Home Alone is one of those things that is such a part of the collective American consciousness that it can be absorbed osmotically simply by existing in our culture. I didn’t live through Watergate, but I know that Richard Nixon was a tool. I wasn’t alive in the 80s either, but I know how to dance the robot (not very well). And when my editor asked me to write an in-depth history and analysis of the iconic pizza delivery scene from Home Alone, I had an epiphany: I was pretty sure I had never seen Home Alone. But it didn’t matter; I knew exactly what she was talking about. By the time I was actually sitting and watching Home Alone for research, I realized I could quote along with the movie, despite never having seen it in full.
Home Alone is, fundamentally, a pizza movie. It was a fight over pizza between eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (played by Macaulay Culkin) and his older brother Buzz that gets Kevin sent upstairs, where he remains as the rest of his family accidentally departs to France without him. The pizza galvanizes the predicament that frames the whole narrative.
Then, of course, there’s that one-minute-and-54-second-long pizza delivery scene that unfolds later in the film. If it’s been a while, or if you’ve never seen Home Alone, let me jog your memory: Hungry, alone, and already having demonstrated his insatiable desire for cheese pizza earlier in the film, Kevin orders the goods from a local pizzeria called Little Nero’s. To conceal his youth and vulnerability, he sets up an elaborate ploy to use clips from an old gangster movie, the fictional film noir Angels with Filthy Souls, to interact with the delivery person from a safe distance. Luckily, a violent drug-deal scene from the movie-within-the-movie presents some relevant dialogue, the audio from which Kevin uses to communicate and complete the transaction by acrobatically rewinding and fast-forwarding to his quotes of choice.
The ploy plays out without a hitch. When the delivery boy—the same as in an earlier scene—arrives, he finds a note that says “Back door please.” Said delivery boy goes to the back door, knocks, and is greeted by the stereotypically old-timey gangster voice of Johnny, a murderous boss-like character from Angels with Filthy Souls.
Johnny: Who is it?
Delivery boy: It’s Little Nero’s, sir. I have your pizza.
Johnny: Leave it on the doorstep and get the hell outta here.
Delivery boy: Okay, um, well, what about the money?
Johnny: What money?
Delivery boy: Well, you have to pay for your pizza, sir.
Johnny: That a fact? How much do I owe ya?
Delivery boy: Uh, that’ll be $11.80, sir.
[Kevin slips $12 through a doggie door]
Johnny: Keep the change, ya filthy animal.
Delivery boy: Cheapskate…
Johnny: Hey, I’m gonna give you ‘til the count of ten to get your ugly, yella, no-good keister off my property before I pump your guts full o’ lead. One... two… ten!
[The sound of gunfire emanates from the TV, and the poor delivery boy scrambles to his car, lamenting the decline of Chicago’s previously safe and prosperous North Shore suburbs.]
I may have actually mouthed the “Keep the change…” part as it happened on-screen. It’s the most iconic scene from the most iconic holiday film of my generation. It may be the most iconic movie pizza scene of all time. So, I set out on a crusade to learn everything possible about this scene.
The McCallisters were rich. It’s never really explicitly stated, but—like the unrealistically large West Village apartments of an out-of-work actor and a paleontologist on Friends—the implicit comforts serve to create a bit of a fantasy world, in which characters can focus on the quotidian dramas at hand without any existential worries. (Kevin’s—and in real life, Macaulay’s—existential worries come later.) According to John Muto, Home Alone’s production designer, “John Hughes movies take place in a certain world. It’s clear they weren’t going to be poor.”
Fundamentally, this prosperity is reflected in the family’s large, well-appointed brick Georgian house, which actually sold in 2012 for nearly $1.6 million. Jacolyn Bucksbaum (formerly Baker), the location manager who found the house, told me that although demonstration of wealth was not the intention of that selection, she recognized that “they took nine people to Paris, for God’s sake.”
The setting of Winnetka, Illinois, happens to be the wealthiest town in Illinois. And more importantly, it’s a great place for kids like Kevin McCallister. Prior to the writing of this story, I had heard of Winnetka through a book by Jonathan Kozol called Savage Inequalities, a landmark text on education policy condemning the great disparity in quality between schools in rich and poor areas. Of students at Winnetka’s New Trier High School, Kozol says that “by the time they enter ninth grade… they are in a world of academic possibilities that far exceed the hopes and dreams of most schoolchildren in Chicago.” And of the town: "The Washington Post describes a neighborhood of ‘circular driveways, chirping birds, and white-columned homes.’ It is, says a student, a ‘maple land of beauty and civility.’”
All of this is to say that Kevin McCallister had likely known little hardship before finding himself in his lonely predicament. And it is in defense of this comfort and domestic tranquility, of his family's stately, well-lit mansion, that makes Kevin’s oft-violent quest to protect his house understandable. Muto, who also worked on Home Alone 2, hypothesized to me that many of the negative reactions to the sequel could be attributed to the fact that, without a noble cause like protecting his family home, Kevin comes across as an unjustifiably aggressive menace in the second film.
The moneyed setting might also explain why the pizza is so expensive. One cheese pizza from Little Nero’s, the movie’s fictional delivery pizzeria, cost $11.80. This may be a reasonable price for a pizza now, but this movie was set 27 years ago, in an era of cheaper pizza. Muto—who did the drawings on the Little Nero’s pizza boxes—confirmed to me that Little Nero’s was a play on Little Caesar’s. Despite numerous calls to Little Caesar’s corporate offices, I couldn’t exactly nail down the price of a cheese pizza from that chain in Winnetka in 1990, but I I found numerous television commercials for a national 1990 Little Caesar’s promotion of two medium pizzas with eight toppings for a total of $8.88. The McCallisters were splurging.
Although the house features so prominently in the film, all of the interior shots were actually filmed on sound stages constructed inside the gymnasia of New Trier High School, which was closed at the time. This setup necessitated filming this iconic scene in two separate locations, on two separate occasions. The delivery guy’s part was shot outside the actual house, although that particular doorway was added for the film, as if the house weren’t big enough; the scenes of Kevin inside were shot on a sound stage in the school. They each would have been talking to nobody—impressive acting from a child and a mysterious teenager (more on that later).
As Muto said, Little Nero’s was meant to be a play on Little Caesar’s. But to go a step deeper, Nero was the emperor of Rome from 37 to 68 A.D. There are some salient parallels between the stories of Nero and Kevin McCallister. After being sent upstairs as punishment for the pizza fight, Kevin renounces his family. The rest of the film is the journey of Kevin’s realization that family is more important than pizza, toys, or youthful indiscretion. But during this process, he nearly lays waste to his house, the family domain with which he has been temporarily entrusted.
Nero also inherited control of his family’s domain—the Roman Empire—at a young age. But he didn’t do such a great job protecting the domain, or his family. He eventually ordered the assassination of his own mother, who was famously overbearing during his early life. And most famously, the Great Fire of Rome destroyed much of the ancient city during his reign; ever since, legend has held that Nero may have started the fire himself, and that he even spent the duration of the conflagration contentedly playing the fiddle. (Hence the slogan of the fictional pizzeria: “No fiddlin’ around!”)
Was this historical reference meant to parallel Kevin’s dire task of protecting his own domain, and of rectifying his ties with his family? Was the first appearance of the Little Nero’s car subtly challenging Kevin not to become a tyrant, like that infamous Roman?
According to Muto, absolutely not. “It was just Little Caesar’s,” he said matter-of-factly. He’s probably right. But who knows what John Hughes was thinking (R.I.P.).
We never see the pizza itself in the scene in question, but we do get a glimpse of Little Nero’s product at the beginning of the film. Upon close inspection of the pizza, I first wondered whether it was unusual that Chicagoans would order a pizza that is not deep-dish, which is, of course, the Windy City’s culinary specialty. To answer this question, I contacted Liz Barrett, the author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.
“Anybody who lives in Chicago knows that people who live there don’t order deep dish,” she said. “It’s really like a tourist thing.” But there is a real local quirk of Midwestern pizza: the party cut, in which a round pizza is cut into square slices.
Personally, I think the party cut is an abomination. It leaves all interior slices without any circumferential crust, rendering them both undesirable and messy to hold. Furthermore, the discrepancy between interior and exterior slices would preclude an egalitarian pizza experience. Pizza is meant to be a great equalizer, yet a pizza with some clearly better and worse slices would create a disparity of satisfaction. The McCallisters seemed to know this; their pizza was cut into triangular slices—thank God. After all, they’re not the type of family to be fettered by provincial local traditions. They’re cosmopolitan, the type of family to jet off to Paris so casually that they might forget one of their own children.
The party cut thing had to be accounted for, according to Home Alone’s prop master, Billy Dambra, who works primarily in Chicago. “If you don’t specify, they’ll cut it into squares,” he said. “I just say make the pizza, and I’ll cut the pizza myself.’ […] I didn’t let them cut it.”
The first thing I asked Dambra was whether this was real pizza. I know props departments can be creative. It was, in fact, real pizza, and onscreen pizza is “99 percent of the time” real, he assured me.
It was also copious. Running out of prop pizza would have been a disaster for a property master like Dambra. “I also do weapons work,” he said. “It’d be like me doing a shootout with a bunch of gunfire and running out of bullets. I’d be looking for a job. And the same thing goes with food [...] I probably ordered 20 pizzas.”
What happened to all these pizzas, I wondered? “I had the crew eat them,” Dambra told me. It was a pizza-laden set for a pizza-laden movie.
Although Dambra didn’t remember exactly where he ordered the pizzas from, cinematographer Julio Macat had a hunch: Piero’s, in nearby Wilmette, Illinois. The restaurant is still there, and when I called it up, a woman named Mary confirmed that they were indeed around in 1990 and would have been one of just a few pizzerias in the area at the time. However, she didn’t remember sending 20 pizzas to a film set, because her sister ran the place at the time. By the way, they do default to the party cut. (Ugh.)
Although the pizza was real, rather than some artificial prop, Macat did work some cinematography magic to enhance it. We never see Kevin open his pizza box, but a scene portraying just that was filmed. If it hadn’t ultimately been cut, we would have seen a puff of steam—a visible cue of deliciousness—emanating from the box as it opened. It was, according to Macat, “a small amount [of fog] from a fogger machine from special effects on the crew,” all serving “to enhance [the pizza’s] awesomeness.” He learned this trick from filming food commercials.
As for the delivery guy’s erratic driving, Muto told me that this was meant to parody the now-fading practice of pizzerias promising quick delivery or your money back. The guarantee, he said “was sort of cute until they started having accidents because these kids driving the pizza trucks would crash into people trying to make the 20 minutes. And that’s what happens in the movie.” The Little Nero’s car twice knocks over a statue on the McCallister’s front lawn.
In 2015, to commemorate Home Alone’s 25th anniversary, UberEATS actually delivered Little Nero’s pizza to customers in the Chicago area.
THE GANGSTER MOVIE
Vanity Fair published an excellent history of Angels with Filthy Souls in 2015. Highlights of its creation include that it was shot in a single day, and that its title was made up on the spot as an homage to Angels with Dirty Faces when the art director realized that the crew needed something to write on the label of the prop VHS tape. (“Macat is still pleased with the way Snakes dies toward camera and continues to be sprayed with bullets face-down on the floor,” might be the line from Vanity Fair’s piece that best evokes the craziness of the fake movie.)
But Dambra also proudly touted to me the fact that the machine gun in the fake film was real, and belonged to him. “It’s an original Thompson 911. That gun’s worth a lot of money. I used to own a ton of weapons.” I haven’t been able to find any evidence that there has ever been a gun called a Thompson 911, but maybe that’s why it’s so valuable.
The ploy in which Kevin uses the movie characters to communicate with the pizza guy has spawned a legacy of its own. Soundboards are Adobe Flash applications or programs in which multiple pre-recorded quotes, usually from movies, are arranged in a sort of keyboard to be played as needed in simulated conversation. In the early 2000s, soundboard prank calling—especially using Schwarzenegger quotes from Terminator—became a phenomenon. I haven’t found any evidence of this practice before Home Alone. Did Kevin McCallister originate the soundboard prank call?
THE DELIVERY BOY
There couldn’t be an in-depth investigation into this scene without trying to track down Dan Charles Zukoski, who played the delivery boy. A little goofy-looking and awkward, yet displaying an adolescent self-assuredness, he is the quintessential movie pizza boy. And 27 years later, he’s proven to be quite the elusive character.
Often when a famous person stops being famous or steps out of the public eye, people assume he or she died. A Google search of the actor’s name yields almost exclusively results of people discussing whether or not Zukoski is dead. He has a couple of bit parts in the early 1990s listed on IMDB, as does another person named Dan Charles, which second second assistant director Geoffrey Hansen said he had written down as the guy’s professional name. Hansen also had written down the actor’s mom’s home phone number (I called it; disconnected), the actor’s phone number (also disconnected), and a number for a manager named Wayne at the Chicago-based agency Neuvelle (defunct; phone number disconnected).
Bucksbaum, who worked with John Hughes on a number of films, remembered that the legendary filmmaker had a habit of picking out random people from the crew, or their relatives, for small parts. She suspected Zukoski might have been the beneficiary of said practice: “I don’t know if he was, like, related to somebody on the crew, but I don’t think he was a professional actor,” she said. “He was a goofy kid.”
The other members of production team that I spoke with all seemed to remember the guy fondly, but he is nothing more than a distant memory for any of them. One of them actually took home and still owns the Little Nero’s jacket that Zukoski wears in the scene, though he requested anonymity since John Hughes’s company once threatened to get litigious over a different prop.
I’m inclined to believe that Zukoski didn’t die, but instead just stopped acting and eventually assumed a normal life. He escaped the trevails of child stardom and likely reached a well-adjusted adulthood. The same can’t be necessarily said for Macaulay Culkin.
Macaulay Culkin is the ultimate child star, and his story is the ultimate child star story. I don’t need to get into it, but as is often the case, his early fame famously robbed him of a normal childhood, and he eventually tried to retreat from the spotlight.
And now, as an adult, he seems to have retained a bizarre fixation on pizza. In 2013, Culkin released his first “film” in years: a four minute, 27-second YouTube video entitled “Macaulay Culkin Eats a Slice of Pizza.” The title is the plot.
It turned out that the video was a promotion for his new band, the Pizza Underground, which is now ambiguously sort-of defunct. Around the time of the video’s release, the band recorded a demo and played a few shows in which they performed mainly parodies of Velvet Underground songs, with the lyrics changed to be pizza-related. In 2014, the Pizza Underground released (via VICE’s own Noisey) a music video featuring a bizarre pizza wallpaper, pizzas strung from a roof, pizzas used as face masks, and a drummer drumming on a pizza box.
In my attempts to reach Culkin, I actually got as far as the members of the Pizza Underground. They happen to be friends of a friend. However, they wouldn’t talk, and they told me that to get to their famous frontman, I’d have to go through his publicist, adding that they hadn’t actually heard from him in a while. They seemed protective.
Of course they’d be protective. The tabloids have always been speculative, and often unkind, about Macaulay Culkin’s life after child stardom. Is his pizza obsession an attempt to reclaim a childhood, or to revisit something so strongly associated with his early life and career that he might somehow make sense of his complicated boyhood?
Pizza is a particularly nostalgia-prone food. According to Barrett, the pizza expert: “Growing up, when you’re a kid, you associate pizza with all things that are fun. As you get older, that stays with you. You remember the warm fuzzy feelings of being a kid and enjoying pizza with your family.”
The time of Home Alone’s production would have been just about the last period of Macaulay Culkin’s life in which he might have felt normal. Although he had been in some successful films, it was the release of Home Alone that truly catapulted the kid to superstardom. During the filming, it wasn’t exactly clear that Culkin was happy—many of the on-set witnesses I spoke to recalled his father being overbearing and strange—but he was at least a kid. And at the time, even more than most kids, he was eating a lot of pizza.
I hope I’m wrong, and that Macaulay Culkin is doing OK, and that he just still really likes pizza. But pizza truly can be a retreat from adulthood for those of us who need it, as can the movies of our youth.
Home Alone represents both of those things: a warm movie from simpler times, and pizza. It’s not just about pizza; it is pizza. Perhaps that explains the film’s spectacular staying power.
Otherwise, I don’t really know why Home Alone has stayed so popular. It’s pretty cheesy. ZING!
WATCH: Exploring the Internet's Pizza Obsession on The Pizza Show