About this time last year, Marcia Hales was 15 minutes from making an announcement to the media regarding her longtime popular holiday-light display: This was it. She was retiring.
Then the phone rang.
“It was California,” Hales said.
The producers of “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” an ABC TV holiday-themed reality competition, were interested in the video she had submitted for the show’s first season. She asked them to call back later, but knowing what it might mean, she quickly scrapped the swan song speech she had planned to deliver.
“(It’s) easy to start a tradition and hard to end one,” Hales said recently.
The television crew traveled to Duluth in mid-October to record footage that will appear on this season of the show, which pits American families and neighborhoods in a competition for best decoration with $300,000 in available prizes. Hales’ episode airs at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 on WDIO-TV (Channel 10) in Duluth. She will be featured in a segment alongside homes in California, Tennessee and Utah.
The series premiere is at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 and two episodes air every Monday through Dec. 21.
Christmas in October
Before it was Thanksgiving, or even Halloween, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Hales’ home on the Lake Superior side of Park Point. She was contractually obligated to stick to reality TV disclosure rules - she estimated she had gone through 4 inches of paperwork between spring and summer - but through a whispered word-of-mouth she was able to draw about 100 friends, friends of friends and neighbors to her home for filming.
As they entered, guests were asked to sign a release form and then were photographed holding the forms.
A large truck was parked at the top of the driveway with a camera that made regular passes over the crowd. There were boom microphones, and the crew conducted interviews with cute kids and costumed adults. Hales, dressed in seasonal plaid, a white sweater and mukluks, surveyed the scene for a while from her side porch.
“Merry Christmas,” said a roaming Santa Claus, on a 42-degree day that was void of even the suggestion of snow.
Bobbie Paull of Duluth wore a Christmas tree-shaped hat, complete with decorative balls and flashing lights. The only thing it didn’t do was play music, a design feature she planned to incorporate later.
“I came over the other day to help (Hales with the lights) and where do I find her - in a tree,” Paull said. “It’s wonderful for her to get recognition for something she doesn’t ask anything of. She’s touched so many lives.”
Chris and Bob Monetti wore hats more modestly covered in just holiday lights. They had traveled to Duluth from the Twin Cities to help with setup. They’ve been visiting Hales regularly for about five years.
“She has quite a few lights here,” Bob Monetti said. “Look at the setting, on Lake Superior. It retains the charm of Christmas, and that’s the nice thing.”
The crew coached the crowd on when and how to cheer and filmed and refilmed the celebrity host Taniya Nayak’s (of the Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible”) arrival in a black SUV. She emerged from behind tinted windows, rosy cheeked and peppy, dressed in fashionable winter wear.
The angle for the segment unfolded: Hales and her grandson Zach Dieter set up the lights together every year. The display is a tradition that started when Marcia and her late husband, Alan Hales, entered a residential-lighting competition in 1998 - but Alan died before they could improve on their second-place finish the next year.
When Dieter was old enough, he was always at her elbow, Hales said.
There also was a side plot involving an 8-year-old girl in light blue tulle, wielding a magic wand. Reggie Frederick, daughter of News Tribune opinion page editor Chuck Frederick and Julie Frederick, who also works for Forum Communications Co., was the official light-lighter, and she did so with spontaneous choreography that included leaps and spins and great gusts of personality. Her father wrote the book “Spirit of Lights,” which tells the stories of some people affected by the display.
Hales has continued to host, in some years, tens of thousands of visitors. The setup includes a white-lit route beneath a trellis that winds past a wishing penguin, to a 20-foot tree-like tower, past mechanical lit snow animals, down to a laser show on the beach. There also is a bonfire with marshmallows and cookies in the nearby cottage.
Home viewers will see what visitors have seen during the past 17 years.
“Each year, I maybe add a little bit, but I’ve always kept it pretty much (the same),” Hales said. “I’ve stayed in my own territory color-wise and design-wise. Like I told (the show’s producers) last Christmas, my lights don’t shine to the heaven and my house doesn’t dance and I don’t look like a Menards truck tipped over in my front yard,” she said.
Setup began earlier in the season this year to accommodate filming. Crews captured the light-free lawn in September, then Hales had a month to get it in seasonal shape.
One logistical problem: Paving the path with the popular ice candles when the temperature hadn’t yet dropped below freezing.
Hales ended up using a walk-in freezer at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to keep her candles intact.
On the main night of filming, Hales said the crew was still active in her yard until 2 a.m.
“I said at midnight, ‘I’m going to bed,’ ” she said. “I went to bed, and it was like trying to sleep at (3 p.m.). They had lights on and they were interviewing Taniya out by the garden. She was all wrapped up in a blanket …”
A month removed from the project, Hales described it as “a wonderful experience.”
She said she plans to turn on the lights today, a quick sneak peek, but the official opening day is Dec. 4. It will be available for viewing until the end of the first week of January. She is anticipating a larger-than-normal crowd this year, after the show airs.
As for that swan song she was writing last year:
“My grandson feels that he wants to continue having them,” she said. “I can’t really say.”
If you go
Marcia Hales’ holiday lights display is at 3739 S. Lake Ave., on Park Point in Duluth. Hales will turn on the lights for a sneak peek today, but the official opening day is Dec. 4. The lights will remain open for viewing until the end of the first week in January.
What: “The Great Christmas Light Fight”
When: Hales’ episode is at 8 p.m. Dec. 14
Where: WDIO-TV (Channel 10)