When children wake up on Christmas morning and race downstairs, they can expect to see three things: the cookies eaten, the presents nestled under the tree, and TBS playing “A Christmas Story” on repeat.
With lines recited as frequently as “Silent Night” during the holidays, the 1983 movie has become a permanent piece of Christmas nostalgia because of the creative genius of the film director, Bob Clark. Just like when the young protagonist Ralphie, portrayed by Pete Billingsley, looks on in wonder as he opens the package to his coveted “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle,” Hillsdale students, too, can feel that same sense of pride and ownership when watching the annual reruns on Christmas morning. That’s because Bob Clark is one of our own, a former student at Hillsdale College.
Before he was directing child actors to stick their tongues to frozen flagpoles, Clark was briefly a student at Hillsdale from 1960-1963. While he would later attend the University of Miami, Hillsdale College can be credited for many key moments in his life but most notably his ability to command an audience. Clark got his start in drama as a student actor in Hillsdale’s Tower Player productions.
Clark was a southern boy. He was born in New Orleans; spent some years in Birmingham, Alabama; and was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In an interview with a Canadian film website in 2005, Clark said because his father died when he was very young and his mother was a barmaid, he grew up pretty poor. He mustered up enough money to start his education at Catawba College where he began studying philosophy, but he soon left, when he earned a scholarship to play quarterback for Hillsdale’s football team.
In a 1960 issue of The Collegian, Clark is recognized as one of the top prospects to play starting quarterback among several team veterans.
“Newcomer Bob Clark, of Fort Lauderdale … will be a principled candidate for the quarterback spot,” the article said.
Hillsdale’s archives don’t show much of Clark’s football career, but The Collegian highlighted a game in November 1961 when Clark scored a touchdown in a 24-7 win against Heidelberg College.
“With 9:46 left, the blue and white struck again on a 14-yard run around the right end by Bob Clark,” the article said. “Clay Roth kicked his 11th straight point after touchdown, and the Dales held their commanding 24-0 lead.”
In a 2006 interview with a cult-horror movie website, Clark said after he left Hillsdale and transferred to the University of Miami, he went on to play semiprofessional football for the Fort Lauderdale Black Knights.
But Clark was known for more than just his athletic prowess. Clark brought one of his hobbies from the sunshine state to the Hillsdale’s snowy campus, and it garnered a lot of attention.
According to a Collegian article published in February 1963, Clark and Doug Lockhart, a fellow classmate and Fort Lauderdale native, taught a one-credit Scuba Diving class to fellow students. Students could train with the two “professional scuba-divers from the Florida coast” for just $25. Clark noted that there were quite a few women in the class, many of them his top students.
“Even though they are usually somewhat scared at first, they lose their fears and become increasingly sure of themselves,” Clark said at the time.
Amid scoring touchdowns and teaching his fellow students in scuba class, Clark’s classmates also applauded another one of his talents: acting.
A survey of Hillsdale’s archives shows that Clark acted in numerous Tower Players productions. He stared as the main consul in “Between Two Thieves” — a play showing the retrial of Jesus Christ — and was also cast in Hillsdale’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess.” But his most notable role was as disgruntled husband Joe McDougal in “Holiday For Lovers,” a 1957 play that shortly after became a Hollywood movie.
According to a review of the play published in The Collegian in May 1962, Clark was the best actor in the whole performance.
“Especially commendable was the fine job of character acting by Bob Clark,” The Collegian said. “Clark remains in full command of his audience with cutting remarks and bitter gestures all of which are directed at his annoying wife.”
Twenty years later, Clark had a series of successful horror and comedy films that he made in Canada under his belt, including “Porky’s,” an irreverent teen comedy that was once one of the top 25 grossing films of all time, according to Variety magazine. With some credit to his name, Clark approached MGM to ask for money to create “A Christmas Story” with author Jean Shepherd, whose stories depicting his boyhood in Indiana was the inspiration for the film.
According to a 2013 book on the making of the film by Caseen Gaines, Clark was given $4.4 million to produce “A Christmas Story.” Clark was apparently so excited to make the film
that he even gave up his own director’s salary for the production and contributed $150,000 of his own.
Clark wanted every aspect of “A Christmas Story” to be perfect right down to the last detail, according to a recent Vanity Fair article. After searching through dozens of cities, Clark found the house for the movie in Cleveland, Ohio. Although there was no shortage of snow when they were shooting, Clark had additional truckloads of snow on standby to be shipped in from nearby ski resorts. In warmer weather, he drizzled potato flakes and vinyl shavings in front of the camera.
Clark said he wanted authenticity. In the dream sequence where a young Ralphie is seen defending his family and shooting dozens of rounds at Black Bart’s evil minions, he spits out a thick stream of tobacco. That was real. Clark had the prop assistant give him a bag of Red Man.
“We shut down for an hour or so,” Billingsley said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “I just had to lie down on the couch. This was long before they knew what to do with kid actors.”
Clark didn’t stop there. When Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) receives the crate labeled “fragile” (said with an elongated Italian accent) holding a lamp in the shape of a leg, his surprise is authentic. It was the first time the actors saw the ridiculous prop.
“Clark didn’t let any of the boys see the lamp until the camera was rolling and it was lifted from the “So Ralphie’s rapture as his hand glides up the lamp’s prosthetic fishnet leg—that reaction was totally real,” an article in Vanity Fair said. “The other members of the cast not in the scene were no less impressed.”
Among such quirks in the film include a cameo of Clark moments after Ralphie’s dad sets up the lamp in the window.
As Ralphie’s dad runs outside to see how it looks, a pesky neighbor walks up and asks “Hey Mark, what’s that?”
“Not now Swede, can’t you see I’m busy?” Ralphie’s dad responds. The neighbor is Clark, dressed in a blue jacket, gray scarf, and orange cap.
When Clark’s production wrapped up and it was ready to hit theaters, many were skeptical of its success.
“My guess is either nobody will go to see it,” the famous movie critic Roger Ebert said. “Or millions of people will go to see it.”
It earned a little more than $2 million its opening weekend. Not a blockbuster. The rights were sold off to Time Warner in 1986. People began watching it on VHS and telling their friends, and it became somewhat of a cult Christmas classic.
In 1997, after a lot of popularity outside of theaters, Time Warner started its annual tradition of playing it on repeat throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In 2004, it moved to TBS.
Several years later in 2007, AOL named “A Christmas Story” the No. 1 Christmas movie of all time. Tragically that same year, on April 4, a drunk driver killed Clark and his 22-year-old son in a head-on crash in Palisades, Los Angeles. He was 67.
Although Clark is now gone, his legacy lives on for 24 hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, and the film that is now forever associated with the holidays is now forever associated with Hillsdale.