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December 20, 1990|ERIK HAMILTON | Erik Hamilton is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — From a distance, the crowds, police cars and barricades create the impression that we're in a hostage situation here. But then The Glow comes into sight, and the faint sounds of singing chipmunks are heard. . . .

At Dahlia Circle and Shadbush Street, The Glow comes not only from the neighborhood's mind-boggling Christmas lights and mechanical displays but from the faces of the thousands of children and adults who come year after year to see these dazzling salutes to the yuletide.

"My family has been coming for the last three Christmases," said Jerry Sulvain of Long Beach, holding his 10-month-old son, Sean. "It gives me a warm feeling. And my kids love it."

Not more than 10 feet away, 6-year-old John Sulvain was mesmerized by a mechanical doll throwing a snowball at a little blond-haired doll, who turns around when she's hit. Little Johnny "hasn't moved from that spot in 15 minutes," his father said with a laugh.

This is exactly the kind of reaction that Joe and Betty Finnell are after.

"We would never consider not decorating the house," said Betty Finnell, 56, who remembers back when the decorating only took one day. "We've been doing this for about 20 years, and with each passing year, the decorating became more elaborate. This year, my husband started to put things up before Thanksgiving."

It's hard to believe the decorating didn't take even longer than that. On the Finnells' roof and in their front yard, Santa snaps his whip to a team of reindeer, elves work busily on a line of toys, and dolls dance. Throughout the display, a galaxy of multicolored lights produces an almost Vegas-like glitter.

Betty Finnell doesn't know how many lights are up (some residents estimate 15,000), or the number of electronic components and amount of wiring used in her displays. But she does know about the electric bill--$150 from Dec. 1 through Dec. 26 (almost three times as much as it is during those months her house isn't lit up like, well, a Christmas tree). Other neighbors say electric bills of $350 are not uncommon.

This year, for the first time, the city has put up barricades and dispatched police officers to make sure that the only vehicles allowed into the neighborhood are those that belong there. Outsiders are welcome to park at the nearby Recreation and Cultural Center at 16400 Brookhurst St., where they can walk in.

"Last year," explains Police Lt. Bob Mosely, "it was virtual gridlock. We estimate we got 7,000 people coming in here over a 10-day period."

"We had to act," adds Assistant City Manager Ray Kromer. "This place starts to get a lot of foot traffic by Thanksgiving, and it was only a matter of time before someone would have been hit by a car."

Betty and Joe Finnell were in on the ground floor of the Dahlia and Shadbush decorating boom, making their own displays a little more intricate and sophisticated year after year as Joe Finnell, an electrical engineer at McDonnell Douglas, picked up more and more electrical know-how.

"When some of our neighbors saw what we were coming up with, they asked us how we did it," Betty Finnell recalls. "Joe was more than willing to help them. With each year, the idea to decorate became more popular with the neighbors."

Joe Finnell's influence can be seen, for example, in neighbor Bev Bromley's display, which features the snowball thrower that captivated little Johnny Sulvain. That was Joe's idea. Bromley's display, at Shadbush Street and Dandelion Circle, also features a monkey teeter-totter and a skiing bear that looks as though it may fly off the roof.

So far, decoration fever has spread to about 25 homes in the neighborhood. Those that don't include mechanical effects make up for it with upholstery batting used as snow, gingerbread people with flickering eyes, countless snowmen, hundreds of fake Christmas trees, toy soldiers, candy canes, Santas and reindeer.

"I can't imagine anybody going to so much trouble to decorate," said Elizabeth Fontane, 33, of Garden Grove. "I thought my dad used to go all out, but these decorations are incredible."

Fontane was seeing the displays for the first time. "My friend told me I'd be blown away, and she spent all day trying to talk me into it," she said, gazing around her. "I thought it would be the usual lights and stand-up stuff.

"Boy, was I wrong!"

Teresa Esperaza, 10, of Santa Ana was particularly fond of the chipmunks that, with the help of a strategically placed speaker, sing nonstop Christmas carols four hours a day on a stage built by homeowner Ed Ahumada. Chewing a candy cane (which she got from the Finnells), Teresa said she hopes everybody gets the same feeling she gets when she sees this display: "It makes me feel good," she said. "I wish Christmas was tomorrow."

There were, however, a few who felt the "lights and stuff" were a bit much.

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