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Cleveland lights up with the holiday spirit

CLEVELAND -- Like Buffalo, this city on the shores of Lake Erie has a proud industrial past, strong arts and cultural institutions and an impressive public park system. Just 200 miles away, Cleveland is luring visitors this holiday season with an eclectic array of festive events, highlighted by a local connection to a beloved Christmas movie.

The city's 24th annual Winterfest celebration begins Saturday with a holiday lighting ceremony on Public Square that includes free music and activities. The parade begins at 6 p.m. and is followed by an impressive fireworks show.

A variety of festive events continue through Jan. 31. See www.cleveland.com/winterfest.

In 1983, a little movie called "A Christmas Story" was released in theaters without much notice. The exterior shots and specific interior scenes were filmed in a Cleveland home. Today, the film has a devoted following and has become such a beloved holiday classic that it has its own annual 24-hour Christmas marathon on TBS. The movie, set in the 1940s, humorously relives the trials and tribulations of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, who desperately wants only a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.

In 2004, San Diego resident Brian Jones purchased the 110-year-old house used in the film sight unseen on e-Bay. He restored it to its original 1983 movie appearance and opened it as A Christmas Story House and Museum last year. More than 40,000 fans have since flocked there to relive their memories of the film. Original props, costumes, memorabilia and rare behind-the-scenes photos are also on display.

On Friday and Saturday, the first "A Christmas Story" Convention takes place in the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel on Public Square in the city's downtown district. Some original cast members, including Ian Petrella (Randy), Scott Schwartz (Flick) and Zack Ward (Scut Farkus), will be on hand to greet fans and sign autographs. Other film-related events are also planned.

For more information on the convention and the house, which is located at 3159 West 11th St. in Cleveland's historic Tremont district, visit www.achristmasstoryhouse.com or call (216) 298-4919.

From Thursday through next Sunday, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel is offering "A Christmas Story" extravaganza package at $189, which includes overnight accommodations, parking, breakfast for two, a trolley ride and admission to A Christmas Story House, and a presentation of the movie in the hotel ballroom. For more information, visit www.renaissancecleveland.com or (800) hotels-1.

>University Circle

The University Circle area contains one of the highest concentrations of arts and cultural venues in the country including the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Cleveland Play House, the Ronald McDonald House of Cleveland and the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Those are just a few of the more than 20 museums and institutions that will have free admission from 1 to 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 2 as part of the annual "Holiday Circle Fest."

The event is a day of music, special activities such as making seasonal crafts, tasty offerings and shopping for all.

Among the things to do:

*The Cleveland Botanical Garden, one of the featured locations, hosts its Wintershow 2007, Friday through Dec. 31. The annual holiday event showcases a magical display of gingerbread houses, plus a variety of family programs such as Miniature Gingerbread House Demonstrations on Dec. 9 and Dec. 23; a Hot Cocoa Demonstration, Dec. 1 and Dec. 29; and a Decorating with Botanicals workshop on Dec. 12. For information on the Cleveland Botanical Garden, visit www.cbgarden.org or call (216) 721-1600.

*Take a walk around the city's Wade Oval and watch as it is transformed into a winter wonderland with ice sculptures, ice carving demonstrations and live music.

For more information, visit www.universitycircle.org or call (216) 707-5020.

*"A Christmas Story On Stage" returns to the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., from Nov. 29 to Dec. 23. Founded in 1915, the Cleveland Play House is the first permanently established professional theater in the United States.

"It's wonderful to see how 'A Christmas Story On Stage' has become Cleveland's new holiday tradition," says Michael Bloom, artistic director of the Cleveland Play House. "It's always gratifying to be able to produce plays that have special meaning for our local audience."

The Cleveland Play House will sparkle even brighter this holiday season as the annual Festival of Trees returns for its 11th year, beginning Tuesday to Dec. 31. More than 60 professionally decorated holiday trees and vignettes will line the rotunda, promenade and the lobbies.

The highlight will be the 24-foot holiday tree in the playhouse rotunda decorated by world-renowned floral and event designer Don Vanderbrook, who has planned and decorated parties for three U.S. presidents. Each tree has a corporate benefactor, making it one of the playhouse's largest fundraisers.

The theater also has a restaurant called Stages with dinner-theater packages available. Note that dinner reservations must be made separately with the restaurant. A lunch option may also be available. For more information or to purchase theater tickets, visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com or call (216) 795-7000, Ext. 4.

>A richness of theater

Further down on Euclid Avenue, imagine not one, but four theaters as historic and grand as Buffalo's Shea's Performing Arts Center, all built from 1921-1922, and all next to each other. That contiguous four-theater complex is only a part of the eight-theater Playhouse Square Center on Euclid Avenue.

The center, saved from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, is the country's largest performing arts complex outside New York City and draws more than 1 million people a year. They come for a variety of entertainment, including Broadway plays, musicals, comedy, dance and opera. The Playhouse Square ticket office is located at 1519 Euclid Ave., in the lobby of the State Theatre.

To see a full calendar of events, including information on "A Christmas Carol" and Ballet San Jose's "The Nutcracker" (both running Friday to Dec. 2), visit www.playhousesquare.org or call (216) 771-8403.

>Outdoor fun

For something different, try tobogganing on refrigerated ice chutes in one of Cleveland's metro parks just 20 miles south of the city. The two 1,000-foot-long refrigerated ice chutes operate with or without snow the day after Thanksgiving through the first weekend in March, weather permitting.

In addition to tobogganing, guests can enjoy the facility with a snack bar, two fireplaces, a large-screen television, indoor restrooms and a main gathering area. All riders must wear gloves or mittens and be over 42 inches tall. Children 11 years old and under must be accompanied on the chutes by an adult. The Chalet Recreation Area has a double wood burning fireplace and hot refreshments and snacks.

For more information, visit www.clevelandmetroparks.com or call the Chalet Recreation Area, Mill Stream Run Reservation, Strongville, Ohio at (440) 572-9990.

>The rock

A perfect way to end a visit to Cleveland is to experience its most popular tourist destination, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Renowned architect I.M.Pei's creative design overlooking Lake Erie is a myriad of bold geometric forms and dynamic cantilevered spaces anchored by a 162-foot tower.

The museum's six floors are filled with fun and educational interactive exhibits which bring music history to life while allowing fans to relive great moments from rock 'n' roll. More than 50 exhibits explore rock 'n' roll through artifacts such as John Lennon's passport and green card and Janis Joplin's 1965 Porsche 356c Cabriolet.

The Hall of Fame is a dramatic multimedia gallery combining film footage, music interviews and photography to tell the story of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

"Help! Behind the Scenes of the Beatles' Movie" has just opened and will run through March. 30. The exhibit showcases many never-before-seen artifacts and photos from the making of the movie, including George Harrison's original script, costumes and instruments played in the movie.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in downtown Cleveland's North Coast Harbor at 1 Key Plaza. Visit www.rockhall.com or call (216) 781-7625.

The entrance to I-90, which takes you straight to Buffalo, is located across the street from the rock hall, so this stop is a convenient way to spend your last day in town before shuffling back to Buffalo.

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