As with most families celebrating the Christmas holiday, there is no doubt that either before or after the presents are opened, that like ours, your family relaxes around the TV to watch TBS’s 24 hour marathon of the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story. One family who watches religiously is the Gillen family of South Florida, and with good reason; the unforgettable grumpy Santa Claus character in that movie who warns little Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out and then gives him the boot (literally) was portrayed by none other than actor Jeff Gillen.
It’s been over 30 years since the release of that film, and sadly nearly 2 decades since Jeff Gillen passed away unexpectedly, but that doesn’t stop his family, nor the legions of fans of the film from flocking to the TV or DVD every year to watch one of the most cherished, beloved and institutionalized holiday films of all time. I’ve been friends with the Gillens for close to 25 years since I went to school with Jeff’s son, Phillip. I thought I’d catch up with Phil and ask him to recall what growing up with his father being one of the most iconic film Santa’s was like and how they feel about the movie when viewing it today. Read ahead after the jump to find out…
Though it’s been over a decade since I came out to Los Angeles from South Florida, I’ve kept in contact with my high school friend, Phil Gillen thru the years — now more frequently as many of us do thru Facebook. I was thrilled when he said he’d be able to take some time to answer some questions about his dad’s role in A Christmas Story. \
A quick background note – in high-school Phil and I shared a number of TV production classes together and his dad’s motion picture/TV facilities (Great Southern Studios) were always the weekend hangout for our small circle of friends, as well as the awesome (and free) shooting location of our amateur music videos and early stabs at filmmaking. In the years that followed during my time producing Radio and TV in South Florida, I enlisted Phil and Great Southern Studios (GSS) to help me out in various set building and construction of interactive games. Phil’s dad, Jeff Gillen, was the first celebrity that I knew growing up in North Miami Beach and it was great to listen to him talk about his on-set experiences and the famous actors he rubbed elbows with. He was generous, funny and well loved by friends and family and his untimely passing was a shock to everyone in the South Florida film community. Though he is gone, his legacy has lives on in what’s become his most famous role; that of the mean-spirited department store Santa in the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story.
Beyond the Marquee: Phil, your dad played the department store Santa in A Christmas Story, his hearty Ho-Ho-Ho laugh and pushing little Ralphie down the slide with his boot after telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid” is an unforgettable moment. It must give you a great feeling to watch this movie year after year and know…that’s my dad!
Phil Gillen: I get a little emotional every time when the movie is at the point where Ralphie is standing in line waiting to see Santa. I hear my dad’s voice in the background, Ho Ho Ho, Ho Ho Ho! I know my dad’s voice, so its great for me.
BTM: A Christmas Story has become a traditional holiday classic for well over a decade now. Turner Networks have had all-day marathons of it running continuously leading up to Christmas; it’s a live action holiday movie you come to expect seeing every year amongst classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol. How does it feel knowing your dad is a character in a now and forever Christmas classic?
PG: It’s an incredible opportunity and a honor to be part of that film’s history as a family member. I like that he makes the top-ten Santa’s in most publications such as Time and the Washington Weekly. We’ve even seen pictures of store fronts of windows in New York of A Christmas Story that friends have sent us.
BTM: Your dad was a professional actor and had small cameo roles in a handful of movies like Police Academy 5, Easy Money, Nobody’s Perfekt and Absence of Malice, but his role as Santa in A Christmas Story clearly has become a holiday cult-classic. Did he at least enjoy some of that fame and recognition before his untimely passing 12 years after it’s release?
PG: My father loved his acting career more than ever. He received tremendous accolades in over the 1/2 dozen plays he performed in at the Ring Theatre at University of Miami (which he graduated from). He also attended The Art Institute of Chicago where he received his Masters in Theatre. His passion for being behind-the-scenes directing was his other love. He was not looking for fame and recognition. He simply wanted to act and perform. Unfortunately, my dad never knew the full impact of A Christmas Story, though he loved the film and thought the story and direction was terrific.
BTM: Can you recall him recounting any stories or memories he may have shared during the filming of A Christmas Story?
PG: My dad was born in Cleveland Ohio so when he was asked to be in this movie, he was so elated to go back to his home town. I recall him telling me it was snowing and was very cold. My mom also got a part walking through the department store. I was only 13 years old at the time they both went out of town to be in the film. I do remember I got to be home alone for a few days!
BTM: Do you ever go out of your way to tell people that your dad was the Santa Claus in A Christmas Story?
PG: I always tell people when they visit Great Southern Studios on a tour. They always say, “no way!” Then I show them all the crazy pictures and articles around GSS about my dad. We’re very proud of him.
BTM: Does your family hold any fun holiday traditions like gathering around to watch the film together?
PG: We always have our own gathering at my mom’s house. We love the 24 hr showing of the movie each year. Our family usually take pictures in front of the TV when my dad’s part comes on. His grandchildren, Jessica and Jacob, always get excited about their famous Grandfather every December. Oh, and we buy up all the A Christmas Story stuff we can find at Walgreens. I am amazed how crazy the film does with all the new gifts and movie novelties. Like the leg lamp stocking. Ha Ha Ha!
BTM: A couple years ago A Christmas Story made it into the National Film Registry amongst a list of other classic movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s Dirty Harry, The Matrix and The Spook Who Sat By the Door, how proud was the Gillen family of that accomplishment?
PG: Tears, tears, tears. We are so happy to be part of the incredible legacy this film has taken on and has made millions of people laugh so hard at for decades.
BTM: Not every film gets this honor; only those works of enduring importance to American culture that reflect who we are as a people and as a nation. Was the news that A Christmas Story was selected at all unexpected? Were you part of any sort of petition to get it inducted into the National Film Registry?
PG: We had nothing to do with the voting. Wish we were! I think its about popularity over two decades and no Santa can beat the part of my dad.
BTM: In the 2009 biography on Bob Clark the director of A Christmas Story, it seemed hands-down that everyone’s favorite film of Clarks’ was A Christmas Story. Why do you think this movie has become such a cult classic?
PG: Watch the movie a few hundred times and you seem to laugh at different parts that you seem to have never heard before. And of course guns, every little boy wants them. They just want to protect our family with a An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. They also like to use the word fudge!!!!!!!!!!!
BTM: Do you think as we get further and further away from the decade that movie took place in, that dated films like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story will lose their appeal and relevance and soon these modern holiday movies like The Santa Clause, ELF and Scrooged will take their place in popularity?
PG: Not sure you can beat the best Santa in our time! This movie will only get bigger. Soon there will be a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade float of the slide! I will play Santa in memory of my Father. I also know that there is a Broadway play of A Christmas Story. My friend, Ian Petrella, played Ralphie’s little brother and is very active with keeping the movie alive!
BTM: Have you seen the direct to video sequel called A Christmas Story 2?
PG: Never saw it! Was it any good? I was out in Cleveland about three years ago to see the 25th year celebration. The house they used for filming is there with gift store and a Bob Clark memorabilia museum. That was pretty amazing!
BTM: After your dad passed away in 1995, I remember when you had to take over the family business of running Great Southern Studios, (a multimedia production facility in South Florida that has played host to numerous TV shows, movies, commercials and famous photo shoots). You suddenly had some big shoes to fill and the son became a man overnight. Almost 20 years later and still as the owner of GSS, how are things going for you and what projects have you guys been working on lately?
PG: Well my father founded Great Southern Studios in 1978. It was the 3rd full-on production studio to be built in Miami. GSS continues to still be a resource for television commercials, music videos, motion pictures, trade shows and special events here in South Florida. We cater to the small or as well as large clients. We have built custom bridges overnight in cold water, so the crew can start shooting on a island with trucks. We have a built large Chicken Boat for a National Lampoon movie, provided Art Basel with custom walls for a Chanel Party, hosted rehearsal space for Lenny Kravitz, Gloria Estafan, Jamie Foxx and Birdman. Many music videos have shot on our stages including ones by Ludacris, T-Pain, Shakira, and many more. We have endless pictures of celebs that come here all over our walls.
BTM: I have to ask, is your mom Arlene (Gillen) still working there?
PG: Yep, she’s been the bookkeeper here at GSS for over 30 years now and still a proud mom of my sister Elana and I. Elana is now a Master of Education (teacher) – she went to work with my dad after her graduation just to be with him, to learn and eventually share his knowledge and greatness.
BTM: Is there anything you’d like to say on behalf of the Gillen family to the legion of A Christmas Story fans who have religiously made this a part of their holiday traditions?
PG: We are so proud to be part of a historical movie. Thank you to all the fans that watched and caught their tongue on a frozen flagpole, the ones who stood up to the mean bully and the ones who brown nosed the teacher for a good grade. I think we should have Disney build an A Christmas Story ride for he holidays with a huge slide or a themed roller-coaster!
BTM: Phil, always a pleasure talking to you and Happy Holidays to you and your family.
PG: Thanks again. I’m glad to know a good friend like you Steve, you have always shared the same passion and drive to be part of the TV screen. Merry Christmas to you, our family and all the Beyond the Marquee readers. HO, HO, HO!!!
Check out the famous scene from A Christmas Story starring Jeff Gillen as the mean department store Santa…
Check out the site for Great Southern Studios in South Florida, just click on the logo…