A Christmas Story is a fantasy scene in which the gun-toting Ralph saves his family, who are hiding in fear under the kitchen table, by shooting Black Bart and his gang of desperados. The costume he most wants to wear is the pink bunny suit, a highlight for many of the film's fans.
Maybe it wasn't on his Christmas list, but McIntyre-Ridd sees landing the role of Ralph as the greatest present.