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WANT A WHITE CHRISTMAS? JUST ORDER ONE. : Faking Winter

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It was nearly 80 degrees last week when Irene Davis went out searching for a White Christmas. She found one--in a 13-ounce aerosol spray can.

The 30-year-old Pasadena resident plunked down $1.19 for a can of Santa Snow, whose chemical contents simulate the powdery white stuff when sprayed on trees, wreathes and windows.

“I have a son who wanted a snow-flocked tree,” said Davis, who concedes she left her love for snow behind in her native Massachusetts. “For people who can’t have snow, I guess this artificial snow is the next best thing.”

The odds of Los Angeles having a White Christmas are about as good as, well, a snowball’s chance in you know where. But if nature won’t provide a winter wonderland, many Californians will just as soon buy one with the help of numerous products.

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Companies, most located in colder climes, churn out about 10 million cans of aerosol snow a year and are now introducing products that simulate crystallized ice. Others produce plastic flakes, icicles and synthetic cotton dropcloths that can transform a Northridge living room into a scene from New England.

There are even local businesses that for $300 will crunch ice into tiny pieces and spread it on your front lawn to look like snow.

When compared to sales of lights and ornaments, the artificial snow business is quite small. But the products--many around for three decades--have become a seasonal staple, thanks to those who want to duplicate images of snowbound holidays popularized on greeting cards, television shows and in song. Even if it is 75 degrees outside.

“Many people’s concept of Christmas is a cold, white Christmas--the Bing Crosby deal,” said Damon Stathatos, general manager of the Stats crafts and floral supply chain, where customers buy synthetic cotton and plastic flakes to simulate snowdrifts. “It’s snowing on almost every TV show at Christmas time.”

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Demand for the fake white stuff is strong even in parts of the country where icicles hang around until March. “We sell just as much up North as we do down South,” said Doris Haberman, assistant to the national sales manager at the National Tinsel Manufacturing Co., which makes plastic snowflakes and other decorations. “You wouldn’t use real snow in your store display and in your house.”

Even in Canada, there is a demand for “snowing Christmas trees” made by an animation and display company in Southern California. “It’s just like selling an icebox to an Eskimo,” said Duke Ottinger, founder of the Ottinger Display and Animation Co. in Corona. These snowing Christmas trees, which spew a stream of white Styrofoam beads from the top of an artificial tree, are used in shopping malls and other displays, he said, and sell for up to $5,500.

The notion that residents of warmer parts of the nation--including downtown Los Angeles, where a trace of snow was last recorded in 1951--would spend money to create an artificial winter strikes some as silly. “It’s not natural,” said Stathatos, a native Californian. “We don’t live in the snow.”

Surprise for Fiance

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“In your warm climates, I think it would look foolish to have Christmas trees filled with snow,” said Don Virzi, vice chairman of Chase Products, maker of Santa Snow and reportedly the first company to introduce aerosol snow in 1955. “It’s not consistent with your environment. Although there are people who like doing that.”

That seems the case:

- At the Christmas Shoppe in Arcadia, customers have purchased enough iridescent plastic icicles--priced at $21.50 for a 3-foot length--to cover the front of their homes. “Obviously we have people that must like that look or they wouldn’t be spending that type of money,” said shop owner Marilyn Palfrey.

- At Riverside Ice Co., owner Gary Wittenmyer charges $300 for 16 blocks of ice that are crushed into a powder and then used to decorate the front yards and even the roofs of homes and businesses. The powder--about the consistency of the ice in snow cones--is sprayed to look like fresh-fallen snow.

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As of last week, he said he had more than 200 inquiries and had sprayed five homes. One customer, wanting to surprise his fiance, recently arranged to have snow spread over the front porch of the couple’s home on their wedding day.

“She was from the East, so I guess he wanted to make her feel at home,” Wittenmyer said.

- Patrick Esposito, product manager at Hydrosol Inc., maker of Holly Trim products, received a call from a Texas man in charge of a local Christmas parade. “He wanted to know how much snow they would need to spray the entire parade route--two miles,” said Esposito, who figured the gentleman needed a can 150 feet high.

Artificial snow became a low-cost alternative to the real thing begining in the 1950s with the arrival of new aerosol and plastic technologies. Before that, people used to frost their windows with something akin to soap or used to flock trees with paper pulp sprayed from canister vacuum cleaners set in reverse.

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“Like many products, it started out really slow,” said Virzi at Chase Products, which also makes 900 different kinds of aerosol products. “It took five to seven years before it became an ‘in’ item.”

Most chemical spray snows are composed of a wax, which provides a basic structure, and a plastic resin, which fills in the structure with a white, puffy substance, Virzi said.

Peaked About 10 Years Ago

A good artificial snow is praised for a flaky, fluffy texture and “clean white” color. Santa Snow, for example, contains a blue pigment to give it an icy, clean white look, Virzi said.

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The popularity of aerosol snow peaked about 10 years ago, when twice the current amount was being used to flock trees--the No. 1 use of the compound, Virzi said. Ironically, sales of fake snow have sufferred because of the growing popularity of another holiday product: artificial Christmas trees.

“People don’t spray artificial snow on artificial trees,” said Virzi, who noted that many people don’t like to clean a flocked artificial tree. Unfortunately, artificial snow loses its color over time. So when fake trees are brought out of storage, the fake snow left on them looks much like dirty slush.

That’s why even the artificial Christmas tree at Chase Products headquarters goes without flocking. (But Santa Snow has been liberally applied to office windows, Virzi added.)

Even in its heyday, artificial snow products were never as big a seller as tinsel and other Christmas ornaments. “It’s a very small portion of sales,” said Esposito at Hydrosol. “Not all stores will carry snow. But every store will carry tinsel and ornaments.”

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What else can you use artificial snow for? Not much, it turns out. Chase Products once tried to sell a modified version of Santa Snow as an insulating material for water pipes, but sales never took off.

And there are many who wonder why anyone would ever want to use the stuff as snow in the first place.

“I hate snow,” said Haberman at National Tinsel in frosty Manitowoc, Wis. “All I have to do to see snow is open up a window and there it is.”


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