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Geography Professor Cherishes Role as Extra on Holiday Movie Classic, ‘A Christmas Story’

December 14, 2011

Kukral w Darrin McGavin  
Geography professor Mike Kukral (right) with actor Darrin McGavin (left)
on the movie set for
A Christmas Story.
 

Christmas 1982 found Mike Kukral on break from his studies as a geography student with plenty of time on his hands.  At that time, Ohio University gave its students a six-week holiday reprieve, and Kukral headed to his hometown of Richfield, Ohio.

Shuffling through the pages of a local newspaper one day, the current Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology associate professor of geography came upon a potentially fun way to make a few extra bucks during the break.

"In the classified section was an ad for 'major movie-extras needed'.  It didn't say what it was," he said.

His curiosity piqued, Kukral called the phone number listed in the ad.  "The main thing is, you need to be available 24 hours a day," the voice on the other end of the line told him.  No details were given.  The only instructions were for when and where to show up, and how to dress.

"You had to go through costuming or could bring your own.  I brought my own," Kukral says, explaining that he borrowed his dad's vintage 1939 overcoat.  "I still have it."

For the next several weeks, Kukral would spend most nights filling the role of an extra in a movie, the identity and storyline of which remained shrouded in mystery.  Little did he know that he was witnessing the making of a movie that would become a Christmas classic, A Christmas Story.  The movie had its debut in 1983 and, nearly 30 years later, is cherished as one of the top Christmas stories ever placed on film.

Shot in Cleveland, Ohio, A Christmas Story spins the tale of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. Using various methods, Ralphie makes his case to his parents, his teacher, and even a department store Santa Claus.  He is rejected each time with the warning, "You'll shoot your eye out."

But during the filming, Kukral explains, he had no idea what the story was actually about.  Because he was only included in the scenes which required extras, Kukral missed out on much of the movie, and found it impossible to decipher the plot.  "You didn't know it was about a BB gun, you didn't know the kid was the center of it," he notes.

Kukral participated in the filming of several scenes, including the opening parade sequence in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana.  "That parade scene was filmed at 3 a.m. in downtown Cleveland," he says, adding that the movie crew began the transformation of the downtown at about 11 p.m. each night, then returned the signage and scenery to normal by morning.

Another scene in which you won't actually see Kukral proved to be the most nerve-wracking of the experience.

"When they get a flat tire while going to get a Christmas tree, I'm driving one of the cars that goes by," he explains.  That may sound simple, until you factor in that he and another extra had to drive two cars, back and forth on the icy road, in the middle of the night, every night for two weeks.  Kukral says it was particularly unsettling because actor Darren McGavin (who played Ralphie's father) had to exit his car as the drivers passed by on the slick road.

Though Kukral actually appeared in several scenes, he says, "You won't be able to pick me out in those scenes -- except one."  That scene just happens to be one of the most memorable, iconic moments in the movie.

"The scene that everybody sees me in is the leg lamp scene," Kukral smiles.  "I was only in that scene about two or three times out of 30 takes," he adds.  One of those takes was chosen for the final cut.  As McGavin stands out on the snowy sidewalk admiring his "major award," neighbors begin to congregate behind him, craning their necks to see the gaudy lamp in the window.

Peering over McGavin's shoulder in an overcoat and cap is the young Mike Kukral.

Filming that scene was the closest Kukral had managed to get to the actual movie stars.  Most of his interactions were with an assistant who handled the extras, and much of his time on the set, he says, was spent waiting to see some action.

"We were told, 'Go stand over by that building and be quiet, and when we need you in five hours . . .'" he grins.

But during a lull in the filming of the leg lamp sequence, Kukral grabbed the opportunity to chat with McGavin, whom he had enjoyed watching on television.  "I told him, 'You know, I really like the Night Stalker.' He was real friendly, real down-to-earth."

Kukral cherishes the single photo that was snapped that night.  "You were not allowed to have a camera on the set," the professor explains, "But a couple of the extras had small cameras."  One of those extras took a picture of Kukral and McGavin on that snowy night.

Looking back, Kukral remembers warmly those cold nights he spent making a Christmas classic all those years ago.  "It was long hours, but what the heck?  When you don't have anything else and you're on Christmas break, why not?"