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In “A Christmas Story,” Darren McGavin — who plays Old Man Parker, Ralphie’s father — stands with director Bob Clark, who makes a cameo as the Parkers’ neighbor. | YouTube

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.”

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An uniden­tified athlete believed to be Bob Clark. | Col­legian Archives

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.

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Bob Clark (far right) acts in the 1963 Tower Players pro­duction “Holiday for Lovers.” | Col­legian Archives

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.

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Bob Clark, the director of the holiday classic ‘A christmas Story,’ was a student at Hillsdale College from 1960 to 1963. | IMDB

“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.

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Thomas Novelly
Collegian Editor-in-Chief, Thomas Novelly was born in Novi, Michigan, but was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, making him a self-proclaimed "Yankee gone South." Thomas began writing for The Collegian as a sophomore, and since has served as a reporter, columnist, and Assistant City News Editor. He has also worked for two major publications, interning at the Washington Free Beacon in D.C. and The Tennessean in Nashville. His work has been seen in National publications such as CBS News, National Review Online, Stars And Stripes, and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
  • Susan Bruch

    Great article about a movie I have to watch every year. However the house was found in Cleveland, Ohio; not Columbus, Ohio. http://www.achristmasstoryhouse.com

  • BradinAZ

    There have always been rumors that Porkies was inspired by his Hillsdale expe­ri­ences as well.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    great article