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Blue Springs display of amazing Christmas lights moves to Buckner

Updated: 2013-12-21T04:16:25Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

Steve Steiner’s house is lightless this Christmas.

For more than 30 years, Steiner installed and maintained an annual holiday lighting display throughout his Blue Springs neighborhood.

What became known as the Chicago Street Lights — incorporating 3 miles of wire and about 200 illuminated wise men or woodland creatures used in about 50 different “scenes” — attracted hundreds of visitors, generated thousands in charitable donations and exasperated several neighbors, some of whom circulated petitions asking Steiner to cease.

But no more. This year, Steiner donated the entire collection — including his own home’s lights — to Buckner, where officials have installed it all in a 25-acre park, also naming a small street for him.

This Christmas, the lights that began on Chicago Street now can be found on Steiner Way.

“Now I’ve got ideas for several more scenes,” Steiner said one recent night, gazing out on the riot of wattage spread before him.

“I had run out of room before.”

When it came to holiday lights, Steiner never got the memo that enough was enough. Sometimes such enthusiasms don’t end well. Mike Babick of Prairie Village, whose displays drew crowds to his residential street for 47 years, ended the practice last year after municipal officials, he said, wanted him to pay high fees for signs and security.

Steiner’s story, in contrast, represents less a cautionary tale than a happy ending.

“I feel good about no one asking me to leave Blue Springs,” said Steiner, who was the city’s mayor from 2004 through 2008. “I’m sure there are some neighbors who are glad we are gone.

“But I know some who are not happy at all.”

Steiner, 60, first installed lights on his Chicago Street home in 1980. By 1983, he had wired up a vacant lot and the yards of eight neighbors.

“Then people starting asking, ‘Are you coming to my house next year?’ 

Often he would.

Steiner would install a scene or individual piece in a yard, whose owners then would power it from their own homes. Over the years Steiner, today a retired electrical contractor, learned where each circuit breaker was and how much current each home could handle safely.

His medium, at first, was thin aluminum wire. He would bend the wire into the desired shape — a squirrel, an angel — and then attach that figure to a frame of steel electrical conduit. Then he would attach strands of lights.

He began to wonder: Could an angel flap its wings?

He plugged two cords, each one powering an angel’s wing, into an electrical relay box. The effect stopped traffic.

“People would come down the street, and I would hear their brakes squeal as they stopped to look,” he said. “So I tried to add as much movement as possible.”

For years, Steiner worked with strands of mini-lights, to his increasing frustration.

“One little mini-light would go out, and then 50 others would go out,” he said.

The future of the display was in doubt, Steiner said. But a quantum leap occurred in the mid-1990s: rope lights.

Steiner first saw them at a drugstore. The product featured lights encased in clear or colored tubing that could be bent or manipulated.

“I thought, ‘This is the future,’ ” Steiner said.

By then, Steiner was working with electrical controllers that allowed certain pieces to light up in sequences featuring several individual effects. A snowman now could throw a snowball to another snowman.

Wise men, meanwhile, could bear gifts. From the beginning, Steiner’s display incorporated biblical imagery, not all of it Christmas-related.

While there is a manger scene, there’s also a Last Supper, a scene of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, followed by a Roman centurion with a whip, even a tomb that features a stone rolling away and a figure emerging with arms raised.

“The birth of Jesus is not the whole story,” Steiner said.

“He had a purpose for being here, dying for us and taking our sins on.”

Over the years, Steiner believed he could discern a higher wisdom working through him, especially when he would place pieces in the yards of neighbors he didn’t know.

“I would pray and say, ‘Lord, let me put these in the right yards.’ Once I installed a fishing scene, and then a couple of days later the guy ran out and said, ‘How did you know I liked fishing?’

“He opened his garage door and showed me all his fishing stuff.”

In the same spirit, Steiner believes, Buckner officials contacted him when they learned that last year’s display would be the last in Blue Springs.

“I felt a real peace with them,” Steiner said.

Another positive: Buckner had room. In its later years, Steiner’s holiday display stretched from the intersection of Missouri 7 and Walnut Street to include Fourth Street, Chicago Street and First Street.

Steiner agreed to donate the displays on three conditions.

First, he asked that 10 percent of all charitable donations be given to teachers at Buckner Elementary for them to use at their discretion. (Twenty-five percent, meanwhile, could be invested in lights maintenance, with 65 percent split equally among the nonprofit groups that serve as hosts for the lights every night. This year, there are seven.)

Second, if Buckner officials stopped installing the display before five years, Steiner could reclaim it.

Third, workers had to install as much of his display as possible.

Members of the Buckner Board of Aldermen approved a written agreement with Steiner. City officials also invested $27,000 in electrical upgrades for Heisler-Burns Park.

“We also upgraded lights for our ballfields,” said Mayor Dan Hickson.

Steiner attended the lighting ceremony the night before Thanksgiving.

“What I’m excited about now is that these guys have a lot of room, so now I can sit down with them and start figuring out how to make some more stuff.”

More stuff?

There have been those, over the years, who have mentioned to Steiner the name of Clark Griswold, the dim patriarch of the “National Lampoon” movies who, while installing his own extreme holiday lights display, briefly drained his entire community’s power supply.

No problem, Steiner said.

“The Sibley power plant is right up the road,” he said.

Park lights

What used to be the Chicago Street Lights in Blue Springs now are on display at Heisler-Burns Park in Buckner, just off North Sibley Street, several blocks north of U.S. 24. The park is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The lights will be on through Dec. 31. Donations are accepted.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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