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The Chicago-area Maintenance Man Who Wrote a Hallmark Christmas Movie

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 19, 2022 3:01 am

The Chicago-area Maintenance Man Who Wrote a Hallmark Christmas Movie

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 19, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Rikk Dunlap has always been a writer, and writing has even become a way for him to come to grips with tragedy. He never dreamed, though, that his work would be a regular feature on the biggest holiday movie channel around.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we're back with our American stories. And up next, you're going to hear from Rick Dunlap. He'd never dreamed that his creative writing would be featured on the biggest Christmas movie channel around.

Until, of course, it was. My name is Rick Dunlap, and I am the author behind Hallmark's Christmas Under the Stars. I am also on the maintenance crew at a Chicago suburban high school. We are charged with taking care of the grounds.

Anything that needs repairing inside the building, from lights to plumbing to flooring, whatever the case may be, that's what we're there to take care of. I think from a very early age, I was really destined to be a writer. We lived in Chicago Heights, Illinois.

And the neighborhood that we lived in, there weren't a lot of people there. I had my younger sister, she was a year younger than me. Other than that, I had to create my friends and things for us to do. So I think writing was really just a natural progression for me. Like most authors, I always had that real active imagination.

And I liked writing little stories and pictures to go along with them. It wasn't until April of 1991 when I got into recovery. My life had pretty much fallen apart at that time. And I was faced with this decision of either moving on with life or basically just giving up. And thankfully I chose recovery. I chose to keep moving forward.

What I had to do was really get down to what was causing me to drink, what was behind my drinking. The easiest way for me to do that was through writing. So I began to write different pieces in first person, third person, but I would separate myself. I would not be the main character in whatever I was writing. And I would put these characters through things, what they were feeling, what they were going through, and how they came out at the other end.

And that's what really helped me to get down into the sludge and the grime that I needed to get to in order to clean myself out. Christmas Under the Stars is based on my novel, The Christmas Tree Lot. And that story is based on a real Christmas tree lot in Richland Park, Illinois. So I would pass this Christmas tree lot going to the train and in the evening coming home from the train.

It was the one thing that always excited me about the approaching holiday season. I would go by in the morning and there's this old just beat up trailer sitting in the lot. And then I would come home in the afternoon and now the tent is up. And then the following morning I would go to work and maybe they would have some of the snow fence up around it or some of the decorations come home that afternoon. And now the trees are there and they're all in the ground and the netting. And then over the next few days, all that netting would be cut, the trees would be put up, the lights would be turned on. And it was just this fantastic, very quaint little Christmas tree lot.

So for years, I wanted to write a story about this Christmas tree lot. But I didn't quite know what I wanted to write. So I started creating characters and these scenarios and they were just bad.

One was just as worse as the other. I create my characters pretty much out of nothing. But sometimes a character comes to me like a real person who already exists and has been waiting for us to meet. And that character is Clem. And he was this old man who ran the Christmas tree lot. And the more I began to know this character and the more I began to know his background and his story, all of a sudden the story itself and the tree lot itself became dimensional. This wasn't just something on the page. And then other characters came along and the next thing I know, I've got myself a story. Once the novel was complete, it was time to get it out there into the world. So I started searching for an agent and that is a daunting task at best to just go through lists of agents and try to find those ones that you think you can connect with.

And I did. I'm very blessed to work with a great agent. Her name is Christina Hoogabree. She was able to get the Christmas tree lot in front of Hallmark and Hallmark was interested. They contacted her and they said, how would you feel about this being a movie?

She contacted me and asked me the same question. And I'm like, absolutely. I was just floored that this could potentially be a movie. Christmas Under the Stars is about a young man, Nick Beckwith, who's pretty full of himself and he pulls a couple very unscrupulous moves at the firm that he works for, loses his job. As he's trying to piece his life back together, he meets Clem Marshall, who owns and runs the Christmas tree lot. Clem convinces him to come and work for him at the lot to go ahead and band up the trees and tie into people's cars. Nick meets Julie.

They get to know each other and in true Hallmark fashion, they fall in love. And it all began right there at the Christmas tree lot. What started next was contracts were coming in, agreements.

There were a few things of that, just more legal matters, really. But when it all became real for me was when I saw the first production photos. There was Clark Peters as Clem. There was Jesse Metcalfe and Autumn Reeser as Nick and Julie. These were characters that I had created. And now they're real people and there's the trailer and there's the lot.

So that's when it really became real for me. Word got out and I was interviewed by a small local paper. There were radio interviews. Eventually the Today show came to the school and they filmed this wonderful piece for their show right there in the hallway. One day I was working with the guys in the gym and we're sitting up for this big basketball game and this call goes over the radio for me to come to the office. When I get there, I was handed a post-it note with a name and a phone number and then written at the very bottom of the post-it was People Magazine. And I just stared at this piece of paper thinking this has just gone beyond anything that I could ever imagine.

What I did is I put the paper in my pocket. I'm still on the clock. I have work to do. The guys are waiting for me. We have things that we need to accomplish by the end of the day.

We have a game in a few hours. That's how I was able to keep things in perspective. Yes, People Magazine is waiting to hear from me but they're going to have to wait until I'm done working. And you've been listening to Rick Dunlap tell his story.

A maintenance crew worker in a Chicago area high school who did what maintenance workers do, working on the ground with the lights, the plumbing, whatever needed to be done. But he was writing on the side to work out what he said was the sludge and grime of his life. He'd been recovering from alcoholism and now trying to figure out why he drank and how he could proceed with his life. As he put it, I needed to move on or give up. And writing became that way of moving on. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of the man who never dreamed that his creative writing would appear on the biggest Christmas channel around.

The story of Rick Dunlap continues here on Our American Stories. Cartier, Rolex, Gucci, Prada, Jordan, Adidas, Bottega, Veneta. At eBay, it's real or it's getting the fake out. eBay's team of luxury authenticators are making sure you never get faked over again. Watches inspected by watch aficionados, sneakers checked by legit sneaker heads, handbags examined by handbag connoisseurs, and jewelry in the scopes of expert gemologists. These authenticators are leaders in their field with meticulous eyes making sure your piece arrives as authentic as your style and worthy of your collection. As experts, they know the true difference between a real and a fake. Real carries that rare distinguished feel, the weight of pure platinum, exquisite scent of togo leather, the tight stitching on a pair of dunks, the brilliance of real diamonds.

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Call or go to for a quote today. You kind of had a meteoric rise and I know the person very well who came up with with your story. He wasn't on the road but he conceptualized it in the office.

Gosh, I mean I guess it was really helpful that I had grown up so rough and I survived so much before I ever got there that anything that happened was like sprinkles on top of a sunday of just surviving. State Farm, proud sponsor of the Michael Dura podcast network. Listen to new episodes of your favorite Michael Dura shows available on the iHeartRadio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Rick Dunlap, a Chicago area maintenance man whose novel was turned into a hallmark Christmas movie. When we last left off, Rick was setting up for a high school basketball game with his fellow maintenance men and he was notified that People magazine wanted an interview. An interview that Rick decided could wait until his work was done.

Back to Rick for the rest of his story. Once the movie was finished and it was ready to come out, Hallmark held this premier event in Los Angeles and this was a red carpet affair at a place called The Grove. They flew me out to Los Angeles and I have to say that the folks at Hallmark were all just outstanding people. They were friendly, upbeat, they were just a pleasure to be around and at this event I'm standing there and I'm watching all of these movie stars and Hallmark movies walk the red carpet and there's like 20 photographers taking pictures. There's producers, there's directors, all of these people walking the carpet and I'm standing there just taking all of this in and then this guy turns to me and he says okay it's your turn. I said well no you know I'm just here you know I'm not any of these people. He goes no we know who you are. He held up a piece of paper with my name on it. All the photographers took a picture and he said go and I'm walking the red carpet and it was just this unbelievable moment because like I said there's 20 photographers all taking pictures and I'm trying to take this in and yet at the same time I'm thinking do you people really know who I am? If we were back home I'm one of the guys who would help set up the red carpet and the stanchions and the chairs and get everything ready. After that there was a reception upstairs and I had the opportunity to meet Autumn Rieser and she is the actress who played Julie Gibbons from the movie and she was just this wonderful down-to-earth person. We talked briefly about books and favorite authors.

After that I met Jesse Metcalf who of course plays Nick in the movie and he too was just this really neat guy and we shook hands and we just started talking like we had already known each other. I had a little time to myself before we moved on in the event so I started walking around the Grove and the whole place is just decorated in Christmas. There's huge trees and lights. This is in Los Angeles. All of a sudden it just starts snowing and it was the coolest thing in the world.

I'm in Los Angeles. Some people are in shorts and short sleeves and it's actually snowing. They had snow machines on the roof and it was just a really neat experience.

I don't even think we had snow back home yet at that time. We all went across the Grove to an AMC theater and Christmas Under the Stars was on the marquee and we all go into the theater and they had a reserved seat for me down in the front but I sat as far back as I possibly could because I just wanted to take all of this in. I wanted to see you know the heads of Hallmark as they were talking about their season of movies and as they were talking about the success of Christmas Under the Stars.

I wanted to see everybody in the audience enjoying what they were watching. Before I returned to the hotel I went out by myself and I bought this ridiculously huge steak dinner. That's when I really sat down and celebrated what had happened. After I returned to the hotel I did call the representative, the Hallmark representative that I had been talking to for a month or two prior to that and I actually broke down as I was thanking her for everything.

It just all hit me at once and it was just one of those wonderful overwhelming moments. The day before I had left for Los Angeles my dad was admitted into the hospital and for the previous couple years he had just been struggling with an array of health issues. So my uncle and I, we went to see him in the hospital. Now my dad, he was not this touchy-feely guy.

He never saw the Hallmark movie. He and I were really were kind of polar opposites in that way but my uncle and I went to see him in the hospital and I told him everything that had happened. I went through the story two or three times. We laughed about it and I just shared this experience with my dad and I can see it in his eyes and I can see it just how happy he was to see how happy I was over this entire experience. That was the last real conversation that my dad and I had had. He died a short time later. What is so meaningful to me in that conversation that we had in his hospital room was that for a short time, for that moment, he and I came together as father and son.

I saw the pride and the excitement in his eyes. We had struggled for years, my entire life really, to make that father-son connection. But in that moment, in that hospital room, sharing this experience with him, we were both able to make that connection.

And if there had to be any way that my dad and I parted in this life, that's how I would want it to be. There was no, I'm sorry I wasn't this and I'm sorry I wasn't that. There was just laughter and it was enjoyment and we just sat taking in each other's company. When I'd returned to work, I was back for about a week and I received a letter from a 92-year-old woman in Florida. She didn't know my home address, so she had sent the letter to the school. In this short letter, she told me how much she enjoyed the movie and how it was beautifully acted. She had a few other things to say that were just very endearing to me. And that's when I knew that I had achieved what I set out to do, and that was to write something that touched people's lives.

And in all of this, her letter is the only piece that I have framed and hanging in my office. Christmas Under the Stars was released in 2019 and it has played almost constantly since its release. And it's great because I'll get phone calls occasionally or texts from people saying, you know, hey your movie is on. And it just it brings a huge smile to my face if it's the middle of July or if it's the beginning of December. And I know that this is just something that I will get to relive for the rest of my life and hopefully people will enjoy for the rest of theirs. The fascinating thing about creativity is it's all around us. And I know this when I walk down the halls at school and I see these kids drawing and singing, dancing. And I can't wait to see them discovered and put on a stage or in a film or a gallery.

And maybe they'll get to connect with someone close to them like I was able to do with my dad. I wrote a story about a Christmas tree lot that I intended to be a book. And even with all the rejections, I never gave up. I kept believing. Then the universe said, instead of a book, it's going to be a movie. And I know there's more to come.

If this can happen for a guy like me, a maintenance worker in a high school, it can happen for anyone. And a special thanks to Robbie for the help on the production on that piece and to John Elton for doing the interview, finding the story. John is a Chicago area history teacher. And what a story. We have to thank Rick Dunlap too, for sharing the ups and downs of his life. But that last meeting with his dad, his dad's in a hospital bed and he'd struggled to connect with his dad for years and years. And at the end, they had this moment. His father, Rick said, was so happy to see that his son was happy. And there were no regrets in that room, just laughter. And there were no regrets in that room, just laughter and joy. What a way to leave this world. The father and son connection finally established.

The story of Rick Dunlap, the story of how a book, The Christmas Tree Lot, Christmas Under the Stars, here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort earbuds too. Next-gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound, so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort earbuds too, soundshaped to you. To learn more, visit Whether you want to watch something fresh or familiar, you can feel the holiday spirit with Xfinity Flex. Say what to watch into your Xfinity voice remote.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-19 11:43:30 / 2022-12-19 11:52:32 / 9

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