Gawkers come by the busload to see the Prairie Village house that owner Mike Babick has turned into a Christmas spectacle over the past 47 years.
Children gape at the thousands of twinkling lights. Grownups stare with joy and amazement at the hundreds of holiday figures and the robotic elves toiling away.
“Elves with hammers,” Babick said. “Elves with saws. Elves with candy canes. Elves with...”
Elves aplenty. Reindeer out the wazoo.
Yet Babick’s house at 7611 Falmouth St. may no longer be a must-see stop on the unofficial holiday lighting tour of Kansas City.
This week the Prairie Village City Council passed an ordinance that, Babick says, might make it unaffordable for him to carry on the tradition this Christmas. And he’s mighty bitter about it.
“It stinks,” he said Tuesday. “They’ve killed Christmas for me. Just killed it.”
City officials say that was not their intent in passing regulations Monday night that would require permits for any “special event” lasting five days or more that “is likely to or does in fact generate crowds ... sufficient in size to obstruct, delay or interfere with the safe and orderly movement of ... traffic.”
Babick consulted with an attorney Tuesday afternoon to consider his options. Also, the American Civil Liberties Union is having a look to see if Babick’s free speech rights are being infringed.
“It’s the goofiest permit ordinance that I’ve ever seen,” said the ACLU’s Doug Bonney. “Pretty clearly, this is targeted at this one guy.”
It’s easy to see why Babick might consider himself singled out. Only two other events currently held in the city would now fall under the ordinance, both Christmas displays: Candy Cane Lane and the Dorr Family Christmas Show near Shawnee Mission East High School.
But only Babick would likely have to hire off-duty police officers at the rate of $44.69 an hour, police spokesman Capt. Wes Lovett acknowledges, to handle issues associated with the large crowds that gather in his yard.
There’s a three-hour minimum, Lovett said, and Babick would most likely have to hire officers most Friday and Saturday nights, when the crowds are the largest, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
“It’s become a real safety hazard,” Lovett said of the display’s popularity.
In addition to complaints from neighbors about blocked driveways, litter, trespassing and public urination, the street becomes so clogged that, at times, it would be hard for an ambulance or fire truck to get through, police say.
However, Babick contends those problems are highly exaggerated. He picks up the litter each night and urges visitors to keep the street and driveways open.
“They’ve created a monster out of nothing,” Babick said.
For him, it started in the mid-1960s with one string of lights around his front door. Then he added another string and another. Within three years, Babick gave over his garage to those electronic elves.
Later, up on the rooftop, click, click, click, Babick installed a set of panels that he calls Christmas in Comicville. Soldiers stand sentry over candy canes in the front yard.
As his display grew, so did the crowds. By the thousands they came, causing friction within the neighborhood.
So the city stepped in. To help with traffic flow, Prairie Village decided in 1990 to turn that section of Falmouth into a one-way street for the holidays.
Police enforced new, temporary parking restrictions. Even some of the neighbors got tickets.
In answer to complaints about visitors tromping on neighbors’ lawns, the city poured a sidewalk on Babick’s side of the street. Minivans gave way to limousines and tour buses.
“The limos would pull up at his place and he just thrived on it,” recalled former neighbor Bob Myhre, who moved to Bella Vista, Ark., last year.
Babick doesn’t apologize for his enthusiasm.
“It’s because I love Christmas,” he said. “I love every part of it.”
Two years ago, Prairie Village police met with neighbors to hear suggestions on making things better. Police agreed to ease parking restrictions in front of their houses and to advise tour operators that they couldn’t idle their buses while passengers got out to look.
But problems remained, and work began on the ordinance that passed this week.
For now, most of the ornaments, figures and other elements of Babick’s display are where they always are this time of year, in a warehouse in the West Bottoms. Whether the retired AT&T technician hauls it all home Nov. 1 for the 48th annual installation will depend a lot on the opinion of his legal counsel — or whether he can raise the money to pay off-duty police.
If the holiday lights do go dark on Falmouth Street this year, Mhyre, the former neighbor, will have mixed feelings.
“It’s kind of a neat thing he does,” says Myhre, “but it wears on you.”