Is There Really a Secret Decoder Ring in A Christmas Story?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

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 growing up during the 1930s.

The film follows nine-year-old Ralphie Parker in the weeks leading up to Christmas in some unnamed year in the late 1930s/early 1940s (Shepard was born in 1921 and Clark was born 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 everyone warning him that “you’ll shoot your eye out”. While Ralphie’s quest for the air rifle is the driving narrative of the film, the movie contains many short general stories about life during the Great Depression, including a famous sequence where 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 of the show, he decodes the secret message from Annie to her fans. He is disappointed when he learns that the important “secret message” is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Ovaltine, the malted milk powder, was the sponsor of the program and Ralphie had to drink so much Ovaltine to collect enough labels to join Annie’s secret circle that he had grown sick of the product, so he was particularly disappointed to learn about the commercialization of his favorite show (sort of like the Movie Legend about how Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was produced as an elaborate way to sell candy) ” 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, 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 to yourself, “Okay, 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, but the fascinating thing about this to me is that, as I noted, secret decoder rings did not actually exist. At least not in the time period that they became famous for existing.

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 did not 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 did not even have space to put them on pins, as they just handed out cards with the codes on them.

However, even back in 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…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Stephen A. Kallis’ thorough research on this topic for all this great information about the Golden Age of Radio.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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One Response to “Is There Really a Secret Decoder Ring in A Christmas Story?”

  1. In the book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, on which most of “A Christmas Story” is based, Ralphie is kicking cans he comes across in the street. He kicks one can, and realizes it’s an Ovaltine can. So, he takes the inner seal out, sends it in and gets his decoder pin. Without ever drinking a drop of the stuff. Incidentally, as far back as I can remember, Ovaltine has been sold in jars, never cans.

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