Illustration by Julie Goonan
The Family That Adorns Together Stays Together
The house at 1158 Broadway isn’t part of Alameda’s storied Christmas Tree Lane or Oakland’s fabled Picardy Drive, but if you’re in Alameda during the holiday season, it’s well worth a gander. The residents — John and Marie Martinez, as well as daughter Marlowe Villalpando and son-in-law Eugene Villalpando —
are house-decorating devotees who stop at pretty much nothing in pursuit of their craft: acres of garlands, miles of lights, reindeer sailing from one tree to another, a giant plastic Santa Claus face, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, nativity scenes and a model train.
John Martinez, 67, claims he never wanted to be an extreme decorator. He and his British-born wife, who is now 72, were living in Oakland in 1976 when their first grandson, Shomar, was born. For baby’s first Christmas, the grandparents decided to put a few lights on the house. As the years went by, they put out more and more — who doesn’t like a few Christmas decorations, after all? — and starting doing up the house for other holidays, too. But it was when they moved to the three-story, 100-year-old house on Broadway in 1988 that they started going all out.
The house had been inhabited by nine sailors from the Alameda Naval Air Station and was pretty well trashed. “There were beer cans, weapons, bottles of alcohol everywhere,” says Marie Martinez. “I had no interest in the place.” But her husband saw potential in the 17-room Victorian home, despite its dilapidated state. As they settled in, their holiday decorating started slowly getting, well, more elaborate. “It’s just something we enjoy,” she says. “It’s our hobby. And we always try to put out at least one new thing every year. So the tradition just keeps inflating.”
Christmas is the biggest holiday, of course, with more than 20,000 lights strung around the house and the aforementioned decorations placed carefully around the yard (as well as on the porch, eaves, rooftop, and front steps). But if you think the outside is outlandish, the inside tops even that. Marie Martinez — who Marlowe Villalpando, 52, claims “never unplugs the glue gun” — handcrafted 2,500 decorations for the 18-foot artificial tree set up every year in the entryway. (Note to Bay Area crafters: She created miniature Victorian “gift boxes” to hang on the tree by wrapping white and gold lace around little boxes — think staple boxes and matchboxes — and then embellished them with satin and pearls.) That tree alone boasts 5,000 lights; a second 10-foot tree erected upstairs is strung with 2,000 lights.
John Martinez has bad knees now, so his son-in-law, 40, is “in decorator training,” Marlowe Villalpando laughs. “He’s the one who has to go up and down on the ladders to hang the lights and garlands. Thing is, he’s a Raiders fan, and he sits in the Black Hole, so if he misses a game, it’s not good. We have to schedule things carefully.”
It takes three weekends to put out all the Christmas decorations — longer if the lights develop fuse problems. (“John will take 10 hours to find the one bulb that’s blown out!” complains Marie Martinez. “I just say throw it out and get new ones.”) The community loves the spectacle: People honk horns when they see the family setting out the decorations, leave letters for Santa Claus and sometimes send Christmas cards with, yes, photos of the Martinez house as the main artwork. The decorations are anchored with lengths of rebar to deter thieves; in the last 20 years, the family has lost just two pieces: an animated polar bear and a baby Jesus.
Christmas isn’t the only holiday that inspires the family to decorate — the house comes alive with lights, characters and banners every St. Patrick’s Day (think shamrocks and leprechauns); Easter (bunnies!); Independence Day (30 lengths of bunting, hundreds of flags and pinwheels, and nearly two dozen red, white and blue flowerpots, each sprouting a tiny flag, upon the porch steps); and Halloween (inflatable skeletons, coffins and all manner of ghouls).
“One Halloween, the crowds got so bad, the police asked us to scale it back,” Marie Martinez says. “There were so many people on our lawn you couldn’t see a single blade of grass. People were doing U-turns on Broadway and double-parking out front. The police asked us to cut back, because we were creating a hazard.”
“Yeah,” says John Martinez ruefully. “That’s when we used to go all out.”
The family hits flea markets, garage sales and party stores throughout the year to get their gear, which now fills three full rooms in their basement. And while much of it might be considered kitsch, it’s true treasure to the Martinez family. “We found our giant Santa Claus face at a flea market in San Jose,” John Martinez reminisces. “We didn’t want to pay the asking price, so we kept going back, over and over, throughout the day, until at the very end the dealer brought the price down.” Adds Marlowe Villalpando, “It’s all totally organized downstairs. The boxes are marked, so we know what goes where — even which light strings go on which side of the house. If you’re not organized about it, forget it.”
Marie Martinez laughs about the jam-packed basement and admits that her daughter is “on my case all the time about buying more stuff. But she buys stuff, too! A year ago, she walked in with two giant moose for Christmas. And right after Christmas, she bought a giant snowman with a digital calendar for counting down the days until Christmas.”
Ready to see it for yourself? The house is fully decorated from Dec. 15 – Jan.1, and the lights usually stay on until 10 pm.