“A Christmas Story 2” isn’t the only Ralphie sequel out there

Despite its numerical designation, the recently released A Christmas Story 2 isn’t the only way to see the continuing adventures of Ralphie Parker.

Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie in Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story"Did you know, for instance, that Jean Shepherd — whose writings served as the basis for A Christmas Story and several other Ralphie tales — actually reunited with director Bob Clark for My Summer Story back in 1994? Or that Shepherd himself appeared in other TV versions of his works, acting as a Greek chorus to the homespun proceedings?

If you’ve never seen Shepherd — or didn’t realize you did in A Christmas Story (he’s the man at Higbee’s who tells Ralphie to go to the back of the Santa line) — it can be a bit unnerving to hear that unmistakable voice attached to a big, hulking dude who often wore funny hats and fake mustaches. But it’s worth the risk to see that, as great as that particular story was, Shepherd had a lot more to say about Ralphie than just his quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun.

The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976)

The first Ralphie adaptation comes in this episode of the PBS series Visions, and while Shepherd is reliable as the narrator, the acting leaves much to be desired. Despite the title referring to the molten fire pits found inside the steel mill in Hohman, Ind. — that “great inverted bowl of darkness” — this story largely concerns itself with Ralph (David Elliott) going to prom. In a nice bit of continuity, James Broderick plays the Old Man, as he would in The Great American Fourth of July, and Barbara Bolton plays Mom, a role she also played in Fourth of July and The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski. One thing you get from these other Shepherd films that A Christmas Story was a little light on was the details of Hohman, Ind., as a quintessential steel town. In addition to all the Norman Rockwell aspects, there was the dirty, grimy reality of life in the industrial Midwest, and Shepherd is able to bring that out in all its glory and agony.

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982)

OK, wow, you’re really going to have to adjust your thinking here to accept the effortlessly cool and badass Matt Dillon — especially circa The Outsiders — as Ralph. It’s not that his performance is bad, per se, it’s just that in his tough-guy uniform of white T-shirt and blue jeans, he can’t quite pull off scenes like the ones requiring him to walk in a small-town Independence Day parade with a tuba. But the writing for this American Playhouse feature is as solid as always, as is Shepherd’s intro and narration.

The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983)

This American Playhouse episode was aired right around the time people were ignoring A Christmas Story in theaters, Thanksgiving 1983. It’s about Ralph (Pete Kowanko) and his obsession with an exotic Polish neighbor girl. It opens with a classic bit of Shepherd satire, with a grown-up Ralph (Shepherd) attending a screening of a Polish art film by noted director “Milos Pederastnicki,” no doubt a shot at Roman Polanski. William Lampley returns to play Flick, as he had in two other Playhouse adaptations.

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988)

In addition to providing us another Ralphie tale, this 1988 TV movie helps fill in some other important gaps in pop-culture history. Such as, what did Jerry O’Connell look like between being the fat kid in Stand By Me to becoming the buff leading man in so many failed sitcoms? Well, he’s here, adjust fairly well to puberty as a teenage Ralphie as the Parkers go on a mishap-filled summer vacation to a cabin in Michigan. We also see old friends like Flick and Schwartz, and Ralphie’s dog Fuzzhead. James Sikking is just swell as the Old Man, and Shepherd turns up as Ralphie’s tyrannical boss, Mr. Scott.

My Summer Story (1994)
Shepherd provided the narration for this quickly forgotten theatrical follow-up, which even had A Christmas Story director Bob Clark at the helm. Kieran Culkin takes over for Peter Billingsley, and though both actors were about the same age when they played the role, Culkin looks much younger, which is sorta unfortunate. Nobody could ever replace Darren McGavin as the Old Man, but Charles Grodin is an inspired choice. He nails the indignation part, but doesn’t quite carry that essential working-class bearing. He’s much more convincing espousing white-collar ennui. Mary Steenburgen plays the mom (she’s probably too inherently glamorous, no?), and in a nice wink and nod to the original, Tedde Moore returns as Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher. There’s a lot of business about Ralphie looking for the perfect top to best new bully Lug Ditka, and the Old Man facing his next-door tormentors and hound aficionados the Bumpuses. Reception was mixed, with even Shepherd reportedly not thrilled with the final product, but it’s definitely a must for Christmas Story fans. (Note: This film is also sometimes referred to as It Runs in the Family, but don’t call it that, because that’s stupid.)

Photo: © Warner Bros. International Television