By Jeremy Ogul | Editor
For semi-retired handyman Bob Olson, the most exciting part of the holidays is seeing the smiles on the faces of children who come from all over town to see his elaborately decorated home at 6081 Veemac Ave. in northeast La Mesa.
Olson, 83, said he can’t sit still, so he takes advantage of his freedom to bring joy to the neighborhood. It takes between 30 and 40 hours to set up all 12,000 Christmas lights and assorted seasonal decorations — everything from a six-foot snowman to Snoopy on his doghouse and a manger with a camel and donkey — and Olson does it all by himself.
“It’s really quite spectacular,” he said.
He tries to create a theme, with the more traditional “away in the manger” story portrayed on the lawn and the more contemporary items such as Santa’s sleigh and an electric holiday train on the roof. He has tinkered and perfected the display over the past decade.
With so many lights and other electronic elements, such as animatronic reindeer, the electrical demands create a complicated technical challenge. He sets up four separate circuits to manage the electric load.
It takes an enormous amount of electricity to power all of that Christmas cheer, four hours a night for several weeks straight. Olson said his electric bill for December is usually at least $250 more than his typical bill. That’s on top of the several thousands of dollars he has invested in decorations.
But it’s all worth it for the throngs of families who come by to get in the holiday spirit, Olson said. Sometimes they dance to the music on the lawn. Others take pictures.
“I had one family come out here one year with a little girl who saw all the lights and said, ‘Mommy, mommy — Disneyland!’”
Though Olson has already begun setting up his display, he says it won’t be fully complete until about Dec. 3. The lights will be on every night until Jan. 1, and he encourages everyone to stop by and enjoy the spectacle.
One of the most recognizable holiday sights in La Mesa is the giant “tree” formed out of long strands of thousands of lights on the hill near the intersection of University Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard.
The 70-foot tree, similar to what SeaWorld does with its SkyTower every year, features 1,260 bulbs and can be seen for miles across town. Dexter Levy has been rigging it up outside his house every year since 1997.
“We just do it for the fun of it,” said Levy, a third generation La Mesan.
Most people don’t realize that the tree is fashioned almost entirely out of old and repurposed materials. The 25 strands of lights — red, white and blue — were left over after the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, and Levy got a hold of them for practically nothing.
“My wife spent two days sitting on the living room floor unscrewing all the light bulbs so we could put them back together the way we wanted them,” he said.
That was about the same time General Dynamics was dismantling its Kearny Mesa campus, where Levy had been the administrator for Convair’s recreation group. From a building slated for demolition, Levy managed to salvage a 50-amp electrical subpanel that he now uses to handle the electrical load of all the lights. He also extracted a contactor (a magnetic power switch) that had been used to turn on tennis court lights at Convair’s Missile Park.
“That’s just all stuff that would have been thrown away,” Levy said.
He carefully strings up the lights on a crank-up, tilt-over CB antenna tower his parents installed on the property decades ago. Each strand of lights is on its own circuit breaker. It’s a minor feat of engineering that takes at least two days to set up every year.
Last year, the Levys found the money to replace every 7.5-watt bulb with LED bulbs. That brought the cost of powering the whole thing down from $600 to about $200, Levy said.
“We really enjoy doing it,” he said. “It’s something that I think my parents would have absolutely loved.”
Though she has only lived in La Mesa for a few months, Gina Dobbins is excited to welcome families to her lavishly decorated home for candy canes and a visit with Santa on Saturday, Dec. 20.
Dobbins has been inviting Santa to hang out with kids in front of her former home in Allied Gardens for more than a decade. She decorates with numerous inflatable snowmen, a polar bear, reindeer, a sleigh, strands of lights and much more that she has collected over the years.
“I do not have kids myself, but I’m a kid at heart,” Dobbins said. “I love the excitement. Everybody’s so nice at Christmas.”
For Dobbins, creating a special experience for kids is a small way to give back and spread the holiday cheer, especially for children whose families don’t have the time or money to create a winter wonderland of their own. She recalls one year in particular that a young military family with small children told her the line to see Santa at Fashion Valley mall was hours long, and photos were prohibitively expensive. The family thanked her for providing a friendly and free neighborhood alternative to the hectic mall scene.
Santa will stop by Dobbins’ house at 7817 Quince St. (near the Riviera Supper Club) on Saturday, Dec. 20 beginning at 5 p.m.
Guests are also welcome to walk or drive by any time between sunset and 10 p.m. during the month of December to check out the decorations.
—Reach Jeremy Ogul at firstname.lastname@example.org.