When I was a kid, I begged my parents to decorate our house with Christmas lights.
“Too much work,” was their response. Fine. I would hang them myself when I grew up.
Sadly, despite the begging of my own children, I have never climbed a ladder with a staple gun, because I am tired. Plus, it’s a lot of work. To be fair, and since my mother is reading, I’ll add that she eventually bought plastic window candles with blue light bulbs, a tired mother’s compromise.
So when my editor asked me to search the city for interesting holiday lights, I was game. It’s not every day I meet people who indulge their inner child to construct legendary light displays so magnificent that people drive from all around to see them, clogging streets and blocking driveways.
Take Paul Craig of Olathe, the man behind the magic known by neighbors as Paulie’s Penguin Playground. It’s a 150-count, inflatable, motorized, motion-detecting, music-rocking, bubble-producing, children-delighting illuminated display of penguins, powered round the clock through January. His gift to his community fills his entire yard and some of his neighbor’s.
When I arrived at his modest split-level home a good five weeks after he started setting up, the penguins were still lying about shiftlessly in the yard. Craig wore a penguin sweater.
“This is my life from before Halloween to New Year’s Eve,” he said, ushering me to the basement, past deflated Arctic animals stacked as high as he was tall, to an eight-circuit subpanel.
Craig gestured to the lifeless penguin piles. “Over the years, some die. Those over there are dead and need to be stripped of their parts.”
He flipped some switches, shooting electricity out to the yard through two miles of 12-gauge extension cord. The house started to hum. Outside, motors whirred underneath the chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
His December electric bill will total roughly $2,500.
“You could go on a vacation with that money — ” I started.
“ — to see actual penguins.”
Instead, Craig and his penguin-collector wife, Cindy, dedicate months, storage space and money — upwards of $100,000 over the years — to this tradition. It attracts hundreds of visitors each day, a thousand on the weekends, driving by in buses and limos, from day cares and nursing homes.
The penguins saved Christmas for Craig after his mom died of leukemia.
“For the longest time, I didn’t let myself enjoy Christmas. In 2003, I saw the inflatables at one of the big box stores. I bought three penguins … from there, it grew exponentially.”
I asked Cindy if she ever imagined her collection would eventually extend into the yard as well as raise $31,500 in donations for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“Paul does nothing small,” she said. “After the second year, I was like, OK. He’s taking this to a new level.”
“Go big or go home. Or, as I say, go big at home,” Craig said.
Christmas lights have fascinated America ever since Thomas Edison strung a few lights together back in 1880 as a promotional tool for the light bulb. There is just something magical about turning one’s front yard into an amusement park of sorts, which is why each Christmas, millions of Americans bedazzle their houses in lights of every shape, size and color, much to the delight, or sometimes dismay, of those who behold them.
Craig kept most neighbors happy, save for one woman who took to Facebook and called a radio station to complain. Tim Dorr wasn’t so lucky. A disgruntled neighbor shut down the display Dorr started at his Prairie Village home in 2005.
“I never advertised. Word-of-mouth brought people out,” Dorr said. I tracked him down as he was setting up this year’s display at Stagecoach Park in Olathe, the new site of his holiday light show after too much traffic irritated “just one, single neighbor.”
For Dorr, a new location means more room to play. Last January, he began sketching this year’s design: more than 40,000 lights form the Country Club Plaza skyline, a stagecoach, barn and waving elves that represent his grandkids, all carefully affixed to huge panels of fencing and poles.
“It’s a family enterprise,” Dorr said. He looked like a giddy kid as he pulled out a three-inch binder. Inside were complex plans, diagrams and Excel sheets that choreograph a dancing light show of more than 16 million color combinations for 19 minutes of music his audience can listen to on 100.9 FM.
“Too much work!” I heard my parents saying 25 years ago. I said as much to Dorr.
“I enjoy the challenge. To see it up is so fulfilling. Then seeing all the kids, and the kids like me, come out and say, ‘Oh I love that, how do they do that?’ ”
To truly understand the technology behind Dorr’s masterpiece, I would have needed to follow him around for more than the 20 minutes I spent marveling over his lights. I made a mental note to check out Dorr’s favorite website, lightorama.com, and bring the kids back to see this.
“How did you decorate when you were growing up?” Dorr asked.
“We had candles in the windows. Blue bulbs.” Clearly I have unresolved issues about this. “That’s it.”
Dorr seemed as disappointed as the kid-me had been. “Why don’t you do something now?”
He nodded. “You should do one box. Start small. That’s how I started.”
I told him I’d think about it. By the time I got to Candy Cane Lane in Prairie Village, I meant it. My kids would be so excited.
I pulled into the driveway of Roger Caldwell’s house. He’s the mayor of this delightful neighborhood of 13 houses that has decorated with red and white themed Christmas lights since 1950. New homeowners must agree to decorate every year and even receive an attic full of decorations. Brilliant.
“Anyone who lives in this area knows Candy Cane Lane,” Caldwell said. From his house, we could see the entire street, decked out in candy canes and cartoon winterscapes. In the middle of the round-about stood a giant fir tree, waiting for Kansas City Power & Light to come hang its lights. Once that happens, people come. It’s a Christmas light-lover’s favorite daydream, I think, and smile at Mayor Caldwell.
Except he’s not smiling.
“After 18 years, 15 of them as mayor, which means a whole day of extra work, it’s not as exciting as it used to be. It’s kind of mundane,” he admitted. “We don’t do it for ourselves anymore, we do it for all the people who count on us to do it. It’s a lot of history.”
And he told me about how the traffic is so bad, he can’t get back to the house some nights, about the vandalism and the theft. But he also talked about the star that’s dedicated to a neighbor who died of cancer, about the grown kids who used to play and the new children replacing them, and I realized Christmas lights are about more than decorating houses.
They actually comfort people and have been doing so since the Great Depression darkened the country’s spirits, bringing people together through tradition and celebration in ways that keep us looking forward, sometimes whether we like it or not.
So I’m giving it a try, Tim Dorr. I ordered a single box of 5-millimeter wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers, the best, according to super-picky reviewers at thesweethome.com. When I plug them in, I’ll be watching my children’s faces.
Then we’ll get in the car and drive around the city with popcorn and a Thermos of cocoa. We will come out to see your display, and Candy Cane Lane, and the penguins, because their mom is a kid, too, and can’t get enough Christmas lights and what they mean to the communities that love them.
Seeing the light
▪ Paul Craig’s “Paulie’s Penguin Playground” is at 16617 Indian Creek Parkway in Olathe.
▪ Stagecoach Park is at 1205 N. Kansas City Road in Olathe.
▪ Candy Cane Lane is on Outlook Street just off 79th Street in Prairie Village.