CityDig: The Man Responsible for L.A.’s Over-the-Top Christmas Displays

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‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the blog, not a map was stirring…well, maybe one map and an L.A. story that bears repeating. For those Angelenos who cruise up Christmas Tree Lane, stroll along the shore during the boat displays in Naples, check out the incredible zoo lights at Griffith Park, visit Candy Cane Lane in the Valley, or marvel at the displays at Upper Hastings Ranch, you may owe a lot of your seasonal cheer to George Skinner of Boyle Heights.

Skinner had a dream back in 1936 to create a magical Christmas house with dazzling lights and special effects that would be an inspiration for holiday decorators for generations to come. The man had a terrible time in the mid 1930s, almost dying from polio and receiving treatment in the dreaded iron lung at a local hospital for two long years. Neighbors had been very supportive of the Skinner family, and when George came home in the summer of 1936 to share a home with his father at 919 S. Mathews, he set out to repay them with this yuletide fantasy in Boyle Heights.
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The dream had humble beginnings (the Skinners had no dough—it was the middle of the Great Depression, you see), and his first attempts included Christmas music, a few lights and mirrors, and finding low-cost ways to recreate winter in warm Southern California. Eventually, the story of George and his Christmas house reached local businesses and even some studio folks, many of who donated thousands of dollars to make the place truly magical. Kids soon flocked to the Christmas house, and it was estimated that in 1937, some 87,000 people toured the “Castle of Snow and Ice” while spreading word of its awesomeness all across the East Side and beyond. Suddenly, Boyle Heights was THE spot for Christmas touring as newspapers picked up on the phenomenon. There were even volunteers who served cookies and sang carols for the visitors.

If you can believe it, the Department of Water and Power paid the light bill themselves, and well wishers raised $10,000 bucks for the house’s creation and upkeep. Members of the Sunrise Post of the American Legion pitched in the next season and created a theme of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” inside, but tragically, a fire caused by overtaxed electrical wiring destroyed half of the display just days before the premiere on December 16, 1938. Still, the resolute George Skinner and his band of volunteers managed to get the Christmas house up and running, with imported snow, thirty Douglas firs trucked down from Tahoe, and tinsel masking most of the damage.

Skinner and his father were forced to move in 1939, leaving the Christmas house behind. It was not the end for George, however, who married, got a job in the studios, and moved to Curson Street in Hollywood. There he continued his devotion to Christmas decorations with his wife at his side, creating the Snow White display once more (except this time with nine parakeets in on the action).

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