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November  2001

The Season - Watt's up
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Unless you’re a newcomer or rarely leave the house — and even then — you most likely have been exposed in some way to the Richmond area’s extreme fondness for holiday lights. Just in case you haven’t, let us take you back to where it all began.

A long time ago — if you consider 1986 a long time ago — Richmond’s Barry "Mad Dog" Gottlieb noticed a few local folks were into decking a good bit more than just the halls. His appreciation of their work, combined with a love for the holidays, led to the first Tacky Xmas Decoration and Grand Highly Illuminated House Tour.

Accompanied by other local media types, Mad Dog tooled around Richmond in a limo one night and chose the best and brightest, giving awards to the homes he considered worthy. Contests by his employer, the now-defunct WVGO, allowed listeners to win tickets on radio-sponsored bus tours.

Fast-forward to the year 2001. Radio-sponsored bus tours no longer are available, but local bus and limousine companies have picked up the slack.

Now, The Times-Dispatch’s Weekend section runs its tacky Christmas lights tour list — for people who want to drive it themselves — every Thursday during the season. The first list appears on Thanksgiving Day.

There’s also a list of available bus and limo services, which runs only on Thanksgiving Day.

Apparently tour fans’ enthusiasm knows no bounds, as queries come earlier every year. (The record so far was a call in July as to when "that tacky tour list" would run.)

Someone occasionally calls to complain about the word "tacky," not understanding it’s meant in a totally loving way.

On the other hand, what would you call a display that features a joyous if somewhat confusing array of Santa and the elves, a Nativity scene, ET on the roof and the whole Simpson family on the lawn?

A woman called one year to complain that her neighbor’s house, which was on the list, was by no means tacky. She was offended at the very idea, and hoped her neighbor’s address would be removed immediately, if not sooner.

Unfortunately, the caller didn’t leave her name or number. Otherwise, someone could have called back to explain that her neighbor had not only asked, but practically begged, to be included on the list.

The tacky Christmas lights tour has become such a Richmond tradition that its practitioners feel like family. They’ll call to let the paper know if they’re running late lighting up.

For example, one man broke his arm last year and was worried about missing his lighting ceremony till family and neighbors pitched in. People sometimes offer to help homeowners with the light bill; in response, some decorators leave out a box and let the paper know what charity that year’s contributions will benefit.

One gentleman, having decided to retire his display last year, passed on a sizable chunk of decor, as well as expertise, to an up-and-coming teen-age lighter-upper.

And so it goes. As it turns out, draping your home with 10,000 or 25,000 or 50,000 bulbs literally does light up people’s lives.

For the decorators, it’s a chance to shine. For "tacky tourists," it’s a fun and inexpensive way to paint the town red (and blue and yellow and green and pink) with family and friends.

© 2001, Richmond Newspapers Inc.



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