Lights, camera, fashion: It's Christmas time at the Garabedian House

Published 19th December 2018
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Lights, camera, fashion: It's Christmas time at the Garabedian House
Written by Aileen Kwun, CNN
Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Liberace, Cinderella and Cher -- the Garabedian family has dressed all these iconic greats, and more. Not in the flesh, but in fiberglass.
Each Christmas, for the last 45 years, the Garabedians have put on a much beloved, larger-than-life display at their residence on Pelham Parkway North, in the Bronx. Filled with cherubs, fresh flowers, mannequins, cartoon figurines, and stage lights on a red-carpet stage lined in pink trim and surrounded by a ten-foot-tall chain link fence, the grandiose spectacle is part wax museum, part theater, in its excessive zeal and appeal.
This time of year, the Garabedian house is no small miracle, but a divine sight to behold, and a slice of camp and artistry found only in New York City.
Every nook and cranny of the corner lawn has been adorned by the Christmas spirit. Its greenery and backyard swimming pool have been temporarily covered and transformed into a red-carpet stage (custom built and equipped with electric outlets, twirling platforms, chandeliers, and at least five security cameras that keep crowds at a safe viewing distance).
Detail from the annual holiday light display at the Garabedian family home in the Bronx, New York.
Detail from the annual holiday light display at the Garabedian family home in the Bronx, New York. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
A full nativity scene sits grandly upon the roof, alongside Santa's sleigh and fleet of reindeers.
Life-size Barbies, figurines of Disney characters, Cinderella's carriage, and life-like animatronic mannequins of celebrities dazzle onlookers, as a set of loudspeakers blares a playlist of jovial tunes by the likes of Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf, Engelbert Humperdinck, Céline Dion, and Mariah Carey -- whose 1994 music video for the perennial holiday hit, "All I Want For Christmas," features a subtle cameo of the famed house.
Simply referred to as "The Bronx Christmas House," the larger-than-life display, now in its 45th consecutive year, has garnered much folklore over the years. It's become not only a destination and local legend, but a serious nostalgia trip for many New Yorkers.
Gary Garabedian poses for a portrait outside his house.
Gary Garabedian poses for a portrait outside his house. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
Yet few would know to credit the massive theatrical display to Gary Garabedian, 54, a cheery and portly man with a coif of cherubic, silvery curls. Gary, one of the family's two sons, is the dedicated custodian who's been at it since age nine, along his sister Linda. What's more, each gown on display is a bonafide custom creation, sewn and bedazzled in velvet, sequin, leather, and lace by the family's expert hand.

The Bronx Christmas house by the numbers

The tradition began with a modest light display in 1973, when the family matriarch, the late Nelly Garabedian, was inspired to deck out the house after witnessing a miracle -- an apparent act of divinity, whose exact details remain closely and mythologically guarded by the Garabedian family to this day.
With each coming year has come an additional layer of design, another feat to be noted.
Somewhere along the way, the Garabedians learned how to fashion their own mannequins out of fiberglass. "My mother was a designer, an assistant for Christian Dior, and we've been sewing since we were young, we make everything," Gary said.
Even the fiberglass dolls are handmade. "Back then, she had the Patti Playpal walking dolls, and they would get destroyed, because we would bring them in and out every night, and the plastic would break." Now, they're all fiberglass and made from scratch, he explained, a craft they learned from a neighborhood priest, whose family worked in the mannequin business.
Handmade mannequins inside the house.
Handmade mannequins inside the house. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
And was it true that the family's decorations, which now tally in at roughly 150 pieces, are insured and valued at $4 million? "The police department did that, we didn't do that. I don't even know how much it's worth, 'cause you can't even count the hours of labor," he said, seemingly happy to perpetuate the myth. "But the police department evaluated it at $4 million -- and that was a long time ago, I think 1993. I don't know what that's worth now," he said. But Gary guesses that the four rare, "original, six-foot Barbie dolls, from Mattel" in their collection are worth about $10,000 each.
As the head count has increased over the years, so have the lights, and the number of outages on their block. This was fixed in the 1980s, when Con Edison gave them a custom switchboard capable of handling 800 amps, though, Gary added, they are making an effort to transition away from halogens, and over to energy-saving models and LED lights.
Detail from the annual holiday light display at the Garabedian family home in the Bronx, New York.
Detail from the annual holiday light display at the Garabedian family home in the Bronx, New York. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
In more recent years, Gary and his sister, Linda, have painted the house exterior in an all-over carnation pink trim -- an homage, Gary said, to their late sister Elise, who had dreamed the house would take on the appearance of a real-life Barbie dollhouse.
Currently, Gary, Linda, and their cousin Sebastian Encinas, who runs a web design firm, The Open Inc., by day, are the official custodians of the home. When Gary's siblings aren't making a creation for one of the mannequins, they create dressings. "We make custom bridal clothing, and trimmings for dresses for designers -- flowers, bows, back loops, fringe, and things like that for Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler," he said.
But the Christmas display is arguably their life's greatest work. It's a year-round job to manage the displays, with summers spent making the mannequins, and many hours dressing, accessorizing, and installing the mannequins and figurines over Thanksgiving weekend, when the grand reveal has typically been staged.
And with no kids of their own -- "I am the kid!" joked Gary, the youngest of four siblings -- it seems bound to stay that way for the foreseeable future. "We grew up with it, and I can't imagine Christmas without the decorations. But eventually, it may have to stop," he added.

A neighborhood tradition and myth, forged by nostalgia and mystery

On a recent Saturday evening, families, couples, Uber drivers, and cars with license plates from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania congregated around on the block to pay a visit to the brightest house on the block, visible from the main thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the borough.
"I love the dresses," said Morgin Dupont, a 26-year-old Bronx-born musician, who came to see the house with her family and grandparents, in town for a rare visit from Puerto Rico, all in tow. "It looks almost like a vintage shop. It's extraordinary. I wish I could do a photo shoot here. It's been so long since I came here, it feels like the first time again."
Brayden Flores, 3, looks at the display while family members hold him up.
Brayden Flores, 3, looks at the display while family members hold him up. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
Another man in his thirties, who brought his elderly mother on her birthday, teared up and reminisced about his childhood days, journeying solo on the local 22 bus to catch sight of the legendary house. "Thank you so much," he said to Gary, as he caught sight of him from behind the gate.
Patron Garcia, 20, brought the mother of his child to the scene on a romantic walk through the neighborhood. "I've been coming here since I was a kid, and we're keeping it in the family tradition," he said.
Many visitors had fond memories to share, though few were personally acquainted with the mysterious family behind the celebrated bonanza. Some even wondered if it still served as an actual residence, or now existed completely as a public museum. "Is this somebody's house?" a toddler asked, unable to spot a front door behind the elaborate stage. A late evening delivery from the neighborhood postman, however, dispelled any rumors, as he gingerly navigated the crowds and dropped a few letters into a mailbox, accessible through a small opening in the fence.

The show must go on

As families, couples, and kids huddled in the cold, smartphones and selfie sticks out, or goosenecked from the comfort of their cars, some regular visitors quietly bemoaned the sight of their favorite figurines, many of which could be peered inside the home, but had not yet been put on display yet. This was partly due to rain in the weather forecast, Gary said, which threatened to damage the priceless dresses. The Christmas display had faced some personal delays, too, owing to a bad car accident earlier this year, from which some of his relatives were still recovering.
A man takes a picture of the Garabedian house while sticking his hands through the sunroof of his car.
A man takes a picture of the Garabedian house while sticking his hands through the sunroof of his car. Credit: Landon Nordeman for CNN
And yet, it seemed, the show would go on without fail, as visitors continued to bottleneck the streets, grateful and excited to see the tradition continuing with commendable commitment.
"I think Santa lives here!" exclaimed a young child, jubilantly tossing coins into the installation, as if it were a wishing well. Others joined and inserted dollar bills through the chain-link fence, sending their thanks and blessings to the family, who routinely donate the funds to church charities.
"Seeing it is very different from hearing about it," said Rukiya Shannin, 42, who brought her son and his friend to come see the house.
"My friend described it to me as 'very Christmassy, very alive, and very beautiful,'" she said. "I mean, I've been to Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, and this is very different, so much more visual."