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December 15, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Rose professor’s bit part in classic holiday movie leaves a major memory

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.

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