Recent polling of fans of Shep's 1983 movie A Christmas Story show the Old Man's "Leg Lamp" to be the most popular item portrayed in the film, even surpassing Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun. Seven years earlier, the Lamp had made its first film appearance in Phantom of the Open Hearth on PBS. But what are the historical roots of this early example of slob art?
Anyone reading Shep's 1966 novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash", particularly Chapter 10 - "My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art" - learned a little bit of Midwestern Depression-era trivia vital to a conceptual understanding of the Lamp:
"All popular non-alcoholic drinks were known in those days by a simple generic term - 'Pop.' What this company made was simply 'Orange pop.' The company trademark, seen everywhere, was a silk-stockinged lady's leg, realistically flesh-colored, wearing a black spike-heeled slipper. The knee was crooked slightly and the leg was shown to the middle of the thigh. That was all. No face; no torso; no dress - just a stark, disembodied, provocative leg. The name of this pop was a play on words, involving the lady's knee. Even today in the windows of dusty, fly specked Midwestern grocery stores and poolrooms this lady's leg may yet be seen."
Shep, of course, was writing about the trademark for Nehi (pronounced "knee-high") pop. The Nehi brand was a major force in the soft-drink market in the middle 1920s through the time period of A Christmas Story. The name of the brand was coined by an entrepreneurial Georgian named Claud Adkins Hatcher (1876-1933), a pharmacist who grew a modest Southern grocery business into a national beverage franchise. The story goes that Hatcher overheard one of his route salesmen talking about a competitor's pop bottle that was so tall it was "knee-high." Hatcher applied the name - trademarked as "Nehi" - to his line of fruit-flavored concentrates that were shipped to franchisee bottling companies across the country. The product line was so successful that in 1928 Hatcher's company changed its name (Chero-Cola Co.) to the Nehi Corporation, and its franchisees became Nehi bottling companies.
Shep was speaking publicly about Nehi's leggy logo by July 28, 1965, when he posed this trivia question to his WOR radio listeners: "What soft-drink company used a lady's leg with a high-heel shoe and stocking?" And "Nehi pop," especially orange flavor, would often figure in many of Shep's written stories and books, including Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and OtherDisasters (1971), as well as In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966). Indeed, in the former, he mentioned swigging Nehi orange in East Chicago, Indiana (which borders Hammond). This may well have not been coincidental. Nehi's major Midwestern bottling company was located at 4601 Baring Avenue in East Chicago, only a few miles from Shep's home on Cleveland Street in Hammond. Indeed, by the time Shep graduated from Hammond High School in 1939, the Nehi Bottling Company of East Chicago, Indiana, was doing so well that it was expanding its plant and offices, as well as its marketing in Northwest Indiana, which included the use of its own regional signs with local contact information.
Recent research has uncovered one of the local signs for East Chicago's Nehi Bottling Company from the 1930s. It bears the phone numbers for the company's offices in East Chicago, and for the manager in nearby Gary (which, like East Chicago, also lies near Hammond). It is this original sign - or another regional one very much like it - which apparently first inspired Shep to conceive of and later fully execute the now-famous Lamp.
Like the Nehi sign originally described in detail by Shep in 1966, the East Chicago sign shows a silk-stockinged lady's leg, wearing a black spike-heeled shoe. But even more tellingly - unlike the majority of national signs for Nehi - the woman's knee of the East Chicago sign was crooked slightly and the leg was shown near mid-thigh: "no dress - just a stark, disembodied, provocative leg," as Shep wrote in his first novel. Other known Nehi signs of the period typically show a straight leg, almost always with a lady's dress demurely covering the thigh almost to the knee itself; not like the one that left such an indelible impression on the mind of a young, hormone-driven Shep. It was that illuminated image that ultimately became what production designer Reuben Freed later fashioned from Shep's specifications into the Lamp for A Christmas Story. By then, however, the Nehi company had rebranded and became the Royal Crown Cola Company. Only the occasional "ghost sign" or fading advertisement was left to testify about the Depression-era fantasies of Midwestern boys.
Nehi "Leg" Signs
"Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you're not even a memory?
Think about it, friends. It's not just a possibility. It is a certainty." - Jean Shepherd - 1975