Plastic palms are popular at Wildwood, N.J.

Governor declares the species the official tree of coastal resort

May 05, 2002|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WILDWOOD, N.J. - They laughed at Ed Hiller.

They doubted him.

Fake palm trees. Who would want to buy fake palm trees?

But Hiller knew.

He had faith.

"I figured there were other people off the wall like me," he said. "But you don't have to be off the wall anymore."

More than 500 plastic palms flutter in the ocean breezes of Wildwood, the plastic palm tree capital of New Jersey, maybe the world. And nearly every one was built and installed by Ed Hiller, palm visionary.

Hiller, 66, has leathery hands from a lifetime of manual work, and he doesn't even like the beach. "I guess I always knew it was here," he said. "I just never came."

Poolside vision

Now he comes every other day to put the leaves back on his trees, to prepare Wildwood's motels for summer.

As a young man, Hiller ran a janitorial business. He hated it.

In 1979, he built a swimming pool in his backyard, his oasis in Langhorne, N.J. Sitting poolside, around 1980, Hiller had a vision. He wanted a palm tree for his pool.

Hiller grew up in Langhorne. After high school, he went into the Army, then spent two years in Orlando. Fla. He liked palms.

Hiller went out to buy a tree for his backyard pool and couldn't find one anywhere. So Hiller built it in his workshop. He put the palm on the deck and it fell over the first day. He built another. It blew over.

Finally, Hiller built a better palm. Then another.

In 1983, Hiller decided to go into the business. His friends laughed. He had a product, but no market. But Hiller knew the market would come.

In 1984, Hiller was at a home show, and a Wildwood motel owner bought some of his trees.

Hiller now sells trees all over the country. Business was perking along in Wildwood, but was hardly gangbusters, until 1998. That year, a group of Yale and University of Pennsylvania grad students - supervised by the Philadelphia firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates - came out with a big report.

Right place, right time

The way to revive Wildwood, the report concluded, was to celebrate what it was intended to be: a 1950s and '60s, doo-wop-era resort, a land of fantasy and kitsch. What Wildwood needed, the experts said, was more neon and more plastic palms.

Hiller was in the right place at the right time.

Then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman even decreed the plastic palm the official tree of Wildwood.

"Ain't nobody laughing now," Hiller says.

On a recent Tuesday in Wildwood his first stop was the Casa del Sole, at 41st and Ocean Avenue.

His tree business is called Four Sons Custom Palm Trees. But it's really just Hiller, his son Patrick, and an employee named George Marino, who prefers to be called Dirty Harry.

"This ain't General Motors," said Hiller.

The day was sunny and hot, and felt like summer except the streets and beaches were almost empty.

At the Casa del Sole, Hiller climbed an 8-foot ladder and went to work on his first tree of the day.

Each palm has 14 branches - stored in boxes over the winter - that fit snugly into the treetop. Hiller charges $10 per tree to install the leaves every spring, and $10 per tree every fall to take them down. He hasn't changed his price in 15 years.

The branches come in four shapes. Hiller designed them, built them, even named them.

He was like a surgeon, standing on the ladder and calling out to his assistant:

"Give me a goose neck," he said.

Marino handed him a branch with a curvy stem.

"Now a right angle," said Hiller.

Marino handed him a branch with the stem at a right angle.

"A little more than," called Hiller.

Marino handed him a branch - the stem was a little more than a right angle.

"We didn't know what else to call it," explained Hiller.

When all branches were in place, Hiller slid a muffler clamp around the top of the tree, and tightened it with a socket wrench.

A natural touch

Then he wrapped coconut fiber - the only thing natural in the entire tree - around the clamp. He hung two man-made coconuts.

After just 11 minutes, the fronds fluttered in full glory.

Hiller builds the trees in his shop in Langhorne. They come in four sizes, 7 to 24 feet. The most popular is 9 feet.

Prices run from $400 to $1,200.

Hiller has no desire to retire, to sit under his own palm poolside.

"I got my job, my business and my hobby all rolled into one," he said. "I just love it."

Hiller and Marino moved on to the Golden Tiara, and then to the Skylark Motel.

The base of the trees there was strung with lights.

The owners, Teresa and Talat Hanna, were glad to see Hiller. They love their palms.

"The trees make it look like a real island," said Talat Hanna. "You feel like you are in Jamaica or Hawaii. With these trees, especially at night, this feels like paradise."

A Harley-Davidson roared down Ocean Drive.

Hiller climbed the ladder and went to work.

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