For most of us, getting ready for the holidays means whipping up a batch of Chex mix, hacking up a Hickory Farms beef log and hoping that this year's monthlong ordeal will pass as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
But when it comes to Christmas, twin brothers Bob and Bernard Rix aren't like most folks. Yuletide masochists by contemporay Grinch standards, the pair annually spend the better part of a year turning their homes into high-kilowatt salutes to the celebration of Christ's birth.
Not that there's anything particularly religious about the flashy displays that have made them manger-players in the Valley's Christmas sightseeing scene. Erecting flashy electrical tableaux that have less in common with Bethlehem than they do the Las Vegas strip, they've turned their homes into glitzy displays that outshine any of the seasonal crepe-hanging seen in malls.
Last spring, while a lot of Phoenicians were still procrastinating about taking down those outdoor Christmas lights, Bernard was industriously turning sheets of plywood into "artwork"--nearly 100 freestanding angel cutouts that currently obliterate the exterior facade of his north Valley ranch house.
Not to be outdone, Bernard's brother Bob was deep into his own pre-Yule prep. One of his first tasks? Covering the floor of his bungalow on East Brill Street with plywood, then plastic sheeting, finally topping the entire surface with Astroturf.
An unorthodox way to get ready for Christmas? Not really, especially if you're expecting some 20,000 sightseers to be traipsing through your home for the holidays.
Not to mention the thousands more carbound visitors who will enjoy a drive-by Christmas at the brothers' expense. After all, how often do you get a chance to see electrical rooftop angels playing Frisbee with illuminated halos?
Fraternal twins, 58-year-old Bob and Bernard Rix have been "getting lit"--first as a team, then individually--for the majority of their lives. In the process, they've developed one of the most fascinating rivalries in the admittedly meager annals of seasonal decorating.
Brother against brother! Smurf against Santa! Dueling electrical bills! It's a strange form of Yuletide one-upsmanship--and one that would definitely have Joyce Brothers and Martha Stewart scratching their heads.
Even though separately the twins operate the Valley's biggest Christmas houses--and the only two that visitors can actually walk through--both men categorically deny any such rivalry. Asked to pose back to back for a portrait, for instance, the two absolutely refuse, claiming the shot would symbolically indicate bad blood between them.
Yet despite their protestations, subtle snipes and comparisons are never far from the surface. When a photographer shows up to shoot their individual displays, both men seek reassurance that his effort is indeed the more impressive of the two.
And, of course, there was that incident a few years ago when a Swedish TV crew visited each house. Never suspecting that Bob would actually see the foreign broadcast (the newscasters subsequently sent both brothers a copy), Bernard told the reporter, "I have quality; he has quantity."
"Bern never knew that I'd seen that clip," counters Bob. "I never mentioned it--but I didn't speak to him for six months."
The divorced father of six grown children, Bernard pooh-poohs the notion that there's any holiday ill will between him and his sibling.
"No, there's no rivalry," explains Bernard. "See, my brother is into lights--and the more, the better. He's running a light show. I've got an art show."
So why do two grown men devote their lives to gussying up their homes for Christmas?
That's a good question--and one to which neither brother can supply a very satisfactory answer. The best explanation Bernard can come up with? "If I didn't decorate, what else would I do with all this stuff?"
According to the brothers, their obsessive Christmas behavior goes as far back as they can rememember. "Bern and I'd spend hours hanging that old lead tinsel on the tree, making sure every strand was perfectly straight," recalls Bob. "Then, as the tree would dry out, the tinsel would weigh down the limbs. So every day, we'd run home from school, grab a pair of scissors and trim the tinsel so it wasn't dragging on the floor.
The twins grew up in Globe, and their latent decorating mania kicked into high gear while returning from a movie late one night in December. Passing city hall, the 12-year-old pair discovered a box of Christmas ornaments a custodian had evidently forgotten to put away.
The crustier Bob--he's Oscar Madison to his brother's Felix Unger--remembers that fateful heist. "We took 'em home and used 'em the next year," he explains pragmatically. "If we hadn't taken 'em, someone else would have."
When the family relocated to Phoenix in the mid-Fifties, the resourceful twins parlayed their ill-gotten gains and boundless imagination (neither brother has any formal art training) into an Amana freezer, a portable television and a lawn mower--top prizes in a locally sponsored decorating-on-a-budget Christmas contest they won three years running. "We spent maybe $18 on the whole thing," recalls Bernard. "We did a stained window, a few choirboys--nice, but nothing like we do now."
During the fourth year, when Bob was off serving an Army hitch, Bernard decorated alone--and he was crushed when his solo efforts only rated an honorable mention. Unable to understand why he hadn't won, he was somewhat appeased by a judge's sheepish confession.
"He told me that if I'd won again, no one would ever enter the contest," reports Bernard. "I guess I could understand that."
In any case, the pair's days of tag-team decorating were over--Bernard started a family while Bob started his own pest-control operation.
But nearly 40 years later, they're still entrenched in a long-range decorating rivalry that's outlasted both the marriage and the extermination business.
When a visitor pulls up in front of Bob Rix's Tudor-style bachelor pad at 1517 East Brill earlier this month, the scene is reminiscent of something Tim Burton and Diane Arbus might have dreamed up for a joint Christmas card.
If there's a theme here, it can only be described as uber-Christmas. Everything on the property--including the lawn--has been draped with lights, strung with garland and/or concealed with bows, metallic wrapping and fake greenery. After dark, the whole magilla comes alive every 10 minutes in an 18-phase multimedia crescendo involving pulsating lights, three stereos and a specially decorated bay window showcasing Bob Rix's four dogs. Topping off the entire spectacle? A giant star on a 50-foot-tall pole.
Dressed in jeans, a thermal underwear shirt and a knit cap, the rangy Bob looks like a renegade Where's Waldo as he drags extension cords through the forest of plywood pine trees that he installed in the front yard way back in October. Strings of lights snake across the driveway. Staple guns, pliers and hammers dot the ground. Propped up against the west side of the house are leftovers from last year's fairyland extravaganza--rooftop turrets and portions of a plastic moat.
If visitors to the Brill Street showplace aren't assaulted with blasts of artificial snow and wafts of pine-scented air freshener, that's only because the idea hasn't occurred to Bob yet. To date, he reports that the only concept he's been unable to pull off was an idea to make his entire lot look like a layered pop-up card--he could never figure out a feasible way to build the structure that would "frame" the property.
At Chez Bob, nothing stands in the way of a bigger and better Christmas display. Several palm trees that once lined the street disappeared after visitors complained to Bob that they obstructed desirable camera angles. A stretch of grass that runs parallel to the sidewalk was replaced with green asphalt to facilitate installation of a moat. And when he realized that fake turrets he attached to the roof a few years ago clashed with the house, he temporarily repainted the exterior in matching pink and purple.
Inside the house--a claustrophobic phantasmagoria of dioramas, model-train railroads and the like suggesting a walk-through version of It's a Small World--things are even more holiday-intensive.
Somewhere under this Himalaya of holiday cheer is furniture Bob hasn't seen in months. "I've got three couches, two recliners and a 60-inch TV," he says. "But for five months of the year, I've got to sit on a folding chair in the kitchen and watch a 12-inch TV. If I want to eat, I've got to pull out two kitchen drawers and put a plank across it for a table. Am I Christmased out? Right now, yeah, I am." Bob shrugs. "'Course, I feel that way every year right about now."
For 17 years, Bob has thrived on the sort of seasonal overload that might make lesser men seriously think about converting to atheism.
"You cannot believe the stupid questions people ask," says Bob. "'How many extension cords do you use?' 'Are those fish in that pond real?' 'Is that moat out in your front yard all year 'round?'"
To waylay some of the particularly irritating FAQ, Bob has even posted a sign at the door of his home:
YES, I'M LIVING IN THE HOUSE NOW. I GET TO USE THE BED, MICROWAVE, TOILET AND THAT'S ABOUT IT. THANK YOU, BOB RIX
And pity the poor visitor who merely tries to make small talk, like the fellow last year who made the mistake of complimenting Bob on the previous year's display.
"I decided to test him, so I asked him exactly what I did have last year," says Bob. "The guy says, 'Smurfs.' I said, 'Sir, that was 1984. That was the year of the Olympics, and I remember making Olympic Smurfs.'"
And don't bother asking him if there are any other Christmas houses in town worth touring.
"I tell 'em I'm the last person in the world who'd know that," he retorts. "If I want to see my brother's house in progress, I've got to go over at five in the morning before the sun comes up. As long as people are up and around, I can't leave this place."
If getting the house ready for Christmas is a six-month project, guarding the place once it's decorated is a 24-hour job.
During the month and a half his display is up, Bob will be forced to sleep in a front bedroom with the window open so he can hear what's going on in the front lawn. Yet in spite of that precaution, he says he's almost certain to have several late-night run-ins with drunks who want him to turn on the lights after the city-enforced 10 p.m. curfew or find a few strangers straggling through his house at odd hours because he forgot to lock the door.
For a guy who estimates he'll be spending about $6,000 this year (including $1,200 in electrical bills) for the enjoyment of people he doesn't even know, Bob Rix has a curiously low threshold for goodwill toward his fellow man.
Already several days behind schedule because of a bout of flu, he's just discovered that neighborhood children have systematically stripped several hundred bulbs from the trees on the west side of the property.
During a Scroogelike rant, he also takes verbal pot shots at a city ordinance that prohibits him from charging visitors to tour his home or from even accepting donations to defray operating costs.
"I looked out the window one morning last year and here was some gal from the city taking pictures of coins someone had thrown in my moat," he says. "She told me that if the city could prove these were donations, they'd close me down. So I had to put up a sign explaining, no, this wasn't a wishing well. Of course, some people who come by can't read English, so I had to get up at the crack of dawn and scoop out the money every morning. Can you believe it?"
To Bob Rix, these headaches are evidently a small price to pay for the honor of boasting that in any given year, more people will drive by his house than showed up to see the pope during a 1987 appearance at Phoenix Civic Plaza. (How ever many that may be; estimated turnout for the papal visit event varied from 30,000 to 100,000.)
"All I've got are my dogs," explains Bob. "If I didn't do this, I wouldn't have any reason for living."
Over at his Brady Bunchlike home at 2349 West Kathleen, near Greenway Road and the I-17 freeway, Bob's brother Bernard is jiving on joyeux, his mood the polar opposite of that of his cantankerous sibling. Enthusiastically skipping from topic to topic, he's like an overwhelmed kid who can't decide which Christmas present to open next.
Or which decoration to nail to the house.
As Bernard needlessly points out, the theme of this year's display is angels--in the outfield, on the roof, in the carport, you name it. At last count, his hand-painted squadron of oversize plywood cherubs numbered 44--and that's just the front lawn. Out back, more than two dozen of the haloed hooligans lounge around his lagoon-shaped pool. Frozen in mid-dive over the water is a tank-suited Santa. Says Bernard, "The way I see it, you really can't begin to compare what I'm doing here and my brother's doing over at his place."
Case in point? "I'm the only one who drills holes in all of my artwork," he explains as he pokes miniature light bulbs through the hundreds of tiny holes that he's meticulously bored through his plywood standees. "Most people just put the lights around the edges of it, but not me. Like my brother--he uses staples."
Shaking his head, Bernard hops off that sleigh of thought and begins reminiscing about motifs past. In Christmases past, his residence has been buried beneath snowmen, elves and Keene-eyed kids.
Priding himself on never duplicating a theme (something that doesn't seem to bother his brother, he adds), the unemployed printer sells off each year's artwork piecemeal to finance the following season's decor.
But eight years ago, a divorce settlement almost forced Bernard to pull the plug on his live-in fantasyland.
"My wife wanted to sell the house and liquidate our assets to pay off the bills," Bernard recalls with a shudder. "I said, 'No, I can't do that. I've been decorating since high school. I have a reputation.'"
Determined to keep the ancestral holiday homestead in the family at any cost, Bernard Rix reached a cash settlement with his wife by hatching a plot worthy of an old Frank Capra chestnut: He turned his home into a boarding house, renting rooms to a colorful assortment of characters that variously included a truckdriver, a priest and a professional clown.
After systematically paying off his debts, Bernard now shares his home with just one boarder, two cocker spaniels and more Christmas tchotchkies than you'll find in 10 years' worth of Lillian Vernon catalogues.
More than a month before Christmas, the bottom floor of Bernard's normally spacious home is already jam-packed with 500 stuffed animals, dozens of animated dolls and a thicket of holly and mistletoe. The ceiling of an enclosed sun porch is awhirl with nearly 100 rotating miniature toys.
Throwing personal taste to the wind, Bernard has even transformed his entry hall into a gaudy--if crowd-pleasing-- canopy adorned with 250 red Christmas ornaments.
Surveying his scarlet ceiling, Bernard says, "Everyone walks through the door and they're just in awe. I hate it, though--it's just too much."
"Too much" also sums up the sentiments of disgruntled neighbors like Dawnette Williams, who's lived across the street from Bob Rix "for five years . . . five long years."
"It's horrible," reports Williams, who's plagued by ill-mannered sightseers who want to use her phone, ask for glasses of water and trample her lawn.
"There's so much traffic that you either have to be home by six or don't come home until 10," she says. And thanks to seasonal no-parking signs posted by the city, Williams can't even invite her own friends over for the holiday.
"Bob Rix is a jerk," she concludes. "But he does keep the trash picked up, I must admit."
Once relatively common, the Rix brothers' displays are now an anomaly, a throwback to the lavish home-decorating heyday of the late Eighties, when up to a dozen homeowners around the Valley turned their dwellings into the Christmas equivalents of Halloween haunted houses.
But following numerous complaints that grand-scale displays created traffic jams, generated garbage, attracted vandals and actually constituted illegally run businesses, the city passed an ordinance in 1992 forbidding displayers like the Rix brothers from charging admission and accepting and/or soliciting donations.
With the money incentive gone, most displayers decided to hang it up. One of the most prominent players to go dark, makeup artist Frank Calph was dubbed the "unofficial king" of Phoenix decorating in a New York Times story about the Valley's decorating mania.
"Bob Rix didn't like that," reports Calph, who operated an extravagant display in the 1300 block of East Palm Lane, not far from the Rix home. Generally conceded to be one of the Valley's top Christmas houses (by everyone but the Rixes, that is), Calph's 62,000-light layout variously included a miniature Ferris wheel, a scaled-down carousel and even a live Santa. Charging $1 for adults and 50 cents for children, Calph reportedly took in about $16,000 a year.
When the no-admission ordinance went into effect, Calph closed up shop. "Actually, the money was just part of it," he explains. "There was also the issue of liability, the constant hassle with the city and the risk factor"--the last year he was open, Calph overheard several young visitors plotting to rob his house. "It was just time to pull the plug."
Another thing he won't have to contend with is Bob Rix's loopy competitive streak.
"Bob had a thing I called the 'light trick,'" recalls Calph. "You'd have to tell the newspaper how many lights you were using for the guide they'd put out. Bob would find out how many lights I had, then he'd run out and get 10,000 more than I did."
Calph laughs. "But the thing was, he never integrated the additional lights into the display. You'd be walking through the house and here'd be a wad of lights lying on the floor or a table--just so he could honestly say he had more lights than me. That's Bob for you."
Several days before he's scheduled to flip the switch on this season's display, Bernard Rix stands in the middle of his overdecorated family room and appraises this year's progress.
Animated dolls bob and nod. Motorized ornaments swirl overhead. Tiny ice skaters glide across a mirrored pond.
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A Christmas light goes on in Bernard's head. Suddenly stricken by the staggering enormousness of what he's doing, he says, "Look at this place! I spent months getting all this stuff out--and in a few weeks I'll just have to put it all back again."
In light of Bernard's obvious fascination with Christmas, a guest makes what seems to be a quite reasonable suggestion: Why bother putting the ornaments away at all? Why not leave them up all year?
Shaking his head, Bernard Rix rejects that idea immediately.
"Who could possibly live like that?" he asks. "All this stuff--why, it'd drive you crazy