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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

Displays Help Set Yule Spirit in Motion

Simi home's Christmas lights and motorized scenery have lured visitors for 30 years. It's just one of the county's seasonal bright spots.

December 19, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Beckers' house is ready for Christmas. The goofy clock that runs backward is perched on the roof. The castle has been hoisted into place above the garage. Cinderella's horse-drawn carriage is set to roll.

And that's just the roof. Below, the yard is a mass of motion. The train, its wheels spinning, hauls mounds of packages while a "conductor" swings a lantern in the back. A hot-air balloon, with Sylvester and Tweetie aboard, glides on a cable between the Beckers' roof and the neighbor's.

Bears twirl, a vintage Sonja Henie doll skates, an airplane propeller spins, a popcorn cart "pops" bits of plastic foam. And every other available inch is crammed with cartoon characters, stuffed animals, elves.

This is Christmas as usual for John and Phyllis Becker, who live at 1332 Sycamore Drive in Simi Valley. They have been dolling up the house this way for more than 30 years.

On Thanksgiving weekend, they turned the lights on--all 8,000 to 10,000 of them--and the crowds started coming.

"It was wall-to-wall people," John Becker said last week.

It's one of several spots around the county that draw hordes of lookers dazzled by Christmas lights and scenery--from nativity scenes with life-size camels to Disney characters schussing down a roof-top ski slope.

But the Beckers may take the record for longevity and the most motorized attractions: 30, all virtually made from scratch.

It began with Phyllis' love of arts and crafts. She built the train first. Then came the miniature carousel, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, puppet theater, dollhouse and other features. John, a retired Rocketdyne engineer, built motors for them.

They kept building, adding and revising over the years. Now they spend about a month each year repairing, painting, and replacing an elf here, a bear there. They try to keep up with what's hot in the world of animation.

The house is so popular that the Beckers have a sign out front listing the hours the lights are on: 6 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 6 to 11 p.m. weekends, until New Year's Day.

But they do more than flip the light switch. On Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. the Beckers arrange for Santa to be there to greet the kids, listen to their Christmas wish list and hand out candy. The Beckers have a volunteer crew of five Santas, one who has filled the role for 10 years.

All of this costs them plenty. One year the electric bill for December topped $500. To help with expenses, they set out a donation box.

"If it weren't for the donations for so many years, we probably couldn't afford it," John Becker said.

Every year thousands of people stop to gaze and stroll the walkway lined with more than 100 big lollipops. The Beckers keep a guest book outside for visitors to sign, and they go through about four a season. The names aren't just from Simi Valley, but from places such as India and South Africa.

"Thank you for making this part of our Christmas tradition," one woman wrote. "You put a lot of work into your Christmas yard. I've never seen anything like it. You have brought joy to my children."

Perhaps the most touching moment for the couple came one year when a bus loaded with disabled children and adults stopped by and gazed at the display from the corner of the property.

John Becker saw them transfixed by the sight while other visitors milled around the yard. He grabbed Santa, interrupting a line of children, and directed him over to the group.

"He talked to every one of them," he said. "They all wanted to give Santa a hug. To them, that was a big treat."

The carnival atmosphere is not a treat for all the neighbors. "They tolerate it," John Becker said. "Some get annoyed." He makes sure the lights are out and the Christmas music is off at the appointed hour to avoid an angry phone call.

The whole project takes a lot of time and space. He stores everything on one side of his neatly organized garage where he has a workshop. (The Beckers have an arts-and-crafts business on the side.) The day after Thanksgiving, they enlist the help of their two grown children and friends to set up everything.

"This year was almost record time," he said. "By Saturday night it was lit up."

When it rained for three days recently, they simply covered what they could in plastic. They've learned a few tricks along the way, like filling the stuffed animals with plastic filler and spraying the outside with waterproofing to prevent mold.

"You get a little tired," he admitted. "But after you get it done and you see the pleasure it brings to so many people, my wife and I will do it as long as we can get the help."

Here are some other neighborhoods that decorate in a big way for the holidays.

Oxnard

This is the third year the residents of Oxnard's "Christmas Tree Lane" have knocked themselves out with dazzling displays. The houses are located on F Street and run six blocks, from 5th Street to Magnolia Street.

The lights will be on from 6 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 26. Santa will be there from 6 to 8 p.m. through Monday.

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