Elizabeth Schlappi, an energetic, 51-year-old woman, is dressed in a Santa Claus-red jogging suit and heading to the Star of India to conduct tours. But she is more than just a museum guide--she is also an avid student of American history, hillbilly music and Christmas. She has an elaborate collection of more than 1,000 handmade Christmas ornaments, which are now on display at the Timken Gallery in Balboa Park. The collection includes bejeweled balls that depict sunsets, Sea World and dinosaurs, and some that, as she says, "just glitter." Schlappi was interviewed by Times Staff Writer Leslie Wolf and photographed by Bob Grieser.
I have always been a Christmas tree nut. When I was a little girl, I would drive my father to distraction making him drive up and down El Cajon Boulevard looking for the absolutely perfect Christmas tree. The ornaments we had were just ordinary ornaments, but we always had a very nice tree.
About 30 years ago our family met Donal and Florence Hord, and that was how this all got started. Donal Hord was a fairly well-known sculptor in San Diego and his wife, Florence, is an artist in her own right. Her hobby was to make these ornaments, and she started about 50 years ago.
In the mid-1950s my mother started taking sculpture lessons from Donal Hord. I was in college at the time, and my mother told me that Florence Hord made Christmas ornaments. That kind of went in one ear and out the other--I thought I had pretty nice Christmas ornaments, so it didn't faze me too much. Then, on Christmas, 1959, my mother gave me a box from Florence; there were five handmade ornaments inside. I just took one look and said some day I am going to have an entire tree filled with those ornaments.
So I have been helping Florence make the ornaments ever since. The inspiration was hers. If she had not been on the planet, there would be no tree here (in the Timken Gallery), and I would not be making ornaments or anything.
Since last March I have been making them on my own. I've made about 150 of them now. While I do make some of the traditionally glittery ornaments, the ones I've made have the patches on them, showing the zoo, the pandas, a whale, the Padres, the Star of India and other San Diego things. I'm a native San Diegan, born at Mercy Hospital, and I'm proud of my city.
There are about 1,200 ornaments now in the collection, and all are on this tree except about 175, which are being used in the "Celebrate the Holidays" exhibit at the Museum of San Diego History. This collection has been on public display most every Christmas for the past 20 years. This year I was approached by the Timken Gallery to loan them for a great big tree, and I was very happy to do that, because that's really where they belong.
It's a project to decorate a big tree like this. Every branch has to be tied up with a fishing line, or the branches would just sink, the ornaments are so heavy. You may read that the Hotel del Coronado or one of the banks has the best tree. They may have a beautiful tree or a collection of trees but--of course I'm very prejudiced--I think this tree has a really dazzling display of ornaments.
I also have collections of Valentine's ornaments, Easter ornaments and patriotic ornaments.
I grew up during World War II, and I think we were all extra patriotic then. So I always loved American history and as a little kid that kind of naturally led to cowboys and Indians and to country music. Teaching is one of my particular joys--I was a teacher for 26 years at Cadman Elementary School in Clairemont. I taught fourth- and fifth-grade, specializing in American history. I feel that, if one learns our history of the United States, I think it comes to light that we are not perfect, but we are very compassionate and honorable, at least compared to many other countries.
I'm also an author. I wrote a book about 10 years ago called "Roy Acuff, The Smoky Mountain Boy." I've always loved hillbilly music. I started collecting the music because I liked it, and one thing led to another. While I was accumulating stuff, I accumulated information about his life, so eventually I wrote a book. I compiled a massive collection of what I call "Roy Acuff stuff." It's now being kept in a special room in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.