Neighbors carry on holiday tradition

Oak Drive
Russ and Patti Wassell of Montrose have had a long-running tradition of placing a magic Christmas wishing tunnel and Santa’s mailbox in front of their home on Oak Circle Drive. (Photo by Mike Mullen)

Constructed from PVC piping and anchored in place by steel rebar and wire tethers, the Oak Circle Drive Christmas wishing tunnel might be a curiosity to outsiders.

It doesn’t have the storied history of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena or the glitz of Candy Cane Lane in Woodland Hills, but seems a perfect fit in the Sparr Heights neighborhood in Montrose where residents have been collectively decorating their homes, inside and out, for as long as anyone can remember.

“It has always been a beautiful street, but it is most festive at Christmastime,” said 23-year resident Allen Brandstater. “It is interesting to watch people slowly driving by. This is an out-of-the-way place.”

Virtually everyone participates in the holiday feng shui, neighbors said. Once there was a competition to see who could come up with the most creative and elaborate displays. One competitive homeowner added additional lights almost nightly, residents recalled.


Another year neighbors stood on ladders propped up in pickup truck beds and drove around hanging enormous colored balls from the street’s signature trees.

But at the heart of the Oak Circle Drive Christmas culture is the wishing tunnel and its architect, Russ Wassell, who initiated the tradition in 1982 and scaled dubious scaffolding and rickety ladders to keep it going.

Fifteen feet tall and 50 feet long, the tunnel is covered in brightly colored lights that illuminate the faces of those who pass through. It attracts everyone from children to retirees, and more than a few lovers, said Russ’ wife, Patti Wassell.

“We hear all the teenagers at 11 p.m.,” Patti Wassell said. “They park their cars and they run through. You can hear them giggling.”


Several years ago, the Wassells had a surprise visit from a couple who had walked the tunnel the previous Christmas.

“They said, ‘We just have to thank you. We have been trying to have a baby for years and we went through your wishing tunnel,’” Patti Wassell said. “And they brought us the baby. I was so shocked. That just made it so special.”

The Wassells also added a mailbox to their front lawn where they receive, and then respond to, letters addressed to Santa Claus.

The tradition of the wishing tunnel has survived engineering challenges and fierce windstorms, but nearly came to an end two years ago after Russ Wassell, now in his 70s, fell from a ladder mid-installation.

“He hit the sidewalk,” his wife said. “How he didn’t really hurt himself was a miracle.”

The Wassells decided Russ Wassell could no longer do the heavy lifting, and Oak Circle Drive went without its wishing tunnel in 2010.

“I told everybody last year, ‘I am not going to do it again. I can’t go up there, I can’t stand up there, I can’t walk without wobbling,’” he said. “When you start wobbling on a scaffold or a ladder, you can get into a lot of trouble.”

The tunnel’s absence was deeply felt, so his neighbors decided to assume responsibility. A few days after Thanksgiving, more than a dozen people gathered at the Wassell home, and with Russ directing from below, they assembled the wishing tunnel.


“It is what you do at Christmas, you help people,” said Bill Saracino, who lives two blocks away on Angelus Avenue. “It was fun. It makes good neighbors. It makes for safe neighborhoods.”

The tunnel will remain up through New Year’s Day, the Wassells said.

On a recent evening, a dozen Oak Circle Drive residents, many who had helped construct the tunnel, gathered on the couple’s front porch to drink hot cider and watch visitors pass through.

“It was so heartwarming to know that it meant so much to them,” Patti Wassell said.