Balboa Island couple’s ‘Christmas house’ puts tradition on display

When it comes to decorating for Christmas, “the reason is the season,” according to Balboa Island resident Jim Busby.

His Cape Cod-style house, with a vintage motorcycle in full view from the front window, occupies nearly three lots close to the Newport Harbor entrance on East Bay Front.

The Busby house has been a consistent winner of holiday awards, among them the Sweepstakes, Most Photogenic and Most Traditional awards in the yearly Ring of Lights home decorating contest. And this year, you can add the Ring of Lights’ Photographer’s Choice award, announced Tuesday by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“We never once decorated the house to win an award,” Busby said. “But it’s nice to win and always fun.”

Busby and his wife, Judy, have maintained a traditional style of Christmas decorating similar to what they grew up with — Jim in Pasadena and Judy in Atlanta.

“I like to make people happy when they’re on the walkway,” Judy said. “It’s giving them joy, and that’s our joy.”

The house features red and green wreaths inside and out, knit stockings hanging from the mantle above the wood-burning fireplace and vintage gold ornaments adorning the 9-foot Christmas tree as holiday music plays throughout.

“It’s not a Disney movie, it’s not animated, it’s a very traditionally decorated home,” Jim said.

Jim’s relationship with the house, which was built in 1941, goes back to when he was a kid. Since it was the only house on the island that had grass, he and a friend would play football there every summer while vacationing on the island for two weeks.

While living in Laguna Beach in 1973, Jim and his first wife decided to look for a house in Newport Beach so their children could go to school there.

One day, as Jim was at the Santa Ana courthouse looking at a corkboard full of photos of furniture, boats, cars and houses, a Balboa Island house with a pink and white roof caught his attention. It was listed as a probate sale, and he instantly recognized it as the house where he had played as a kid.

“It was always my favorite house, and it’s mind-boggling that I’m the only one who showed up to bid,” said Jim, who paid $510,000 for it.

“The day we moved in, there was a knock at the door and a man offered us $900,000,” Jim said. “Here I was a 30-year-old kid with five kids and a wife, and it was really tempting. But we declined.”

Jim, who retired in 1991, once had a career as a professional race car driver, even winning the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside Raceway in 1981.

Judy, who retired in 2005, was a personal fitness trainer, massage therapist and nutrition counselor. ”I still tell everyone what to eat,” she joked.

Jim and Judy met 25 years ago and found they share a love of decorating for Christmas. It’s become a cooperative effort.

“We’re both obsessed with Christmas,” Judy said. “We love it, and it’s kind of a Christmas house. We have to stop each other from buying new stuff for Christmas.”

Two large mesh reindeer are the only change they’ve made in 20 years, besides the addition of energy-efficient lights, which they were reluctant to use because they lack the warm glow of traditional incandescent lights.

“Judy tried not to go with the LED lights until this year, which are only in trees,” Jim said. “We’re coming up with ways to save energy and still put on a light show.”

Jim said the island’s original beach cottages weren’t built for the electrical overloads that holiday lighting requires. Since most people didn’t live there full time in 1941, especially during December, there was no need to upgrade power capacity. Even though the Busbys’ electrical wiring has been changed from fuses to a breaker panel to carry the extra load, the additional holiday lights are still a strain on the power.

“When I tried hanging icicles around the house in the past, I couldn’t get anything to work inside,” Jim said. “It caused so much trouble popping breakers all the time.”

As for the motorcycle in the living room, the 1946 Harley-Davidson WLA has become a distinguishing characteristic of the home. That model was produced to Army specifications in the years during and around World War II, meaning it could serve well on dirt roads in Europe. But with a top speed of 35 mph, it was never intended for use on regular roads.

Since Jim wanted to get where he was going in reasonable time, he decided to make the bike a showpiece. And during the holidays, it’s decorated.

Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.