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He Lives to Spruce Up Your Spruce

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Christopher Radko strides into the elegantly understated lobby of the Hotel Bel-Air on his way to greeting a guest and stops short at the ornate Christmas tree. Cradling a hand-painted glass ornament of a Santa Claus holding a sack full of toys, he smiles and coos that it’s one of his favorites. They all might as well be his favorites, though, since every snazzy bauble on the tree is one of his--a Christopher Radko holiday ornament.

In the dozen years since Radko first introduced his pricey European-made glass pieces, his works have become a staple of holiday decorating. Martha Stewart may have designs on owning Christmas, but when it comes to Christmas ornaments, it’s Radko who is king. At 37, Radko is a phenomenon: He inspires thousands to shell out thousands--the average price is over $40--on his latest models. Many collectors have amassed so many ornaments that they decorate half-a-dozen trees or more in their homes. This season alone, he’s already shipped more than 2 million pieces from his base outside New York.

Radko’s ubiquitous ornaments hang in such stores as Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as numerous upscale gift and decor shops, not to mention displays at the White House. Richly colored and evocative of Victorian design, they’re the ones that look so delicate and thin, it seems that just by holding them, they’ll shatter in your fingertips.

This year’s catalog includes ornaments depicting such diverse figures as Abraham Lincoln, an astronaut and Judaic designs, but the overwhelming emphasis is on Christmas; there are 90 or so different items of St. Nick alone. There have been countless attempts at forgeries, which sell in the less-than-$10 range. But true Radko adherents can’t be fooled.

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Radko, who once worked in the mail room at International Creative Management and got into the bauble biz when a family tree toppled, destroying some heirloom ornaments, still seems awed by the hubbub. “Christmas isn’t something you can buy in a store,” says the charming ornament-mogul. “And it’s not a place you can go to. So when people tell me that I own Christmas, I take that as a very real responsibility. I didn’t invent Christmas; it’s the energy of Christmas that everyone is responding to.”

Radkophile Patty DeCristo would agree. She says Radko’s designs put her in a heightened holiday mood. That kind of euphoria costs a bundle. DeCristo has bought more than 100 of his new pieces so far this year for her Pasadena home, adding to her 1,600-Radko ornament collection.

The meticulously colored trinkets aren’t just jewelry for her tree. “My collecting is called obsessive-compulsive disorder in the extreme,” she jokes. “I’m at the point where I’m going to have to add a room onto my house if I keep this up. But I’ve met so many friends by collecting Radko. We chat on the Internet and we have monthly newsletters about the ornaments. I have real friends I’ve made.”

Still, even with a collection whose worth she estimates at $40,000, DeCristo is an elf in the Radko game; Ann Lafferty has spent nearly that much this year alone. With more than 4,000 pieces of Radko on five different trees in her San Gabriel house, and over 160 finials and garlands adorning mantelpieces, Lafferty qualifies as a Radko big leaguer. “People always think that because I have so much Radko that I’m very wealthy,” she says. “I’m not. I’m just rich in ornaments.”

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Recently, Lafferty and 175 or so other Radko disciples met at a Woodland Hills hotel to meet the man behind the season. Radko raised $8,000 that night for Tuesday’s Child (an AIDS charity) by charging participants $25 a pop for him to sign their ornaments. Radko’s signing events are now the stuff of legend among his devotees, with collectors swapping stories about where and when they’ve visited with him.

Radko’s style has been called romantic, Old World and traditional. “They’re delightful, whimsical, luxurious,” says Pam Galloway, owner of the tony boutique Ferret in Studio City. The first and second families agree. Radko left Los Angeles and flew to Washington, where he dressed up the fireplace mantles in the Green Room and the Red Room of the White House, and the Christmas tree in the vice president’s mansion.

The Radko phenomenon seems to stem from his ability to animate and return to Christmases past. “These ornaments look like the ones Grandma had on the tree,” says Rick Angel, owner of Chatsworth Florist, which sold more than 8,000 to ravenous customers this year. “He’s giving us our Christmas fantasy; it’s like crawling back into our childhood when you look at his work.”

Trimming Tips

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* Place the tree in warm tap water with one tablespoon of chlorine bleach and one tablespoon of corn syrup when it’s first set up. Then, each day, add fresh warm water mixed with one tablespoon of corn syrup. Occasionally, add another tablespoon of bleach. The warm water keeps the sap flowing; the bleach keeps the water fresh; the corn syrup provides sugar and energy to help the pine needles stay soft.

* To add glitter and sparkle at the trunk of the tree where it’s normally rather dark, wrap inexpensive gold or silver garland around the entire length of the trunk.

* Use fishing wire to secure the tree to a bookcase or a wall just in case of earth tremors.

* Run lights up the center of the tree and then fan the lights out onto the tips of branches, always returning the lights to the center. This will avoid having the wires hung around the tree in an unsightly pattern.

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* Use colored lights in addition to white lights. “Color adds mystery and magic to a tree,” says Radko.

* Place large ornaments at the bottom of the tree and smaller ones closer to the top to make it appear taller.


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