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The Lights Brigade

Richard Francis, Mario Sirianni and Fotias Panagiotopoulos

Did you see the elephant?” Richard says, squinting at the topiary pachyderm cascading across his garage roof. At the neck of the elephant is a topiary mahout. “It’s an Indian house so we’ve got an elephant. When the jasmine blooms it becomes a white elephant.”

In Northcote, Richard Francis, 57, is the Christmas lights guy. Every November, his display starts quietly on the roof as part of the Indian festival of Diwali, then, come December, he flicks the switch on horses, trains, snow bears, shooting stars, reindeers, penguins, a Ferris wheel and more than 30,000 LEDs to herald Christmas. “It’s the coming together of two religions,” Richard explains. “My wife, Pratima, is Hindu so she gets the roof and I’m Christian so the front yard is for me.”

Really, though, it’s all Richard. Born in Fiji, he caught the Christmas lights bug while living in San Francisco, and then transported it to Thomson Street. “It started slowly, just a couple here, a few there. But then I started to build it up. And then I got Frank involved, and now Mario. So it’s three houses together and it’s really big.”

Fotias (Frank) Panagiotopoulos, 72, succumbed to the tears of a five-year-old. “My grandson Christopher came to see Richard’s lights,” the Greek-Australian relates. “And then the boy start crying, ‘Papou, why you not put up the lights?’ And then he crying more. So I say, ‘OK, I put up the lights’.” Twenty thousand LEDs later, Papou has made good his promise. “I got two horses. I got Father Christmas who waves. I got Father Christmas who says, ‘Ho ho ho’. I got a train.” Fotias says he’s driven by a desire to please people and not by any competition with Richard. “We’re friends,” he says. “We were in the paper together.” Richard also made the newspaper when baby Jesus was stolen from his nativity. “I think it was a dare. Four days later, they returned it. Now I have a Perspex sheet in front.”

His other moment of celebrity was as a finalist in the 2008 Seven News Christmas lights competition, winning a $1000 Kmart gift card. “He spent the entire amount buying more things!” Pratima chimes, with just the slightest note of exasperation. Still, she is a willing accomplice. She names their favourite shop for stocking up on paraphernalia as Rudolph Warehouse in Preston. One year, in the post-Christmas sales, the pair lined up at 5am at a Camberwell store. “They give you a number, and you get first pick of the whole store. I took the sledge with reindeers, a Father Christmas and a reindeer with a broken leg – which I fixed.” Pratima is delaying an overseas trip to help Richard this year. A chef, he uses his annual leave to attend his display. “I don’t get holidays,” he grins. “This is my holidays.”

Mario Sirianni, 80, has been stringing up lights for 10 years – “at least” – under the watchful eye of his wife, Lucia, 74. He even installed a steel hanging rail between his house and Richard’s. The process takes him a few days with a little help from his son-in-law – and some assistance from Richard. The best of the trio? “I think Richard first, Frank second and I’m third,” he says, laughing. “I don’t put up so much like they do.”

The Thomson Street show gets bigger every year. It starts at a few hundred visitors per night and builds to 2000 on Christmas Eve. “You can’t walk out here,” Richard says. “They come before midnight Mass.” According to Fotias, the iconic Ivanhoe Boulevard lights have had their day. “Boulevard, no, no, it’s nothing. People who come here, they tell me Boulevard is finished!”

Thomson Street

Shane Larsen, 48, of Reichelt Avenue, Montmorency, also believes he has the Boulevard covered. “We get Boulevard residents coming up here saying we beat them hands down. I think it’s because we’re very kid-orientated.” It’s certainly interactive. Shane has a singing polar bear, a mechanical reindeer running around the yard, a 2.5-metre Ferris wheel from Texas, a 10-foot blow-up carousel, an aeroplane and, best of all, snow. “We’ve been snowing up here in Montmorency for seven years,” Shane says. “I think we’re the only ones snowing in Melbourne, but I guess the secret is going to be out now. We use snow machines – you know the ones that produce foam for the nightclubs and discos? We’ve had the thumbs up from people from Russia, Finland and England. And they’ve all had white Christmases.” But Shane is keeping some cards close to his chest. “The tricky thing is the snow juice. The stuff that comes with the machine costs $25 for five litres, and I use 40-50 litres per night, so I make my own snow go-go juice. And that’s a secret recipe I’ll hold onto for a while longer!” The other trap for young Santas is moving the foaming agent quickly enough to an elevated machine for snow flow, but not so quickly that it agitates and blows its foam too early. “Pumping a thousand litres of water a minute is easy, but one litre a minute is hard. In the end, we found the answer – window-washer motors.” Shane grins. “I’ll let you have that one.”

At one point, four Reichelt Avenue houses got into the spirit. Now, Shane is the last man standing. “This year I’m aiming for 45,000 to 50,000 lights. I don’t like to put up too many. I don’t like a mess of lights.” Shane’s second child was born with a heart condition and, by gold coin donation, he’s raised nearly $10,000 for the Royal Children’s Hospital. “The week of Christmas, I reckon we get about a thousand people through a night. You can’t move out the front. It’s like a playground.”

The crowds also flock to Phillip Anthony’s house in Watsonia, so much so that he’s wary of publicising the exact address. “The ones who know about it know about it. You can get a lot of yahoos.” Phillip’s display is the antithesis of Shane’s white Christmas. “We do Australiana here. I have a swagman with bush animals. I have moving kangaroos with a sleigh on the roof, I have Santa’s shed, I have a storyline regarding May Gibbs and the gumnut babies. I got permission to do that because it’s licensed.”

Phillip, 60, started 36 years ago, to celebrate his daughter’s first Christmas at the house. His first creation was a plywood Santa that waved in the wind. Then, one of the Boulevard originators gave him some tips on making static displays. “I was away,” Phillip enthuses. “I’ve personally made 30 or 40 displays. I like to think that it’s good-quality stuff with a personal touch. This year, the new addition will be a seesaw for a blow-up Santa and a reindeer.” Phillip pauses then laughs. “I work at Bunnings.” Phillip also has a “friendly rivalry” with a neighbour. “He’s not so much of a handyman, though. Come in December and you’ll see that the quality of the handmade stuff is yards apart.” But he concedes that the neighbour outguns him for lights. “He’s gone for the animated electronic stuff. He puts a lot more LEDs out there. I’d hate to know how many he’s got. It’s enormous.”

Like the others, Phillip has made a specialty of appealing to children. “I have four interactive musical displays for kids to turn on and off. I’ve also got a remote-control train.” Phillip’s favourite trick is to get the children to ask Santa to make the train work. “When they do, I press the remote. They think it’s magic!” Santa also does a turn at the Christmas Eve street party. “He generally arrives in a fire truck or a police car. We can get up to 1200 children … A number of families have been coming since their children were toddlers and now those children come with children of their own. It’s second generation now.”

Mario Gallo, 82, of North Street, Ascot Vale, walks me to the shed where his papier-mache nativity is stored. “Be careful of that eel,” he says, as we step over a dead eel. “We caught some eels last night but some escaped.” It’s a curious beginning to an interview with a curious man. Mario’s shed is ramshackle (“If it’s not messy, you aren’t working”) and is strewn with radios, including a 43-year-old ex-military two-wave that earned him a date before a judge. Mario eventually convinced him that he was a hobbyist and not a spy. “I’m really Marconi,” Mario whispers as he shuffles towards his famous three-by-two-metre nativity. Each year, it goes on display in Mario’s carport, alongside its brothers in the papier-mache triptych – The Circus Maximus and The Destruction of Pompeii. Mario’s specialty is using power to light and animate his miniature worlds. In the nativity there’s a pig that rotates on a spit, an oven roasting chestnuts, a cradle that rocks and a tiny sewing machine that actually sews. “Everything moves,” Mario says proudly. “Everything.”

The centrepiece of the display is undoubtedly Vesuvius. A carpenter by trade but with a self-taught knack for electronics, Mario has sculpted a papier-mache volcano, embedded it with rocks and installed a tiny fan that “erupts” fabric and red tinsel from the crater. “We’ve had people come from as far away as Melton,” Mario says, testing a cascading water feature. “One family comes every year and brings me wine.”

Mario’s wife, Lucia, pretends to play Scrooge. “Too many kids come in pyjamas and dressing gowns and stay around all night.” But it emerges that Lucia bakes Sicilian biscuits for the kids and offers drinks. “It’s not for very long,” she winks. “Just for December.” Mario takes his December deadline seriously. On October 15, 2009 he was painting when the ladder slipped, the fall causing a haematoma requiring surgery. “I said, ‘First I go home and set up my nativity scenes.’ ” His doctor delayed the operation until December 17. “I was out for Christmas Eve,” Mario beams. “Jesus helped me.” Mario came to Australia 43 years ago from Naples, where nativities are popular. “I arrived here with the pictures in my head.” In the early days, he shared building the models with his son Fonzie. “We used to do this together, just for ourselves,” Mario says. “Then 15 years ago, when he was 34, he died. Now I open the display to everyone to honour my son.”

Like Richard, Frank, Shane and Phillip, Mario makes me promise to return in December. Like the others, his power bill will nudge $600 for that month. Like the others, he keeps on going, because it’s part of his and his community’s Christmas ritual. “I have to keep going,” Mario admits. “If one year I didn’t do it, people would just assume I’d died. It’s tradition now. It’s what I love.”

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