Watt Ingenuity : Fountain Valley Neighborhood Lets It All Hang Out for Yuletide

Times Staff Writer

Oh, glorious excess.

Come one, come all, come revel in Christmas kitsch raised to new heights.

Or new lows. Depending on your point of view. Of course, if that is your point of view, maybe a trip to this Fountain Valley neighborhood is ill-advised. It would make you sick.

Here, when it comes to Christmas decorations, extremes are exalted and restraint resented.

"See that house over there," says one resident of Dahlia Circle. "Well, last year, he didn't even have lights!"

But that neighbor has since come around. A string of multicolored bulbs outlines the roof of his tract home. Perhaps next year--his neighbors can only hope--he will spring for some foil and ribbon to adorn his garage door.

His name is withheld to shield him from further embarrassment.

But everyone here knows who he is. It's just so obvious. His house is the one without the Chipmunks on the front lawn, without the accompaniment of Alvin, Simon and Theodore singing Christmas carols non-stop for at least five hours nightly.

The Chipmunks, you understand, are not to be confused with the Bears, who live just across the street. The Bears, for this Christmas season that began the day after Thanksgiving, ski down a gigantic snow mound, dance like Russian circus performers and just sit there looking like the cute dumpy creatures they are.

Next door, on the lawn covered in white upholstery batting, live the Gingerbread Men, or rather, the Gingerbread People. Two of the chubby little people are wearing skirts, painted sheet-metal skirts. All of their eyes blink in hues of red and green. Their bodies appear to shimmy, outlined as they are in flashing white lights.

On the corner, at the house with the gigantic "JESUS IS LORD" emblazoned in gold lights on the roof, there is what homeowner Denis DePierro calls a living Nativity scene on Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m., with free "friendship tea" thrown in.

Last Sunday, DePierro says, he and his wife gave away 700 cups of their homemade brew, a unique blend of Tang and tea. Members of his church, the Community Bible Church in Fountain Valley, sing Christmas carols while dressed as Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men and a few shepherds.

Today, Santa will be on hand to worship the baby Jesus, a doll.

"I think that puts the proper perspective on Christmas," DePierro says.

To a person, each of the residents say their Christmas decorating habit started with just a deceivingly innocent looking string of lights. Who would suspect that those shining bulbs would spread, like measles, throughout the neighborhood?

Hundreds of Cars

They have not only spread; they have joined with other varieties of Christmas decorations to form new holiday life forms.

On the corner of Shadbush Street and Dandelion Circle, the hundreds of cars that nightly cruise the neighborhood this time of year pause to take in the scene at elementary school teacher Bev Bromley's home.

Her neighbors are impressed with what she has managed to accomplish, all by herself.

The centerpiece of the display is a teeter-totter that moves up and down, nearly throwing off the monkeys sitting on top. A skiing bear seems to be ready to crash from the roof. And peeping out from behind the fence that divides Bromley's home from her neighbors', Spike, an animated doll, throws a snowball at a cute little blonde. Her head turns when she's hit.

True, Bromley says she can't begin to take all the credit. It's next-door neighbor Joe Finnell, an electrical engineer at McDonald Douglas, who is responsible for the animation.

But as everybody around these parts knows, that Joe is something else. He and his family are among the three veteran households held responsible for starting this decorating craze, Christmas trend-setters par excellence.

Purist's Dedication

A look at his house shows the dedication of a true Christmas purist.

"Yeh, they're kind of different from the rest of us," says Ed (the Chipmunks) Ahumada. "They don't use any plastic."

Betty Finnell, Joe's wife, explains that the family's Christmas decorating tradition was born 16 years ago, when they, like Ahumada, were newcomers in the neighborhood and their children were young.

"We put up a few things one year, then a little more the next, and then, it grew to this ," she says, surveying a scene that includes a tail-swishing horse pulling a sleigh, dancing dolls, and on the roof, busy elves and Santa cracking the whip to speed up some lazy reindeer.

Ahumada is right, the only plastic here is on the dolls, bought at Goodwill and brought to life by Finnell, who made the wooden elves, Santa and his reindeer.

Like her neighbors who put on similar no-holds-barred spreads, Betty Finnell says it's the audience reaction that causes her family to keep up the tradition.

"It's for the young children and the older children as well," she says, with a wink of her eye that looks like it was borrowed from ol' St. Nick himself.

Mr. and Mrs. Claus

But, then again, maybe it was. You see, Finnell will soon don his Santa garb and join neighbor Marilyn Brashear, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, to give out candy canes to passers-by this weekend.

Brashear, another of the neighborhood decorating veterans, says that she and Finnell have bought 6,000 candy canes. "But that won't even begin to cover the number of people that will come," she says.

Surely there are few houses, in this neighborhood or anywhere else, that can compare with Brashears' when it comes to hit-you-over-the-head Christmas spirit. She says it takes at least three weeks to assemble and place everything, including 115 fake Christmas trees and who knows how many plastic toy soldiers, candles, Santas, snowmen, creches, wreaths, gingerbread men and reindeer.

The multicolored lights that form their rooftop Christmas tree went up on Halloween. Christmas music, coming from a tape playing at Joe's house, is broadcast through Brashears' speakers out to the street each night continuously from sundown to about 10 p.m., maybe midnight on weekends.

"It really doesn't interfere with the Chipmunk music because they are farther away," she explains.

Last year, such extravagance jacked up the Brashears' electricity bill to $300 for December.

Brashear calls this her little Christmas gift to what she estimates to be thousands of people who come by for a look.

Every Room Decorated

"But we don't invite people in from outside," she says. "That would be too much."

Oh, but if she did . . . !

Inside the Brashear home, visitors would be amazed to find Christmas screaming at them from every corner of the house.

Yes, it's true, Brashear smiles, every single room in the house, without exception and not to mention that spot under the stairway, is dolled up in Christmas finery.

There are two Christmas trees--Marilyn points out that one of them is real--on the main floor, and another in her daughter's bedroom upstairs. A Santa Claus bathmat adorns the guest bathroom, and fake pine needles with plastic bell lamps snake around the stairway railing.

"I wish we had a big bay window so we could share all this with people," Brashear says.

But as one might imagine, all this is not everybody's idea of what Christmas should be about.

One neighbor, right in the thick of things on Dahlia Circle, says flat out that he doesn't like all the fuss and absolutely hates all the traffic that it brings.

A Neighbor's Dissent

"They may think I'm a bah humbug," says the neighbor, who requests that his name please not be used. "But let's just say I'm the moderate type. I've never been one of these follow the Joneses."

The neighbor, who also points out that he does have a few discreet lights twinkling on a tree in the front yard, says he could even stomach non-stop Chipmunk music if it weren't for the traffic.

"It's like a freeway out here," he says. "This attracts all types. They come with their radios. It's like a parade. It's really annoying."

None of this would have ever happened, he points out, "if everybody didn't start copycatting each other."

Kevin Strech, who proudly tells a visitor about the weekends that he has sacrificed to help his father assemble their Christmas display, does concede that neighbors have to put up with some inconvenience for the sake of spreading yuletide cheer.

"Sometimes it takes you 15 minutes just to get down the street here," he says. "Last year, we even had one of those mini tour buses come by."

Main Attraction

The Strech house, the final member of the veteran decorators' troika, on Dandelion just across from Shadbush, was doubtless a main attraction.

Here one comes upon Snoopy, looking smart in a stocking cap, circling the yard on a battery-operated train. Kevin Strech says the family keeps two batteries recharging at all times since the train runs out of steam about every two hours.

Lights--blinking, zigzagging and shooting--are everywhere, as are countless varieties of Santas, bears, snowmen and other Christmas staples. "SEASONS GREETINGS" shines brightly from the garage roof. Mike Strech helped Denis DePierro with his rooftop message, "JESUS IS LORD."

And you'll find that same white upholstery batting covering the Strechs' lawn. The owners of the Gingerbread People house, Rocky and Julie Fleeman, got a deal on it and spread it around the neighborhood.

Oh, but these are just a few of the Christmas wonders in this made-for-Christmas neighborhood. There's the custom-made "Christmas With the Chipmunks" jackets at the Ahumadas and the burgeoning bear population that has taken over the living room at the Calderwoods.

But that will just have to wait until next year.

WHERE THE LIGHTS ARE

Following are a few locations in the county with outstanding Christmas decorations:

The 2200 block of Santa Ana Avenue, Costa Mesa.

The 26500 block of Loma Verde, Mission Viejo.

The 3100 block of East Radcliffe Avenue, Anaheim.

The corner of 17th Street and Howland Way in Tustin.

The 15800 block of Maybrook Street, Westminster.

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