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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There was no secret decoder ring in A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story was a 1983 film by director Bob Clark based on radio personality/writer Jean Shepard’s stories about his childhood. It follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker in the weeks leading up to Christmas in some unnamed year in the late 1930s or early ‘40s (Shepard was born in 1921, and Clark in 1939, so Clark wanted the film to be set at some point in time between their respective childhoods) as Ralphie tries to convince his parents to get him his dream present, the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, despite the repeated warning that “you’ll shoot your eye out”.
While Ralphie’s quest for the air rifle is the driving narrative, the movie contains many short stories about life during the Great Depression, including a famous sequence in which young Ralphie finally becomes a member of the Radio Orphan Annie’s Secret Society, a fan club of the Little Orphan Annie radio program. At the end of the latest episode, he decodes the secret message from Annie to her fans, only to be disappointed to learn it reads “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Ovaltine, the malted milk powder, was the sponsor of the program, and Ralphie had to drink so much to collect enough labels to join Annie’s secret circle that he had grown sick of the product. Here are a few descriptions of the scene on the web:
“In order to get the coveted Little Orphan Annie decoder ring — which is required to decode the show’s secret message — Ralphie must send in an ungodly number of Ovaltine labels.”
“Over the holidays I watched “A Christmas Story” for the gazillionth time. One of the scenes in the movie is Ralphie getting his secret decoder ring to unlock the mysteries of the universe.”
“There’s also Ralphie’s seemingly endless wait for the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring he sent away for.”
“Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine.”
The interesting thing is that Ralphie never actually receives a secret decoder ring in the film, mostly because secret decoder rings did not exist!
In the film, it’is actually a secret decoder pin that Ralphie sends away for.
Now you might be saying, “OK, whatever, Brian, it is basically the same thing.” And to be fair, if it was just a matter of the movie choosing to use a pin instead of a ring then I’d agree with you. However, the fascinating thing about this is, as I noted, secret decoder rings didn’t actually exist — at least not in the time period in which they were popularly known to exist.
During the golden age of radio serials, there were many giveaways to young listeners of shows like Little Orphan Annie, Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy or Captain Midnight, or the young readers of comics like Superman (I was inspired to do this particular legend by this week’s Comic Book Legends Revealed about the secret code that members of the Supermen of America used), but they were never actually secret decoder rings.
What they had were secret decoder pins (or secret decoder cards), and there were hidden compartment rings (plastic rings with a little compartment that you could theoretically fit a tiny piece of folded-up paper). What they didn’t have were combinations of the two, mostly I presume because they needed a lot of space to put the codes on the decoder. Heck, like I noted, some of the shows didn’t even have space to put them on pins, as they just handed out cards with the codes on them.
However, even in the early 20th century, little kids merged the two concepts (secret decoder pins and hidden compartment rings) and talked about “secret decoder rings” to the point where it just became part of popular culture. Finally, in the 1960s, PF Shoes made the first actual secret decoder ring for the Jonny Quest television program. And in the years since, more actual secret decoder rings were produced.
Amusingly enough, in 2000, Ovaltine began giving away “throwback” secret decoder rings – they were responding to nostalgia for a product that they never made until the year 2000!!
The legend is…
Thanks to Stephen A. Kallis’ thorough research on this topic for all this great information about the Golden Age of Radio.
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