A blond, bespectacled boy of about 6 stands alone on a wooden staircase, his arms and legs swimming in an oversized, bright pink bunny costume, complete with long ears that stick straight up from a fuzzy hood pulled over his head. He's looking around impassively, when . . .
"Give me a pink nightmare!" his mother calls from the foot of the stairs, her cellphone camera at the ready, and the boy immediately folds his arms against his chest and pulls his face into a petulant frown, scowling at his mother over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.
If this scene feels familiar, it's for good reason. We were in Cleveland, Ohio, inside the house where they filmed parts of the 1983 cult classic A Christmas Story, and I was watching a doppelganger for the main character, Ralphie, reenact one of the film's most famous moments. This die-hard little fan wasn't the only person in costume, however, as we spotted least six pink bunnies (mostly adults) over the course of our visit.
"The house is fully interactive," our tour guide, Paige, told the roughly 25 people who had crowded into the house's small living room. "You can try on hats, you can pick up that 'major award' like you won it, you can hide under the sink."
I didn't expect that watching my husband climb gleefully into a wooden cabinet under a kitchen sink would be a highlight of my summer vacation, but I guess Cleveland is nothing if not surprising. After all, when family and friends heard that our big summer plans consisted of a weekend trip to Cleveland, they all asked the same thing: Why?
It was a valid question with an easy answer. My husband, Brian, turned 40 earlier this year, so I wanted his Christmas gift to reflect the milestone. When I saw that "A Christmas Story House" had become a tourist attraction dedicated to the movie, a leg lamp illuminated inside my brain. I realized that Cleveland might just provide his ideal weekend, one filled with baseball, breweries, rock-and-roll and a heavy helping of childhood nostalgia.
After a quick, nonstop flight from Boston, we dropped our bags at our hotel and walked a half-mile to the shore of Lake Erie and the glass pyramid of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where we found the flag at half-staff and Aretha Franklin songs blaring in the outdoor plaza. The Queen of Soul - the first woman inducted into the Rock Hall - had died just hours before our arrival.
Her music accompanied us throughout the day, playing in all of the museum's common areas as we wound through the seven-level shrine to rock. The museum's holdings are extensive and often jaw-dropping, ranging from the iconic (Michael Jackson's rhinestone-encrusted glove, Elvis's army uniform, John Lennon's round, wire-rimmed glasses); to the ostentatious (David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust costumes, Flava Flav's clock necklace, the Supremes' feathered and sequined gowns). And there was one item that made a tangle of conflicted emotions bubble up in my stomach: Kurt Cobain's death certificate. Taking a picture of it didn't feel right, but I also couldn't help getting down on my knees to read it more closely.
But perhaps nothing tugged at my writerly heartstrings more than seeing handwritten lyrics to songs like London Calling, Purple Haze, God Only Knows, and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, marred with cross-outs and revisions, and scribbled on paper that was crumpled, stained or ripped hastily from notebooks.
By the time we left the Rock Hall that afternoon, the museum had already sprung into tribute mode for Franklin, adding one of her glittered gowns to its "In Memoriam" section (which itself was added earlier this year as part of a museum revamp) and playing host to hordes of TV news crews.
A couple of days later, after a tour of Market Garden Brewery in the trendy Ohio City neighborhood, we watched Clevelanders pay tribute to another legend. Retired Indians baseball great Jim Thome was at Progressive Field for a pregame ceremony that included retiring his No. 25. All that hometown pride didn't prevent the Baltimore Orioles from beating the Indians, though, something that we, as Red Sox fans, took in stride from our bleacher seats.
A few blocks away from the baseball stadium we found ourselves drinking in a basement and on a rooftop on East 4th Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare lined with restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Underneath white bistro lights strung across the street between the buildings, we walked among outdoor tables and buskers, searching for a place to hang out for a bit.
First, we descended a flight of stairs into Society Lounge, a glamorous throwback to the sophisticated "cafe society" of yesteryear. Woefully underdressed, I enjoyed a meticulously handcrafted New York Sour cocktail at the bar before heading across the street to another nightspot, this one on a roof. From the rooftop patio of The Greenhouse Tavern, I sipped a glass of rosé and watched the people ambling around below us as they enjoyed Cleveland's laid-back nightlife.
But back to those pink bunnies. I had always thought that Brian's fervent love of A Christmas Story, not to mention his ability to recite Ralphie's entire plea for a Red Ryder BB gun from memory, was a quirk peculiar to him, but as we arrived at the house, I learned otherwise.
All afternoon, a steady stream of tourists filed in and out of the house, where they roamed and posed with decor and details straight from the 1940s-set film. There was a hand-cranked washing machine in the kitchen; Ralphie's homework that earned him a C+ and a Red Ryder comic book in his bedroom; a bar of teeth-marked red soap in the bathroom like the one Ralphie's mother used to wash out his mouth; a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin on a small table; the longed-for BB gun under a crooked Christmas tree. And of course, there was the "major award" that Ralphie's Old Man won: A huge lamp in the shape of a woman's fishnet-stockinged leg, standing in the window.
Across the street, a museum held even more movie props and memorabilia, including its many bad reviews, which are proudly hung on the walls. We also learned that die-hard fans could rent the house for overnight stays ("You get free rein of the whole house overnight," Paige said), and that its owner was also remodeling the home next door - known to fans of the movie as "The Bumpus House" - into overnight accommodations slated to open Oct. 1.
Just when I thought the afternoon couldn't get any weirder, we saw yet another bunny - this one wearing heavy black boots and a police vest over his pink fur suit, a pair of handcuffs bouncing off his chest as he danced wildly in front of the house to the Justin Timberlake song, Can't Stop the Feeling. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority police were filming a "Lip Sync Challenge" video. For us, it was the last of many surprises in a city filled with them.