Tales of Christmas Tree Lane
Dec 11, 2017 05:20PM
● By Richard Melella
Tales of the Lane*
By Kelley Campos McCoy
Rob Tookoian was 10 years old when he and his little brother Billy decided to turn Christmas Tree Lane into the Coolest Bike Path Ever. The year before, they had learned a thing or two about how the lights along the Lane were managed. Watching from the window of a second-story bedroom, the pajama-clad boys saw how members of the fire and sheriff’s departments slowly made their way down Van Ness Boulevard, opening circuit boxes and flipping switches and turning brilliantly lit trees, decorations and displays into shadows.
They noted how this nightly ritual always began about an hour after the last vehicle had made its way through the Lane.
Best of all, they realized one of the boxes was located directly across the street from their house.
It was perfect.
It was destiny.
“It was pretty cool because you are the only people on the whole Lane,” Tookoian, now a man in his 40s, says of the night he and Billy switched on the lights and hopped on their bikes and had the ride of their young lives. “At that age, it felt bigger than life with all the lights.”
“Bigger than life with all the lights” may be how many of the thousands of visitors to Christmas Tree Lane each year would describe the experience, regardless of their age or mode of transportation. More than 140 homes participate in the free month- long event, which is sponsored by the Fig Garden Homeowners Association. Decorations and displays range from the basic – Nativity scenes, Santa and his reindeer, striped candy canes – to the incredible. A castle. Clock towers. Faux snow flurries.
For all the fanfare that rightly greets the Lane’s annual run, little is known about the families whose lives are altered four weeks out of the year because they live along the two-mile stretch of Van Ness Boulevard between Shields and Shaw avenues. What is it like to have 45,000 cars drive up your street and 60,000 people walk past your house? How does it feel to have strangers assume they can walk onto your property or show up at your parties? What does it mean to be part of one of the longest-running holiday celebrations in the country?
Representatives of five families with ties to the Lane sat down to share their stories with Fresno Life Magazine. Their experiences vary, at times widely, but they share two things in common: a belief that Christmas Tree Lane is special and a conviction that families are its beating heart. Especially children.
Each passing year, increasingly fewer people remember that Christmas Tree Lane started off not as a celebration but as a memorial to a life tragically cut short.
In June 1919, William “Billy” Hobart Winning slipped and fell into the machinery of an electric powerhouse behind his home at Van Ness and Pontiac Avenue. He was 14 years old.
In 1920, his parents, Dr. William Parker and Mae C. Winning, facing their second Christmas without their only child, decorated a tree in their front yard in his memory. According to an article published in The Fresno Bee on Dec. 24, 2009, the number of homes participating in the memorial grew to 17 by the mid-1920s. Christmas Tree Lane was formally established in 1929.
Joy Newsome, whose parents bought the house from the Winning estate in the 1960s, did not know all the details of its history until she was in her early 40s and read about it in the local paper.
All she knew was that, as a child, her parents forbade her and her brothers to go into the old powerhouse, even though her father had removed the machinery and filled the hole into which a young boy had fallen some five decades earlier.
She also knew something else: Whoever that young boy was, he was still very much around - a mischievous and playful presence.
She had even given him a name, Ralph. “The most bizarre things would happen,” Newsome says. “My mom, who was chair of the Home Economics Department at Fresno State, would have students come over here to work on their theses, and they’d leave these little notes. ‘Could not stay. Someone’s watching me.’ ‘Could not stay. There’s a presence here.’ ‘We saw a boy. Had to leave.’”
Newsome, who moved back into the house in 1998 with her own children, says it never dawned on her parents to call a clairvoyant or a priest. “You never want to disturb anything like that,” she insists. Besides, having Ralph around– she learned that his real name was Billy from the newspaper article – was “quite fun.”
(This writer’s introduction to Billy, if indeed it was he, was initially anything but fun. The voice recorder inexplicably shut off on three separate occasions during the interview with Newsome. Most alarmingly, three previously conducted interviews disappeared entirely from her library of voice memos. They showed up again after the writer left the house. “Those things happen all the time,” Newsome said when told of the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of electronic data. “Cameras don’t work. Video recorders don’t record.”)
Newsome’s 18-year-old daughter, Madison, shares her mother’s sibling-like affection for Billy. How else can you regard someone who knocks over things in your bedroom and steals your clothes, only to return them a couple weeks later, after you are no longer looking for them?
“He’s like a brother to me,” Madison says firmly. “I think he’s always going to be around, no matter where I go.”
Despite the significance of the house to Christmas Tree Lane, Newsome decided a few years ago to stop decorating. In part, she was disheartened by acts of vandalism that made it impossible to decorate the tall wrought-iron fence around the property.
Mostly, she was tired of receiving anonymous letters criticizing her family’s choice of displays in the yard.
One year, her late brother – “a wonderful artist who loved to ride motorcycles” – put Santa Claus on a Harley with a Playboy Bunny on the back of the bike.
“We got a lot of flak for that,” she says.
Another year, Newsome displayed the characters from South Park, including Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.
“That made CNN. They showed the house and got the South Park characters on video,” she says, laughing. “People actually called my brother – they wouldn’t contact me – and said to him, ‘Will you please ask your sister to remove that?’
I said no.”
Newsome believes that keeping the house dark is fitting given its history. She notes how, in the beginning, Billy Winning’s untimely death was memorialized with a simple lighted tree.
“Things are going to evolve. Nothing is going to stay the same,” Newsome says of how the Lane transformed over time into a visual banquet of blinking lights, multicolored decorations and life-size displays. “But why not keep to the original style where it all started?”
At the other end of the holiday decorating spectrum is Dean Alexander, a man whose enthusiasm for the annual event is so vast and contagious that some have taken to calling him “Mister Christmas Tree Lane.”
“I don’t belong to the Lions Club or anything else. This is what I do,” he says to explain why he invests so much of his time and energy into the Lane, both as its coordinator and as the co-owner, along with his wife Shawn, of what is without a doubt the most well-known, elaborately-decorated home on the street. (The castle, clock towers and faux snow flurries are all theirs.)
“It’s my contribution to the city I love,” he says.
As the event’s main “go-to guy” for the past several years, Alexander knows more about Christmas Tree Lane than anyone else and happily rattles off details. He says the total cost of putting on the month-long celebration is $80,000. Most of the money goes toward the installation and dismantling of lights on the Deodar Cedar trees that line the Lane. The balance is to replace dead light bulbs and worn out electrical wire (“We have the world’s largest extension cord”), provide the electricity that lights up the trees, and purchase the materials used by local high schools to build new displays. Expenses are covered by donations collected in part by Boy Scout Troup 95 during the event’s two walk nights.
Artwork created by local students are used to fill the empty spaces along the Lane but homeowners are expected to provide their own displays if they can. They may connect their street-side displays to one of eight circuit boxes on the Lane but must pay for any additional electrical needs.
For Alexander, a self-described “diehard Disney person at heart,” the cost has been substantial. He estimates that he has spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket building and maintaining the “half- Disney, half-religious” displays in his yard. The biggest expense is labor; each year, Alexander hires a crew of about a dozen high school and college students to help him.
“I think the popularity of it has encouraged people to want to do more,” he says of his house at the end of the Lane and its influence on his neighbors.
Toni Knott, who lives three doors down from Alexander, shakes her head and smiles as she considers the impact both the house and the man have had on the Lane. Each night without fail, crowds gather in front of the house she shares with her husband Gordon, inching slowly toward what has become the event’s grand finale. She knows how Alexander has upped the ante when it comes to decorating.
“Dean took charge,” she says. “He wanted the Lane to be great again.”
The Knotts and the Alexanders moved to Van Ness Boulevard within a year of each other in the early 1990s. Knott says that at the time, Christmas Tree Lane seemed to be experiencing a decline of sorts, with fewer houses participating.
What appeared to be a lack of investment in the event was in fact a sign that Old Fig Garden, not unlike other established neighborhoods, was graying. A growing number of homeowners were elderly and finding it difficult to pull down their decorations and put up their lights.
Alexander responded by providing displays to those who asked for them.
Both Knott and Alexander have noticed that as newer, younger homeowners with children move in, the enthusiasm for decorating rises anew. Alexander is nevertheless quick to emphasize that the extent of one’s participation in Christmas Tree Lane should never be equated with his or her overall regard for it.
“I have never heard anyone say, ‘How come we do this?’” Alexander says.
For him, the reason no one asks that question is simple: Because Christmas Tree Lane “is magical,” he says. “It’s very magical.”
For Knott, “mystical” might be a better word to describe the Lane, especially that first night the lights are turned on. That’s when the kids come home with their own children and the entire family heads down the street, taking in the sights. Even the dogs go.
“The weather can be terrible, but somehow that first night it’s always clear and beautiful,” she says.
Holiday music selected by the Christmas Tree Lane Committee plays through 50 speakers attached to trees along the Lane, and one is in front of Knott’s house. She says that makes it pretty much impossible to not get into the spirit of the season.
Knott says she and her husband have “really loved” living on the Lane during the past 22 years and that she isn’t ready to leave, even though her children have moved out and their 4,000-square-foot house feels larger than ever.
“Maybe it’s because we’re Fresnans at heart,” she says.
Sue Tookoian never planned on living in Fresno, much less getting to a place where she would consider it home. Then St. Agnes Hospital offered her husband Jack a position as a neuroradiologist. The Midwesterners packed up their three kids – Anne Louise, Robbie and Billy – and left for the central San Joaquin Valley’s largest city. A fourth child, Ellen, would be born in Fresno.
Californians took some getting used to, especially around the holidays.
“In the Midwest, we go caroling,” Tookoian says. “That’s what we do.”
She learned quickly that isn’t what folks do out west, not even on Christmas Tree Lane. That didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t generous.
“A group of us went caroling, and no one opened their door to us,” she recalls,
laughing. “So, we decided to sing in front of the house, and cars slowed down and people gave us money!”
The street side performances ended, but Tookoian’s caroling parties continued for more than two decades – just a tight-knit group of friends getting together over manicotti, salad, rolls and Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake, singing holiday music.
Tookoian says the neighborhood was full of children in the 1970s and 1980s. Their presence made for memorable holidays.
For about five years, a group of elves was the family’s primary display during the run of Christmas Tree Lane. Tookoian says the one-dimensional wooden figures stood about 2.5 feet tall and were “really very cute.”
They were also very tempting. Someone in the neighborhood kept taking them, one or two at a time, and putting them in different locations. One day, all the elves disappeared
Tookoian spotted them while out in her garden a few years later, in the high branches of her sequoia.
“I could not believe they were so far up in the tree,” she says
(Her son Rob says he didn’t do it, but he thinks he knows who did. He’s not telling.)
The Tookoians’ current display is a 9-foot Santa Claus climbing a ladder propped up against the large eucalyptus in front of their house. He is looking over his shoulder, and his hand is shading his eyes. At the base of the tree are large boxes that Rob’s kids wrap in holiday paper.
Santa isn’t as vulnerable to theft as the elves were, but he attracts attention of his own. Tookoian says that on walk nights, a lot of people stop at the tree and take photos.
On rare occasions, they have also crossed the threshold of trees and bushes surrounding the property. The Tookoians, like the Alexanders and Knotts, often throw parties for family and friends during walk nights. Some of these gatherings are fairly elaborate, with food, music and photo opportunities with a Santa impersonator. (Alexander turns on his snow machine.)
“Sometimes I’ve looked at photos afterward and didn’t know whose child was sitting in Santa’s lap,” Tookoian says.
Knott recounts how one year she and her husband opened their home to friends, only to look around at one point and not recognize anyone.
“Gordon asked me, ‘Do you know any of these people?’” she says. “I said, ‘No. Do you?"
These days, the main lights to Christmas Tree Lane are turned on and off each night by designated homeowners. Sue Tookoian is one of them.
Rob’s children usually accompany her as she makes her way down the Lane, unlocking circuit boxes- yes, they are locked now – and controlling the lights to the hundreds of trees, decorations and displays along the street.
Rob laughs when it is suggested that his mother is paying off the karma he created as a little boy. To hear Sue tell it, high-spirited boys have always lived in the Spanish-style house at the corner of Van Ness and East Fairmont Avenue. She remembers a story the previous owner’s son once told her.
It was shortly after World War II and, then as now, Christmas carols played through a speaker hung from a tree in the front yard. Gary Marsella, a teenager at Fresno High, grew tired of
the constant play of holiday music and decided to put something more contemporary on the turntable.
O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night were replaced by the tender, achingly romantic songs of Frank Sinatra.
Marsella, now in his 80s, chuckles when reminded of this. It was a different time, he says of the mid-1940s, and Fresno was a different town. It was the kind of place where folks knew their neighbors and were respectful and polite when they spoke. A place where vandalism and crime were known but not well, and young boys going to see a movie at Tower Theater shared city buses with soldiers from Hammer Field and Camp Pinedale.
Fresno was also the kind of place, not unlike other cities and towns across the country, where the fear and anxiety triggered by war had given way to feelings of euphoria and relief inspired by victory.
“People really came together following the war,” Marsella says. The spirit of camaraderie was especially apparent during the holiday season. “Christmas Tree Lane was a magical experience then, everyone was joyful.” She adds, “A lot of people had parties, and they’d welcome you inside for food and cider. Well, maybe more than cider!
Marsella’s wife, Barbara, closes her eyes and smiles when recalling those days. Her family lived on Wilson Avenue, around the corner from what she says was “the most magnificent house” on the Lane during the 1940s – a 7,300-square-foot Colonial style home owned by furniture magnates Bob and Kate McMahan. (The family donated the house to Fresno State in 1965. It currently serves as the official residence of the university president.)
Barbara Marsella says Christmas Tree Lane was the event of the year for the neighborhood. If it was too cold, families piled into cars and drove. In warmer weather, they bundled up and walked.
“It was spectacular,” she says of those December evenings spent taking in the sights with her parents, brother and sister. “It always made me wish I lived on Van Ness.”
In a few weeks,
Gary and Barbara will visit Christmas Tree Lane with their children and grandchildren. It’s become an annual family tradition. They’ll no doubt pass the house where Gary grew up and where Sue and Jack Tookoian currently live. Perhaps Gary Marsella will tell them how the Army used to conduct maneuvers in the large lot across the street, before houses were built on it.
Maybe, as they’re listening to the holiday music coming through the dozens of speakers in trees along the Lane, he’ll talk about how there was a time when record players were rotated every few days, from one homeowner to the next, so that everyone on the street had a chance to hear Christmas carols.
“I think Christmas Tree Lane is about making happy memories,” Barbara Marsella says. “For three generations to want to return to it because it means so much to them …
“That’s saying something.”
Tales of the Lane originally appeared in the Winter 2013 Issue of Fresno Life Magazine
Kelley Campos McCoy
Since completing a PhD at the University of Washington in 2007, Ms. McCoy, a native of Hanford California, has been teaching media classes at Fresno State University. Ms. McCoy was the former Editor of Central California Life Magazine and continues to contribute articles of local interest to the magazine.