|''There's more to
Christmas than a string of running cedar and a beige candle in the window. I just know
it!'' cried little Tommy.
Then a balding man named
Barry Gottllieb, a k a Mad Dog, moved to the scruffy little town from somewhere up north
and noticed that the children were sad.
''This is a scruffy little town where the children seem
sad and all the Christmas decorations are beige. Except for the running cedar,'' Mad Dog
was rumored to have said. ''What we need is something called the Tacky Xmas Decoration
The idea blossomed like a poinsettia.
Now Mad Dog is leaving the ancient, not-so-scruffy city
for a laid-back spot on the West Coast. But his wackiness will live on -- the little flame
he lit in the scruffy city has become a wildfire. Which is why, from the air at
Christmastime, Richmond and its suburbs resemble an incendiary device.
''When we came here it was sort of like everybody used a
candle in the window for decorations,'' said Dan Wollschlager, who lives at 5712 Maple
Brook Drive in Chesterfield's Woodlake development.
Wollschlager missed the excitement of Christmas displays
back home in Hale's Corners, Wis., and chanced a modest string of brightly colored lights
his first year in the ttony community. That was six years ago and, like Gottlieb, the
Wollschlagers have helped turn lthe neighborhood into a bonfire of community pride and
When Wollschlager's 70-plus mother visited a few years ago
and saw how the family tradition had evolved, her words matched those of many first-time
visitors: ''She said, 'Oh, my God,' '' son Dan recalled.
Now Woodlake knocks the stockings off Hale's Corners when
it comes to decorations and Woodlake neighbors vie against one another for Best
Neighborhood. The Wollschlagers, even with daughter Kelly at college and wife Heidi
partially incapacitated by a shoulder operation, keep a bulb or two ahead of most of the
''We had to add new categories in (the Woodlake Winter
Wonderland) contest because people were saying there's no way we can beat the
Wollschlagers,'' said a Woodlake source. ''We get into it pretty good,'' DWollschlager
Gottlieb said this week that he doesn't expect his move to
the West Coast will dim the holiday brightness around Richmond.
''I was thinking about putting out my official list of
tacky houses again this year but I realized that this whole thing pretty much runs on its
His fondest memories will be of the outpouring of interest
when the tacky house tour began 10 years ago. ''I figured I could rent one of those
trolleys for about 15 people,'' said Gottlieb.
''That filled up right away. Then I rented a bus and that
filled up in an hour. Then I rented another bus and that filled up.''
At one house decked out in blue lights, tour members
spontaneously broke into Elvis' ''Blue Christmas.'' At another house, tthey marveled at
the lifelike figures on the roof wrapped in lights. ''After a while, we realized that the
lifelike figures were real people,'' Gottlieb said, laughing.
Now a house draped in 20,000 or 30,000 lights is common.
Bus tours. Cab tours. Limo tours. Endless streams of gawkers, some from as far away as
Washington. Endless newspaper and television publicity.
''I was thinking a helicopter tour would be a great way to
go out,'' said Gottlieb.
''Oh, no. That can't be,'' said Virginia Johnson, when she
heard Gottlieb won't put out a list this year and there won't be an official tackiest
A past first-place winner, Johnson said her home at 2100
Rosewood Ave. in Randolph is pushing 70,000 lights. ''We can't go sideways, so we're going
up,'' she said.
Cathy and Michael Ward, who live at 11251 Dumaine Drive
off Genito Road, said their home is barely recognizable this year.
''I've got a big tree up on the roof 25 feet high,''
Michael Ward gushed. ''There's an eight-foot-wide star on top and a sign across the roof
saying Happy Holiday and . . . .'' Well, you get the idea. Even at Halloween, kids who
come by the Wards ask how long 'till Christmas.
Ward got a little anxious when asked how many lights he
has. ''I don't know. t . . . But these are big lights, not those little ones. C7s and C9s.
The number doesn't mean that much. It's how big they are.''
Don't think it's all fun and games, either. The lights at
the Wards always are illuminated on the weekend closest to Dec. 2. That's the day Cathy
Ward's mom died.
The list of spectacularly decorated homes is growing, and
so is the commercialism. You can visit one of the largest displays, 1 1/4 miles of lighted
scenes, at The Fairgrounds on Strawberry Hill. Proceeds go to Atlantic Rural Exposition's
It all staggers Gottlieb. ''I have this image of 20 years
from now Richmond being the biggest place in the world for Christmas lights and people
will all be asking, 'How did this thing ever get started?'
''It's like I've seen the ghost of Christmas future. But
I'm not going to be anywhere around. When they come looking for me I'll be in Bangkok or
Havana sitting at a bar sipping some Jose Cuervo.''
© 1996, Richmond Newspapers Inc.