ALTADENA — For one anxious moment there was darkness on Christmas Tree Lane when there should have been light.
A few nervous laughs, a few voices calling "Lights?" and then it happened, just as it has throughout most of this century.
Christmas Tree Lane was again ablaze with 10,000 colored bulbs.
A collective gasp of wonder and relief ended the lighting ceremony on Dec. 19 and the faithful strolled down their luminous mile, secure in the knowledge that Christmas in Altadena stays the same.
Tradition Began in 1920
It almost didn't happen this year, and that, too, is becoming tradition.
The 120 deodar trees along Santa Rosa Avenue, from Altadena Drive to Woodbury Road, have been strung with lights every Christmas since 1920, except for the World War II years and the energy crisis of 1978.
After Fred C. Nash, an early Pasadena department store owner, initiated the festivity, the all-volunteer Christmas Tree Lane Assn. was formed to carry it on.
Although occasional shortages of money and enthusiasm have plagued the association during its 66-year history, this was its most beleaguered year, according to some members who have been around for decades.
In October, officers predicted a dark Christmas on the lane.
"The last few years it's been terrible and we always almost give up," said Lenore Denny, who said she first joined the association in 1966 in response to a desperate call for help. "This year it really looked bad."
"This year's turnout was very, very poor at first. People are just plain burned out," said Ed Turley, vice president of the association.
At least $1,500 and 30 volunteers are needed each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas to buy replacement light bulbs and supplies and to string the lights. The money and volunteer work are essential because the trees are on county land in the unincorporated community.
This year there were shortages of money and people.
However, through the efforts of three young stalwarts and a last-ditch, community-wide call for help, the system worked again. About 70 people volunteered to help.
"In a crisis in this town, you blow the whistle and they come out of the woodwork," said Frank Bridal, chairman of the Altadena Town Council. "Maybe it's better to say they come out of the trees, in this case. People respond like crazy."
At the lighting ceremony, a burst of applause greeted the announcement that Tommy Billheimer and Marc and Mike Van Valkenburgh again were "the heart and soul" of Christmas Tree Lane.
However, the three young men were not visible at the ceremony at the Public Library. Each was at a switch box or up in an 80-foot tree, where they had been perched every weekend and almost nightly for weeks in their annual determination to assure Christmas Tree Lane's success.
"We would have absolutely given up if it hadn't been for Tommy Billheimer, who loves the lane and knows it so well," Denny said. "He and Marc and Mike get out there when no one else will."
The men, who spend about 100 hours each year on the project, simply said, "This is our gift to the community."
They begin each season by removing strands of wiring from storage and repairing faulty and worn-out parts. From four to six strands are attached to a rope with a pulley that is permanently attached to each tree.
Volunteers screw light bulbs into the strands as they are hoisted up to about 80 feet, where they are attached and draped around branches.
The wiring runs from tree to tree and is connected to a main switch near the library. Billheimer usually is the man at the controls who flips the switch at the lighting ceremony and every night at 5 p.m. Turley turns the lights out about 11 p.m. They are left on until about midnight on Christmas Eve and are turned off for the final time during the first week of January.
An estimated 100,000 visitors cruise Christmas Tree Lane every season.
In January it takes about two weekends to remove the wiring and bulbs and put them back in storage for another year.
Seeds Were Imported
The deodars grew from seeds that Altadena pioneer John Woodbury imported from Italy. They were planted in 1885 along the road that led to his ranch in the foothills.
The ranch was long ago replaced with homes, the mile-long drive was later named Santa Rosa Avenue, and most of the original 150 trees grew to maturity.
Inventive former association members rigged up the ropes and pulleys that lift the heavy loads of lights. Billheimer, the Van Valkenburghs and Turley attach the strands of lights high in each tree.
"Sure it's worth it," Turley said. As next year's association president, he said he plans a massive fund-raising drive, in the hope of getting at least $10,000 to refurbish the aging system.
"There's never any doubt in my mind about the lights going on. We'll never let this die,".