—Photos by Chuck Weinberg
It wouldn’t be Christmastime without glowing trees, dancing reindeer, singing snowmen, or inflatable teddy bears in Santa suits.
And snow, both real, in the form of a snowman being kept cold artificially with refrigeration technology, and fake, by being blown all over the street, floating down on awe-struck visitors and disappearing into the darkness.
And lots and lots of lights.
It’s all part of the Ring of Lights house decorating contest, a side event to the annual Newport Beach Christmas Parade, hosted by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.
The long standing tradition to decorate bay front houses during the boat parade with as much extravagance as the boats themselves, and the Ring of Lights has become almost as celebrated as the parade.
Many houses in the contest go above and beyond, and there are four on Balboa Island that are visitor favorites, each unique in their own way.
“Green” Light Show at the Stomber Household at 810 S. Bayfront
Maxine Stomber was one of the first, if not the very first, in the area to start using LED lights. Gradually, they have become more and more popular, she said.
A few other residents have even started using solar lights.
When they moved to the island full-time in 2008 from Connecticut, she quickly realized how big of a deal it was to decorate.
They did much less when they lived in Connecticut, she said.
“It’s not the big brouhaha that it is here,” she said.
She decided to go with the LED lights because she figured is she’s going to go big, she might as well make as small of an impact on the environment as possible. Plus, regular lights are a huge draw on electricity, she said, and the LED lights are much cheaper to run.
“In the long run, it’s a fraction,” of the cost of regular lights, she said.
Her December electricity bill is about $150 more than an average month during the rest of the year, but it would be much higher if she were using regular lights.
“I decided to bite the bullet and buy the expensive LED lights,” she said.
Plus, the LED lights have cool tones rather than the warm tones of regular lights, look a lot more like snow and ice, Stomber said.
The snowflakes are Stomber’s homage to Connecticut.
“Because we moved from Connecticut we miss snow, so we did the snowflakes,” she said.
A lot of greenery is traditional for Connecticut Christmas décor, she said. The snowman also helps remind them of home.
They even had their home state in mind when they designed the house.
“We wanted to bring the East Coast here,” she said. “We wanted a New England flavor house, so we’re trying to accomplish that with the California limitations.”
Garland is also a great way to decorate without using so many lights, Stomber suggested.
She won the new “Green” award that first year it was introduced.
They try to put the decorations up right before Thanksgiving so they can light up that night. It takes about a full day to put all of the decorations up, she added. She hires a firefighter to help put up the lights on the top and check the wires.
Every year she varies the display or adds something to it, she said.
People really enjoy seeing a bright and beautifully decorated house.
“The lights create so much joy,” Stomber said. “Everybody just gets happy.”
And the holiday season is so much fun on the island, she added, there’s a real feeling of community.
“The joy of the season,” is alive and well on Balboa Island, she said.
“I enjoy walking around Balboa Island, I get a spring in my step and it just puts a smile on everyone’s face,” Stomber said. “It’s very uplifting to look around and see the wonder in little ones’ eyes.”
Real Snow and Over-the-Top Lights at the Rich Household at 802 S. Bayfront
Peggy and Jim Rich bought the house in 1989, and when they remodeled it in 1991, they knew they would be decorating for Christmas, so they incorporated it into the building plans.
The flying reindeer on the rooftop of their house (or ghosts at Halloween time) are part of an old Union 76 gas station revolving ball.
“And we’ve been decorating ever since,” Peggy Rich said. “Every year (my husband) just adds more and more and more.”
“And then he built that snowman, I don’t know where he got that idea,” she added, referring to the life-size snowman, made from real snow, that they create and display every year.
Frosty is a big hit with visitors, she added.
“I don’t think there aren’t too many (real) Frosty the Snowmen in Southern California,” she said.
To build Frosty and to keep him cold, Jim Rich knew he would need some kind of professional help, so he called every refrigeration company in the phonebook and he got rejected every time.
Then he found Jason Chism of Huntington Beach.
“Now he comes with his guys, every year, and hooks it up,” Peggy Rich said.
Their electricity bill used to be about $1,100 to $1,400 a month during the holiday season, but since switching to LED lights this year, it’s now about $400 a month, Rich said.
The Riches hire some help and start putting everything up the day after Halloween with the goal of going live on Thanksgiving night. They take it down soon after New Year’s Day.
The lights are aglow between 5 and 11 p.m. And Frosty doesn’t come out if it’s raining.
Rich has some interesting decorations on the inside of her house too. More than a dozen handmade, needle point stockings hang above the fireplace.
The reason they decorate is for children.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “I love when (little kids) look up and their mouths are just open. It’s just so precious.”
A Beary Merry Christmas at the Cook Household at 538 S. Bayfront
Bob and Marcy Cook have really immersed themselves in the Christmas spirit.
And teddy bears.
The couple owns more than 3,500 teddy bears, both Christmas and non-holiday themed.
Regular teddy bears decorate the house during most of the year, along with other décor, like Man of La Mancha and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza items, and a few frog related items.
But during the big holidays, many of the plain bears get swapped out for bears with holiday garb.
“We brought out about 900 bears from hibernation,” this year, Marcy Cook said.
On the outside, there are inflated bears of every kind (plus a few snowmen and a Santa), and Christmas bears can be seen in every window. Lights adorn every wall, tree and bush.
Their electricity bill ranges about six to 10 times higher in the Christmas season.
It takes about three weeks to put it all up, aiming to go live on Thanksgiving. And a few hundred storage boxes to contain all of it.
During Christmastime, the house is bursting with bears.
Cook has been collecting them for about 30 years. It all started when a friend showed her a bear she had bought.
“I just loved it, so I went back to the same store and bought it (for myself),” she explained.
“Then, all of a sudden, it kind of mushroomed,” she said.
She is a very special lady, said her husband of more than 40 years. She always gives 100 percent to anything she does.
“A long time ago, I gave up trying to keep up with her,” he said.
And she’s still going.
There will never be too many until bears, not until there is literally no more room to put them, Marcy Cook said.
“It’s enclosing our house in more and more every minute,” she said with a smile.
She has teddy bears that range from only an inch or two, to a few feet tall.
They also have a room dedicated in honor of their son, who died of cancer, decorated with Angel bears.
Some bears have special meaning, like the one named after her son, or the first one she ever bought. Others have been gifts or souvenirs she bought on trips
With all the bears on display, plus the lights and other decorations, onlookers can’t help but smile.
“Christmas is a happy time and we like to see it through children’s eyes,” Marcy Cook said. “It puts a smile on people’s face… It makes people happy.”
A Light & Music Spectacular at the Zimmerman Household at 327 Sapphire
Greg and Loretta Zimmerman’s house may not be on the bay front, but it’s special enough to include in the Ring of Lights.
Plus, it can be seen from the water.
The house has so many unique light motifs that visitors can stand on the sidewalk for some time, taking it all in.
Greg Zimmerman wants to create a “visual overload,” and he knows he has been successful when people come back more than once in a season and find something they didn’t see before.
And most of the decorations are literally one-of-a-kind.
About a quarter of all the motifs on the house are handmade by Zimmerman.
“People are always saying, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ and I know that’s true,” he said.
Despite the hours upon hours that it takes to create a custom motif, Zimmerman likes doing it because it creates such a unique display.
“It’s one of my goals to be different and interesting,” said Zimmerman, who has been decorating his Balboa Island home for the last 12 years.
He incorporated music into his display, and started syncing it with lights in 2006.
“To my knowledge, we’re the only home in Newport Beach that has computer [synced] shows,” with music, he said.
It takes about five hours of programming for one minute of music.
Another unique aspect is the “snow” being blown from the roof, all over the yard, sidewalk and streets. The “snow” is made of glycerin and water, he said, and dissolves in an environmentally friendly way, without doing any damage to any property.
To create something this unique takes quite a bit of effort.
Set-up takes three weeks, and goes live on Thanksgiving night. The lights are on every single night, except in rainy weather, between 5 and 10:30 p.m., and usually later during the boat parade.
During the holiday season, The electric bill goes up by 10 times the regular amount.
They usually take them down between Christmas and Jan. 5.
The dismantling process is quicker because it’s become their own Zimmerman family tradition to get their kids involved in helping take everything down.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth it, Zimmerman said.
“I just enjoy the whole process, right from the concept of coming up with a motif, getting the supplies, building it, testing it, and then putting up the display,” he said, “and talking to our visitors.”
He is out on the sidewalk almost every night to greet visitors. Thousands of people visit their house over entire season.
“I get great joy in that,” he said.
“He does it because it makes other people happy,” Loretta Zimmerman added. “There’s nothing like when you walk out of the house and see everybody with smiling faces.”
This is a year-long hobby for Greg Zimmerman, who belongs to a group called Planet Christmas. He goes to conventions, meets other enthusiasts, and learns what to do and what not to do.
January to February are repair and modification months, then some time off until summer. In July and August he’s listening to Christmas carols as he does the computer programming to sync the songs up to the lights. In the fall, he starts building. By Oct. 1, he starts bring in the boxes from storage.
The Zimmerman house will also be featured by Fritz Coleman, when he presents his “Best of Fritz’s Holiday Light Show” at 9 a.m. on Sunday
The Corona del Mar High School Madrigal carolers will be singing at the Zimmerman house around 7:45 p.m. on Friday.
The Christmas spirit on Balboa Island is wonderful, he said, there’s something really special about Christmastime on the island.
“It’s magical,” he said.
For more information about the Ring of Lights or the Christmas Boat Parade, visit www.christmasboatparade.com.