By Ron Scalzo
“Two dollars. I want my two dollars.” If those 7 simple words mean anything to you, than you will enjoy what you are about to read. You will understand.
If you’re a movie nerd like me, then you’re often quoting random lines from the movies you grew up watching as a kid. It eventually becomes a vernacular between you and your fellow movie nerd friends, an understood speech of endless catchphrases, a cinematic Tourette’s syndrome. Every movie nerd has at least one movie nerd friend, hopefully more. One might argue that a movie nerd without friends doesn’t sound like much of a stretch, but it’s often the shared love of these memorable lines and the movies that spawned them that create fraternities. We all need someone to share this nonsense with while those less geek cultured than us look at us cross-eyed and bemused every time we randomly spout “Here’s to swimmin’ with bowlegged women” when we’re seated at the bar.
For me, “I want my two dollars” is one of those ever-quotable lines. If someone uses the phrase “two dollars” in my presence – it could be anyone in any context – it will guarantee a response of “I want my two dollars,” spoken in the same inflection as the paperboy from Better Off Dead.
Now Better Off Dead is not a great movie, it’s not one of my favorite “I love it even though I know it’s dumb” movies – it’s not even one of my favorite John Cusack movies (The Sure Thing, anyone?) but a few scenes, specifically the one where Cusack’s Lane Meyer is tormented by the paperboy demanding his “two dollars” stuck with me for the past two decades or so. It probably didn’t help that I saw the movie about two dozen times as a kid. My Dad installed a monster satellite dish on our roof in the late ‘80s and the floodgates were opened.
The kid actor who plays one of the bicycling menaces in Better Off Dead is Yano Anaya, who also memorably portrays Grover Dill in A Christmas Story, the “mean little toadie” who, along with Scut Farcus (he had yellow eyes), memorably bullies protagonist Ralphie and his pals. It was Anaya’s film debut at 11 years old. In both movies, he wasn’t on screen for more than 10 minutes, yet he will forever be linked with those small roles. I also discovered he portrayed young Michael Anthony in Van Halen’s iconic video for “Hot For Teacher,” raising his ‘cool’ status even higher in my eyes.
I saw A Christmas Story at the old Benson Theater in Brooklyn when it came out in 1983. I had just turned 9. My parents took my sister and I. Since the movie takes place in the 1940s, I’m sure Mom and Dad appreciated seeing a film that portrayed that era on a nostalgic level, whereas, at 8 and 9 years old, my sister and I appreciated going to the movies to see any movie. And, of course, the movie was great – one of those sleeper hits under appreciated upon its release that has now rightfully become an iconic holiday classic.
As I got older, before Ted Turner bought the rights to the movie and created the A Christmas Story carousel every season, the movie became part of my family’s yearly pantheon of holiday fare, along with It’s A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the like. And of course, I became a big time nerd for the movie, learning as much as I could about it, memorizing it. That’s what I do. When I see the word “Fragile,” I always say, “Frah-Jee-Lay. Must be Italian.” Instinctively. It’s just another “two dollars.”
When I met and interviewed Anaya at a C-list celebrity convention recently, along with Ian Petrella, who played Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, and Scott Schwartz, who portrays Flick, the kid who memorably gets his tongue stuck to a pole, I was naturally thrilled. Shit, I would have interviewed the kid in the mall who declares, “I like the Tin Man.” No one had to triple dog dare me to ask these guys a few questions.
Schwartz was the most personable of the three. He was short and all smiles. I brought up his fling as a child star in two other ‘80s films I had seen – The Toy with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason, and Kidco, a movie about kids selling manure in which he starred. Schwartz was also notoriously involved in the porn industry for a cup of coffee, a fact I intentionally never brought up during the interview. He admitted that most people wanted to talk about A Christmas Story, especially around the holiday season. “We fit that bill,” he said. He gave me his card, which read “Scott Schwartz: Celebrity Autograph Obtainer.” He now worked in the trading and sports card industry. I secretly wondered if he could get me Ashlyn Gere’s autograph, or perhaps more, while he described his new life as one of the players in the world of celebrity conventions.
Anaya, in particular, didn’t represent his younger self at all, sporting big muscles, facial hair and a ponytail. He looked like he had graduated from toadie status to something larger. He did not demand two dollars. Petrella was wearing a Flogging Molly t-shirt and looked like he could have been the bass player in Radiohead. He and Anaya had basically stopped acting soon after A Christmas Story and were pretty much living “normal lives” for the past 20 years. Patrella talked up his LA-based production company that worked alongside the bowling industry. He admitted it was a tough sell to popularize bowling, but not tougher than putting his arms down or eating meat loaf.
At the convention, as all guests are wont to do, they smiled politely and took pictures, struck up conversations with nerds and fanboys, signed a lot of crap, thanked everyone, reminisced, and made their money. They were in fairly high demand at a convention whose biggest name acts included Henry Winkler and Val Kilmer. (Incidentally, I tried to interview both and was rejected – Kilmer hid behind his agent, but The Fonz – whose line was a mile long – was very gracious. At least he didn’t tell me to sit on it.) The A Christmas Story guys were very approachable and the added dynamic was that they were together and were genuinely excited about doing this as a group.
We had about 10 minutes together, which was a lot of time considering my serious lack of credentials and admittedly novice status as a nerd interviewer. To date, I had never done this before, and at this particular convention, I had already interviewed Edie McClurg, Gary Coleman (RIP), Martin Kove, and Elvira. So the A Christmas Story kids were the icing on my virgin nerd cake. Once you talk to Sensai John Kreese for 15 minutes, you don’t really need to have dessert.
In every interview, I asked how much of a regular practice for everyone these geekfests were. Petrella: “Three months out of the year we get to play celebrity and then it’s back to our normal lives.” It’s an amazing concept and says a lot about the movie and about movies in general – this guy was only in one film as an 8 year-old and he gets to “play celebrity” for a quarter of every year. That sounds like a pretty sweet reward for one acting job, and these guys felt genuinely blessed to have been part of the movie, and subsequently, the holiday season and each others’ lives.
Anaya: “The reason why I get back together with these guys is because we’ve created a bond which is very similar to family. We’re like brothers now.” Whether Anaya truly believes that or not, whether he was just there for the paycheck or to check out Elvira’s boobs, it must be a kick to be part of something that has touched so many lives, even once in a lifetime. It’s nothing any of these guys caused, yet their minor contributions as child actors to a little low-budget film directed by a guy who at that point was most famous for making Porky’s and Black Christmas made a major impact in their own lives.
Holiday movies like A Christmas Story have this significance, this attachment to growing up that anyone who spent time in front of a TV or a movie screen should understand, and is surely understood by anyone who has acted in a movie of its ilk. They become part of our traditions, our rhetoric, our culture, and our history. When I talked with Schwartz about the whereabouts of Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) and Zack Ward (Scut Farcus), he rattled off their credits like he was managing their IMDB pages, proving that he’s either as nerdy about the movie as I am or he has truly remained friends with his co-stars. For some actors, being attached to one project or piece is viewed as a curse, but it didn’t seem to me that these guys minded being known as “the guys from A Christmas Story.”
Either way, it was a kick meeting them and for a fleeting moment, I felt that fanboy twinge, snapping a photo with these dudes wearing a genuine goofy smile. As much of a fan of the movie as I still am, I’m yet to visit the A Christmas Story house in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ll get there eventually, maybe I’ll see these guys again and say “You’ll shoot yer eye out kid!” I’m sure they’ve never heard that one before.
Happy Holidays. Notafinga!
Photos by Seth Kushner