Twinkle, Twinkle, Tacky Holiday Lights

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Tacky holiday lights in Richmond, Va. i

Poor Rudolph's nose doesn't stand a chance of glowing amid the hopped-up holiday lights of Richmond. Neda Ulaby hide caption

itoggle caption Neda Ulaby
Tacky holiday lights in Richmond, Va.

Poor Rudolph's nose doesn't stand a chance of glowing amid the hopped-up holiday lights of Richmond.

Neda Ulaby

There's one in every community — the house no one can believe, groaning under a pile of Christmas lights and decorations. In Richmond, Va., these houses have become a beloved local tradition, with hundreds of Tacky Light Tour buses and limos prowling the city in search of elaborately decorated homes.

One of the most eagerly anticipated stops on the James River Bus line Holiday lights tour is the home of Frank Hudak. He's invested $8,000 to $10,000 in his Christmas house. You can see it from blocks away — if not from outer space.

Hudak and his family start decorating in October and the result dazzles, even among the hundred-plus highly decorated houses illuminating Richmond's northwest suburbs. Hudak himself wears suspenders and bright Christmas light buttons that magically glow on a dusky evening. His home boasts 55,000 lights and 4 miles of electrical wiring, plus 75 lighted lawn ornaments.

It is spectacular. But he believes that the tours are tragically misnamed. "I personally don't groove on the word 'tacky,'" says Hudak. "Because what I do is an expression of art."

John Ravenal, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, agrees. Sort of.

"It's popular art. It's art for the masses," says Ravenal, who recently curated a show on artificial light. "It's not really museum art. But we're out on the street. It's seasonal art."

Local radio personality Mad Dog — real name Barry Gottlieb — started the tacky light tours about 20 years ago. He says he wanted to tweak the sometimes staid sensibilities of a traditional Southern city. "There's a big part of Richmond that's always been conservative. And they liked their pretty little white lights and their plaid bows. I think these people were a little offended by it. But of course they all got in their cars and went to check out these houses."

The list of participants gets bigger every year. Al Thompson is a newcomer — he began lighting up, big time, in 2003. Now his house is a tour star. "We have 107,000 lights here," he declares to a busload of gawkers. He has reworked his electrical system and installed 80 outlets in his home's foundation to accommodate more than 400 extension cords. His December electric bill runs an extra thousand bucks.

There are two distinct schools of Christmas lights in Richmond, Va. You're a twinkler or a flasher. Al Thompson is a twinkler. Ralph Schuler is a flasher.

"I have 80 strobes on three channels and I can cut them off individually," Schuler explains. "The mirror ball, which I have for a really neat effect, keeps spinning all the time."

Schuler has synched his lights — about 90,000 of them — to a low-power radio station he runs out of his basement. Passing cars can tune in to enjoy a light show that includes a massive natural tree, a small forest of artificial trees, inflatable light-up snowmen and a herd of plastic reindeer — all flashing five different colors.

Schuler's system is operated by a computer program he learned about in an online discussion group for Christmas light fanatics, who tend to be basement tinkerers. And they pride themselves on making and reusing as much stuff as possible. It takes the Richmond tacky light decorators most of January and February to dismantle, repair and store their decorations. What they get out of it, says Frank Hudak, is spreading holiday cheer — and a message: "Live long, light much and prosper."

Not to mention, think ahead. Hudak is already dreaming up pans for next year's front yard spectacle.

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