Lights that charm, inspire, provoke

Three city displays offer varying takes on holiday spirit

December 23, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Life in Baltimore should be edgy, funky, provocative - particularly when it comes to decorating for the holidays.

So says Chris Jensen. The Charles Village plumber has managed to do his bit for cultural awareness by inserting a space alien into his Christmas Nativity scene.

Every night during the holidays, on the porch roof of a rowhouse at Howard and 28th streets, passers-by can find an illuminated paradigm of heavenly inclusiveness. There, along with Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a shepherd and three Magi, is a character you might consider the Manger Stranger: an earnest green creature about 30 inches tall paying its respects.

The effect can be powerful.

One fan, artist Tracy Jacobs of Hampden, was so taken with the display that she asked Jensen's permission to make it into a holiday card. Her only dilemma, she says, is what message to include:

"Season's Greetings, Earthlings"?

A simple "Believe"?

Not everyone shares Jacobs' immediate fondness for the scene. Take the woman who accosted Jensen at the plumbing supply store.

"She said, `You live in that house? I just want to take a gun and shoot all those things down. It makes me so mad!'" he recalls. "And there was one little old lady who said, `I think what you're doing is wrong, Mr. Jensen. You can't be putting the Lord Baby Jesus up there with that space monster.'"

No harm was intended, he assured her.

Jensen bought the alien at Target for a Halloween display before realizing that Christmas might hold far greater potential. The next coup was locating the Holy Family at a vintage store in Reisterstown.

Jensen, 48, is just the sort of character he expects to find in the city. Born and raised in "Parkville/Carney," he lives in the house that his great-grandma "Too-ta-loo" - "her real name was Louise but she was always saying `Toot-a-loo'" - bought for his grandpa Bill as a wedding present in 1922.

He's been named "Baltimore's Best Plumber" by the City Paper.

And he's also achieved something like a reputation for chasing after people who litter and for creating intriguing sculpture from pipes and faucets. "I'm an artsy guy," he confesses. "That's the only thing I was good at."

The Nativity display, now five years old, marks the first time Jensen ever tried his hand at holiday decorating. Now he's considering another idea: a giant, illuminated Leg Lamp.

"The new symbol for Christmas is the leg lamp from that movie, A Christmas Story," he says. (He's speaking, as any Christmas Story fan knows, of the ill-fated lamp Ralphie's father receives as a contest prize.)

Constructed from Christmas lights mounted on a sectioned frame, the holiday leg would measure 15 feet to 20 feet tall and sport an illuminated stiletto shoe and fishnet stocking. Ideally, it would take up one wall on the 28th Street side of Jensen's house during the holiday season. The Holy Family and the alien would still face Howard Street.

"Because of popular demand I can never take the Nativity scene down," he says. "My ultimate goal is for John Waters to use my Nativity scene in one of his movies.

"Please, John! Help a brother out!"

Having trouble decorating your power boat for Christmas? Chris Stewart's tips include planning, persistence - and lots of trips to the Dollar Store.

Stewart is the skipper of Spoiled Rotten, perhaps the most decked-out power boat in Baltimore's harbor. There's much to admire about this 60-foot vessel's seasonal illumination: Santa's handsome sled and four animated flying reindeer ... the palm tree ... the Christmas tree ... two American flags ... the inflatable Frosty and his son ... the Nativity scene ... and the strings of lights that brighten up everything.

Equally admirable is what it takes to maintain this display. With roughly 15,000 lights that need tending - as well as the boat's regular upkeep - Christmas aboard Spoiled Rotten is hardly the smooth sail you might expect.

"I know how to stick with something and make it right," Stewart says.

The first illuminated reindeer, for instance, took him about 40 hours to create. There was the design, the wiring and the computer programming necessary to make it leap gracefully through the night. The key to the puzzle, he says, was realizing each figure would require three sets of legs.

He has positioned the Holy Family and the rest of the manger's regulars - the camels, the Magi, a shepherd - on a dinghy-shaped platform that hangs from the davit at the boat's starboard side.

The public appreciates the effort. Every night, traffic along Aliceanna Street slows while drivers gawk at the light show docked at Slip 40 in the Chester Cove Marina, midway between Fells Point and Canton.

And during the past few weeks, Stewart's decorations have won first-place awards in the Baltimore Parade of Lighted Boats and the annual Eastport Yacht Club's Lights Parade, an event that attracts 30,000 spectators.

It's not the first time, either.

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