TERRE HAUTE —
Most of us see a bit of ourselves in “A Christmas Story.”
Mike Kukral does so, literally.
The 1983 movie grew into a holiday classic because so many of its poignant, awkward and hilarious moments seem to have been pulled straight from our childhood memories. Yearning for a Christmas present that could maim us (a Red Ryder BB gun). Finding a gift under the tree that could traumatize us (a full-size pink bunny suit). Duking it out with the school-yard bully. Getting your mouth washed out with soap. Or, heaven forbid, having your tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole.
When Kukral watches “A Christmas Story,” he remembers standing beside Darren McGavin in the wee hours of the morning on a Cleveland street, staring at a leg lamp.
“I’m in the greatest scene in the movie,” Kukral said, with a chuckle.Yes, this 51-year-old college geography professor from Terre Haute actually appeared in the iconic film set in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Technically, Kukral served as an “extra.” But in terms of being blessed with the best holiday dinner stories for life, Kukral’s small cinematic role was “extra cool.”
Though his part is brief, it won’t be hard to spot Kukral. You’ll have plenty of chances. “A Christmas Story” is so popular, the TBS network airs it in a perpetual loop every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. His big moment occurs in the opening moments of the saga of Ralphie Parker, a 9-year-old boy in fictional Hohman, Ind., who tries to persuade his mom, dad (identified as “The Old Man”), teacher and Santa Claus that a Red Ryder BB gun constitutes the ideal Christmas gift.
In the film’s early moments, Ralphie’s excitable father (McGavin) sits, reading the newspaper, and remarks, “A guy down in Terre Haute won a bowling alley.” (It’s the first of two Terre Haute references.) Soon, there’s a knock at the door, and a delivery man hauls in a huge, wooden crate, marked “FRAGILE.” (Ralphie’s dad reads it, pronouncing it, “fra-gee-lay. Must be Italian.”) The box contains Mr. Parker’s dream gift — a lamp shaped like a shapely, fishnet-stocking-covered female leg.
“It’s indescribably beautiful,” the dad declares, hurriedly plugging it into an already over-filled electrical outlet. Then, he races out the door and into the darkened street to view it as would a neighbor. A crowd of passers-by gather around Mr. Parker. One, a young guy in an overcoat and a driving cap, keeps trying to peer over the others to see what all the fuss is about. That man is Kukral.
The directors shot and re-shot that scene 30 different times, Kukral recalled this week. Only two of those takes included Kukral. “And that’s the one they used, so I was really happy.”
Kukral, now a veteran member of the Rose-Hulman faculty, was a 22-year-old senior at Ohio University the winter of 1982, back home with his family in a Cleveland suburb during winter break. He’d answered a want-ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, seeking extras for an upcoming movie. “I had nothing better to do, and I thought I’d call this [phone] number and see if it’s on the level,” he said.
The offer was indeed legit. The cast — starring McGavin, Melinda Dillon as Mrs. Parker, and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie — came to Cleveland and filmed the exterior scenes in the Tremont neighborhood. (The indoor scenes were shot in Toronto.) Once the extras were assembled, the directors asked how many would be able to stay for the next 30 days. Many left. Kukral hung in there.
His endurance paid off.
Well, not monetarily. He received minimum wage as an extra, around $3.35 an hour. Extras were paid in cash at the end of each day, “and we thought that was kind of goofy, too — shady, kind of,” Kukral quipped. But he earned an additional $125 a day when he drove his family’s 1937 Chrysler in various scenes to make the traffic look authentic. Kukral drives past in the infamous flat-tire segment, when Ralphie lets slip a profanity, dooming the kid to a mouthful of Lifebuoy soap as punishment.
Movie making, Kukral learned, consists of long hours of just standing around. Locals working as extras knew little about the plot, and frequently wondered how the final product could possibly be good. Surreal moments abounded. Like many others, the parade scene was shot at 4 a.m. while most of Cleveland slept.
“It seemed like things were done really cheaply,” he said. “A lot of us extras were standing around, talking, saying, ‘Are they really going to shoot it like that?’ And, ‘Wow, this is low-budget.’ And then it turned out so beautifully.”
His first glimpse of the results came in a theater in Chicago the following year, when visiting his sister. Sitting alongside his parents, sister and brother-in-law, Kukral watched himself walk up behind McGavin in the hysterical “leg lamp” scene. “I just laughed really, really loud when I saw myself,” he remembered.
“You get goosebumps, and it’s just really exciting,” he added. “You’re watching this movie, and then you’re walking across the screen.”
Nearly three decades later, the film that cost just $4 million to make and yielded a surprising $18 million in theaters graces nearly everyone’s list of all-time favorite Christmas flicks. Extras, and occasionally cast members, gather for annual reunions, though Kukral hasn’t yet been able to attend. The Parker’s house has been restored and is a tourist landmark, with a museum across the street.
“A Christmas Story” holds a special place in Terre Haute’s heart, too. Besides the bowling alley mention, the town gets cited again when Ralphie tries to relay his BB gun wish to Old St. Nick, but “the line waiting to see Santa Claus stretched all the way back to Terre Haute,” the narrator says. The Hautean references aren’t surprising. The screenwriter, the late Jean Shepherd, was a Hammond native.
Occasionally, Kukral meets folks who think the film’s Hoosier roots are even deeper than the storyline.
“I’ve argued with so many people who say, ‘That movie was filmed in Indiana,’” said Kukral, who tries to correct them. “And I say, ‘I should know. I was in that movie,’ and they look at me like I was from outer space.’”
Most of his Rose students know the story, as well as many of his colleagues. He’s entertained the idea of purchasing a replica of the famed leg lamp for his campus office. Not the miniature version. “I want the full size. Four feet high,” he said. “I want to buy a big leg lamp, and put it in my window, and everyone who drives in the main entrance would see it.”
Undoubtedly, they’ll assume he’s won a major award.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@ tribstar.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
Most of us see a bit of ourselves in “A Christmas Story.”
- Local & Bistate
Holcomb, other top leaders leaving Indiana GOP helm
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb leads a number of high-level departures from the state party half a year after the 2012 elections.
Vigo County Jail Log: June 19, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Tuesday and Wednesday, based on jail records.
Right lane of U.S. 41 South closed at Harlan Road
VIGO COUNTY, Ind. – An intersection improvement project on U.S. 41 and Harlan Road has closed the right lane for southbound traffic beginning today. This lane closure is scheduled to last about one month.
Terre Haute Coke & Carbon: Cleaning up a legacy
When heavy equipment starts moving dirt next week at the former Terre Haute Coke and Carbon industrial site, city officials hope a new day will be dawning for a long-neglected part of town.
Diversity growing: New census report shows changing face of Indiana
Like the rest of the nation, Indiana is continuing on a trend toward greater diversity as the numbers of Hispanics, blacks, Asians and other minorities are rising at a faster pace than whites.
Valley following diversity path of nation, Indiana
Like much of Indiana, the majority white population in the Wabash Valley is on the decline, while minority populations are on the increase.
Court lets walkout fines against House Democrats stand
House Democrats who had to pay more than $100,000 in fines after they walked out of the Indiana Statehouse two years ago during a legislative session won’t get the help they sought from the Indiana Supreme Court.
Arrest made, victim identified in Rosedale homicide
The victim in a Parke County homicide that occurred last week has been identified as Kathryn A. Bays, 55, of Rosedale.
Vermillion industrial park gets award for transition
The Vermillion Rise Mega Park, a former chemical weapons base now an industrial park north of Clinton, has gotten national attention for its rapid transition to civilian from military use.
Slight damage from evening storm
Very little damage was reported from a late evening storm that rolled through the Wabash Valley on Tuesday.
U.S. 41 lane restrictions
Motorists should expect delays because of lane restrictions on U.S. 41 in Sullivan County next week as a railroad company repairs a rail crossing 1.2 miles north of Shelburn.
Lane restrictions next week on U.S. 41 at Shelburn
SHELBURN, Ind. – Motorists should expect minimal delays because of lane restrictions for U.S. 41 in Sullivan County next week as the railroad company makes repairs to the rail crossing 1.2 miles north of Shelburn.
Reputed Mafioso tip triggers new Hoffa body search
OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The FBI saw enough merit in a reputed Mafia captain’s tip to once again break out the digging equipment to search for the remains of former Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, last seen alive before a lunch meeting with two mobsters nearly 40 years ago.
UPDATE: Parke County homicide victim identified
ROSEDALE — The victim in a Parke County homicide that occurred last week has been identified as Kathryn A. Bays, 55, of Rosedale.
Court lets walk-out fines against House Democrats stand
INDIANAPOLIS — House Democrats who had to pay more than $100,000 in fines after they walked out of the Indiana Statehouse won’t get the help they sought from the Indiana Supreme Court.
Vigo County Jail Log: June 18, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Monday and Tuesday, based on jail records.
Back home again: Items from vaudeville stage and Terre Haute native sent to Historical Society
The staff at the Vigo County Historical Museum are excited about the arrival of priceless items used by Terre Haute-native Rose Fehrenbach and her husband, Edward Pierce, to promote their Vaudeville acts in the early 20th century.
Husband charged in Archer homicide
Terre Haute Police have found local reports of domestic violence between a Terre Haute man and his wife, whose body was discovered wrapped in a tarp and dumped in an Ohio ditch.
National Road panels dedicated
Rewind to the mid-1800s, when the trotting of a horse and buggy on National Road could be heard alongside the voices of people heading west, searching for opportunities.
Pence sets agency priorities
Following a directive from Gov. Mike Pence, state agency heads are reorganizing some of their top priorities to better reflect the first-year governor’s “roadmap for Indiana” plan for improving the state’s economy, infrastructure and health.
Another I-70 traffic snarl: Three injured in two related crashes
Three people were injured Monday afternoon from a pair of crashes on Interstate 70 that temporarily closed the highway and diverted traffic into Terre Haute.
Terre Haute man still hospitalized after scooter/car crash
A Terre Haute man remained hospitalized Monday at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis after his scooter struck a car early Saturday on Wabash Avenue at 25th Street.
Overpass repairs causing Interstate 70 lane restrictions
Repairs to the Frye Road overpass in southeastern Vigo County has caused a restriction to the left lane of Interstate 70 between the 13- and 14-mile markers, about two miles east of the Indiana 46 exit.
Indiana woman condemned for killing at 15 is freed
A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old Bible studies teacher was released from an Indiana prison Monday after growing to middle age behind bars.
Grant will let Vigo Library evaluate map collection
The Vigo County Public Library has received a $2,000 grant to evaluate its historic map collection, a library official announced Monday.
Four juveniles caught on elementary school roof; one injured jumping off
Police say a juvenile was lucky to have suffered only a broken leg after jumping from the roof of a Vigo County elementary school – dropping about 30 feet to the ground.
Farmersburg man sentenced after guilty plea in rape case
A Farmersburg man has been sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to a rape that occurred at his parents’ residence in May 2012.
Still no information being released on Rosedale homicide
No new information was being released Monday afternoon concerning a Rosedale homicide.
Woman condemned for killing at age 15 freed from Rockville prison
INDIANAPOLIS — A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher was released from an Indiana prison today after growing to middle age behind bars.
UPDATE: All lanes of I-70 now open
All lanes of Interstate 70 in Vigo County are now open — as of 4:15 p.m. — after multiple crashes shut down the eastbound lanes temporarily this afternoon.
- More Local & Bistate Headlines
- Holcomb, other top leaders leaving Indiana GOP helm