1 man's festival of lights is some neighbors' eyesore

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

December 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- By now, perhaps, the entire town has realized that nothing will prevent Jennings Osborne from flipping on the 3.5 million Christmas lights that hang in his yard.

Not a blown-out transmitter that darkened several of his neighbors' homes a few years back.

Not the next-door neighbors. (He simply bought their houses and turned them into part of his display.)

And certainly not a decision this month by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled that Mr. Osborne would have to dim many of the illuminated angels, wise men, reindeer and trees that transform his home into a 6-acre electric Christmas greeting each year.

Until last year, Mr. Osborne lighted his display for about 35 days during the Christmas season, from sunset to about midnight each day.

"I do this to make people happy," he said.

But those who live near him, who were perhaps amused eight years ago when their wealthy 51-year-old neighbor drew the attention of the entire state by putting up several thousand strands of lights, say they have had enough.

In a lawsuit filed last year in Pulaski County Court, six of them argued that the display, which has grown each year, brought too many gawkers to their neighborhood of spacious houses and big lawns.

The traffic congestion, they said in the suit, made trips to the corner store take two hours, and brought potential danger if emergency vehicles could not get down Robin Wood Street, a busy four-lane road on which the display stands.

"We were essentially prisoners in our homes," said Arleta Power, a retired nurse who was a plaintiff in the suit. "If you forgot a stick of butter for a recipe, you were gone for over an hour."

Mr. Osborne's response? He added more lights, more than 3 million of them.

"It just makes me so sad that a few people could ruin something that so many enjoy," Mr. Osborne said, noting that hundreds of people a day come to look at his house. He spoke during an interview at his company, the Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center, which conducts human trials of new drugs for pharmaceutical companies.

However, the county court ordered an injunction against the display, limiting it to 15 days and directing that it be lighted only from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mr. Osborne then appealed to the state Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds but lost. The court ordered him to reduce the size of the display substantially but did not specify to what extent.

The lights were turned on for the first time this season on Saturday, with a 70-foot red angel alight on the Osborne home. But yesterday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles emergency matters from Arkansas, refused to halt the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling ordering Mr. Osborne to reduce his light show.

Mr. Osborne may now ask each of the other eight Supreme Court justices to stay the Arkansas ruling. Neither he nor his attorney, Sam Perroni of Little Rock, returned telephone calls seeking comment.

Even unilluminated, the yards of Mr. Osborne's three adjoining houses are remarkable. Mr. Osborne won't even hint at the cost of the display, which requires the care of a full-time engineer, or his electric bill.

In front, to the right of the white brick house where Mr. Osborne lives with his wife, Mitzi, and his 14-year-old daughter, Allison, are six giant poles used to anchor strand upon strand of lights, and an electric church steeple, soon to be surrounded by electric choirboys and churchgoers.

Chaser lights suspended from a steel cable drip color to emulate a snowfall. A snake of lights forms a locomotive, driven by Santa. Hovering above the main house, which is swaddled in light bulbs, is a gigantic electric globe with the words "For God So Loved the World" and a Nativity scene.

To the left of the house is a plywood manger. Above it, workers have erected more walls of lights. The white stone wall that surrounds Mr. Osborne's main home is also strung with bulbs.

Mr. Osborne may be the only man in Arkansas who gives directions to his house by saying, "Take a right, and look for the crane."

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