About midway through the holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” played every year in an endless loop on Turner Christmas Day, the old man, played by Darren McGavin, turns to Ralphie, played by Peter Billingsley, and talks NFL.
“Maybe this year we will make the trip to see the Bears,” the suburban Indiana dad mentions as they talk about a new football for Christmas. It wasn’t the exact present Ralphie wanted, but maybe it would serve as an OK substitute for that elusive Red Rider BB Gun. In the end, the old man delivered them both.
The same story lines are not lost as the iconic film moved to Broadway last year and now The Theater at Madison Square Garden this year, albeit in the musical version. The show, like the movie, has all the classic lines and remains, at its core, a bonding experience between a son and his father that transcends time. Those bonds are certainly not lost on one of the senior cast members, New York native and self-described “old jock” Dan Lauria.
The current star of “Sullivan and Son” on TBS is perhaps best known for his roles as Jack Arnold in “The Wonder Years” and Vince Lombardi in the Tony nominated play “Lombardi,” but Lauria said his role as the narrator, the part held by Jean Shepard in the film, is one that sports fans of all ages can also identify with.
“Like ‘Lombardi’ we felt that this show can really draw an audience that is more male and all about the ties between a dad and his son, much like sports does,” Lauria said. “After all, who are the people watching the movie every year? The guys who know the lines and switch back and forth from watching NBA games on Christmas Day. There is a common bond between sports and the story in the film and the show, and we have seen it every night; a little different audience sharing the experience.”
Lauria’s experience as actor and athlete goes back decades, from when he was a high school football star on Long Island before attending Southern Connecticut State University, where he caught the acting bug. He played countless coaches, dads and even cops and athletes in and around his iconic portrayal as a dad managing to help raise a family through the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s in the EMMY-winning show that ran for six seasons. He continued his successful career doing original plays everywhere but Broadway and a host of TV and movie roles, but it was not until producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo came calling that he landed on Broadway playing the iconic coach.
“It was the perfect mix for me— great script, great cast, great director, and producers like Fran and Tony and the a help from the NFL that made it work,” he added. “It’s not really that much different here—we have a great cast with some amazingly talented kids, a solid corps of producers and direction and of course Peter Billingsley, who had the idea to bring the show back to life in a musical. It’s a great mix for all.”
Now that mix has also taken him to at least part of “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” another aspect that is not lost on the die-hard sports fan. “My friend [actor] Ron Perlman pointed out to me that now I can say I have played ‘The Garden,’ and that too is pretty cool. I’m hoping that maybe some of our luck with the show can rub off on the Knicks and the Rangers too.”
But does all the dancing and singing resonate with sports fans? “For sure, I see and hear from many of the same people who saw ‘Lombardi,’” he added. “It’s fun, they know the lines and they can bring their kids, it’s a great mix, and given how football has gone in New York this year, it makes for a nice diversion for sports fans on some Sunday’s coming up.”
For the record Lauria remains a loyal Giants fan and frequently checks scores between performances. “Coach Coughlin has been a fan of all I have done, and I’m as big a fan of what he has done over the years as well. These things happen from time to time on the field when things don’t click, but I know they have the ownership support to weather the storm and get things going again.”
For this season though, one of Madison Square Garden’s winners appears to be not one on the hardwood or the ice, it is “A Christmas Story,” a fun, entertaining show with a former linebacker helping steer its success.