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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's one in every community - the house groaning under a pile of Christmas lights and decorations. In Richmond, Virginia, hundreds of buses and limos visit these houses in the Tacky Light Tour.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

NEDA ULABY: One of the most eagerly anticipated stops on the James River Bus Line Holiday Lights Tour is the home of Frank Hudak. You can see it from blocks away and maybe from outer space.

Unidentified Woman: This is the Christmas house for over 30 years. He has $8,000 to $10,000 invested in this creation.

ULABY: 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 wears suspenders and bright Christmas light buttons that magically glow on a dusky evening.

Mr. FRANK HUDAK: Right now, we have over 55,000 lights out here with four miles of electrical wiring just to hook this all up.

ULABY: This includes over 75 lighted lawn ornaments. John Ravenal, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is among tonight's hundreds of delighted observers.

Mr. JOHN RAVENAL (Curator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts): There's igloos and Santas and (unintelligible) scenes and Winnie the Poohs and toy soldiers. There's a choo-choo train. But the thing that I really like the most is that he's strung these lights from the bottom of these trees to the top. I mean that must be 50, 60 feet up.

Unidentified Child: Wow. How long did it take you to get that rope up there? And how do you get a way up there? That's cool.

ULABY: Hudak welcomes the busloads of Tacky Light visitors. But he thinks the tours are tragically misnamed.

Mr. HUDAK: I personally don't approve on the word tacky. What I do is an expression of art.

ULABY: But is it art?

Mr. RAVENAL: Yes and no.

ULABY: John Ravenal recently curated a show on artificial light.

Mr. RAVENAL: It's popular art for the masses. Not really museum art. But, you know, it's not in a museum. We're out on the street. Sure, it's seasonal art. Why not?

ULABY: The Tacky Light Tour was started about 20 years ago by a local radio personality. Mad Dog - real name Barry Gottlieb - says he wanted to tweak the sometime stayed sensibilities of a traditional southern city.

Mr. BARRY GOTTLIEB (Founder, Tacky Light Tours): I mean there's a big part of Richmond that's always been very conservative. And they like their pretty little white lights, and their plaid bows, and they put their pineapples up on the mantle. And I think these people were a little offended by it, but of course they all got in their car and want to check out these houses.

ULABY: Some traced the roots of the Richmond phenomenon to Italian-American families who moved from Philadelphia. The lights have caused strife between neighbors, but most seem to agree they've become a point of pride, even inspiration.

Mr. AL THOMPSON: In Richmond, it's contagious, because every year the list gets bigger.

ULABY: Al Thompson joined the list of houses that go big, as he puts it, after taking a Tacky Lights Limo Tour three years ago. Now, his house is a tour star and Thompson loves nothing more than holding forth to a busload of appreciative gawkers.

Mr. THOMPSON: We have 170,000 lights here.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ULABY: A hundred and seventy thousand lights means that Thompson reworked his electrical system and installed 80 outlets in his home's foundation to accommodate over 400 extension cords.

Mr. THOMPSON: December electric bill, it'll run about an extra thousand dollars.

Unidentified Group: Oh.

ULABY: There are two distinct schools of Christmas lights in Richmond, Virginia. You're a twinkler or a flasher. Al Thompson is a twinkler. Ralph Schuler(ph) is a flasher.

Mr. RALPH SCHULER: I have 80 strobes throughout the yard on three channels; I can cut them off individually. The mirror ball, which I have for a really neat effect, it keeps spinning all the time.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Schuler has synched his lights - about 90,000 of them - to a low-power radio station here inside 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 snowman, and a herd of plastic reindeer, all flashing five different colors.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Because Santa Claus is watching you.

ULABY: Schuler's system of lights is operated by a computer program he learned about in an online discussion group for Christmas light fanatics. They 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.

Mr. HUDAK: Live long, light much, and prosper.

ULABY: Hudak says every neighborhood needs what kids call the Christmas house. And already he's dreaming up plans for next year's front yard spectacle.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can take a Tacky Lights Tour at NPR.org.

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