Holiday Handyman: Party Planner Harold Hand
Tales from the decorating front lines.
For Dallas’ top holiday party planners, Armstrong Avenue is the holy grail of decorating. The street’s stately ’20s- and ’30s-era mansions and grand pecan trees are decked out like Disneyland each Christmas, with clients forking over $150,000 or more for lights, wreaths, fresh fir garlands, larger-than-life nativity scenes, and Styrofoam Santas. Owning a house on Armstrong Avenue is not only prestigious; it commands certain civic obligations during the season. Thousands of families come to ogle the displays, inching along in nighttime traffic jams, which commence the day after Thanksgiving and last until New Year’s.
Party planner Harold Hand landed his first big job on Armstrong Avenue in 1995, a massive white Georgian residence with big columns. For the front yard, he set up a pair of huge nutcracker dolls, a toy train, and a sled full of toys. Then he wrapped the Georgian pillars and the bare trees festively with garland, lights, ribbon, and unbreakable silver and gold glass balls – 10,000 of them – which he’d had specially made in China for the project. Like many others on the block, the house was a magnet for children and cameras.
It was almost midnight one icy evening when Hand got a frantic phone call from the homeowner. “Harold, you’d better get over here with a broom,” he bellowed. “We’ve got balls rolling down the street.” Hand scurried over to find thousands of glass balls bouncing past a gaggle of onlookers and onto Armstrong Avenue, like a giant ping-pong table gone amok. “We didn’t know that the unbreakable balls would contract in freezing weather and the top fastener would come off,” Hand says. It took well into the wee hours of the morning to corral them all into big trash bags. “For the next six or seven years, we had people in the warehouse hot gluing the tops back to the balls,” Hand says, as if six or seven years of ornament repair is simply business as usual.
|A Harold Hand starter plan, which includes a lighted garland with 32 bows for the front of the house, a perimeter fence of garland with 1,500 lights, custom bows and balls, garland for the front gate with the homeowner’s initials in flowers, a 20-foot living room tree, glitter snow banks for lawn and garland, a decorated tree for the entry, staircase greenery, and trees and garland for three bedrooms, begins at $20,000.
For $150,000, you can expect exterior custom garland around every window and eave with custom bows and unbreakable balls, four large trees lit from trunk to ends of branches, life-size Nativity (or a herd of reindeer or Santa in helicopter), exterior fence garland with bows and ribbons. On the inside – interior foyer tree on table with custom ribbons and balls, main staircase garland to match, great room mantle garland with Christopher Radko ornaments, 12-foot custom tree to match mantle, miniature trees in kitchen with decorative baskets, tree in breakfast room to complement kitchen, wine cellar garland, master bedroom mantle with bows and balls, and three children’s rooms with trees to match their decor.
If you have a more modest budget, $700 gets you a lighted tree with custom ribbons and 9-by-14-feet of garland for mantle with lights and ribbons.
A PASSION IS BORN
A man who shrugs off the relative indignity of chasing ornaments down the street in front of amused onlookers probably loved Christmas as a child, and in Hand’s case, this ardor goes back to a Cajun childhood, when his mother enlisted him each Christmas to decorate the house for parties. She was on a budget, but Hand had ways, even back then, to make it work. He drove the family tractor to the woods and cut down several pine trees, including a big one that would be set up in the front yard. He fashioned decorative garland from pine branches and strung lights on the trees and around the house. When he came to Dallas in 1985 to work as a stylist at the now-defunct womenâ€™s clothier, Lester Melnick, it was only a matter of time until customers asked him to decorate their houses for the holidays.
|WINTER WONDERLAND: With the help of some acrylic on the walls, lots of icicles, and tons of flocking, Rusty Glenn Designs Inc. transformed this local country club hall into a snow- and tree-filled landscape.|
“As I started getting more in tune with the way people were decorating the exterior of their homes, I thought we could have a better transition from the inside to the outside and make it look more chic,” he says. “I tightened up the lights and hid the wires. That’s when I started paying attention to the details – getting rid of the flashing lights, the cutouts, and giant spotlights that weren’t concealed. There is no law that says for the month of Christmas, every design rule in the world should be broken, so I began coordinating ribbons and bows with the colors and style of the house.”
Fifteen years later, Hand has a staff, a holiday decorating store on Lovers Lane called Holiday Ideas by Harold F. Hand, and a 12,000-square-foot warehouse for storing decorations, some of which are more than 10 feet tall. During the holiday season, his staff swells to 80 people, including business executives who like
OTHER SOURCES FOR HOLIDAY DECORATING
Ruibal’s Plants of Texas
601 S. Pearl St., 214-744-9100. www.ruibals.com.
Fall displays of bales of hay, pumpkins, and colorful mums give the season of abundance new meaning in Dallas. Mark Ruibal says the extravagant fall displays are unique to Dallas. “It is not unusual for customers to buy 10 to 12 oversized ’Big Mac’ pumpkins at $250 each and fill in with many other basketball sized pumpkins, bales of hay, gourds, crotons, and mums. These fall displays can end up costing $12,000, and it all gets hauled off as soon as Christmas decorations go up,” he says.
Rusty Glenn Designs Inc.
getting into the holiday spirit. Some of their duties include nightly drive-bys to check on clients’ decorations, which often become victim to pranks and assorted mayhem. Every year, for example, a new spate of teenage boys find it hilarious to put Santa and Mrs. Claus in compromising positions. Then there’s the well-known prank of stealing Santa’s cap from one yard and putting it on the baby Jesus in a neighbor’s creche. And recently, an SMU fraternity stole Santas from various yards in the Park Cities, returning them to the correct yards the following Halloween.
But nothing tops the attention paid to Dee Simons’ angel, which she had commissioned to look just like her. “She has this crescent-shaped balcony over her front door,” Hand says, “so she wanted an angel with her arms extended and long, golden hair. We went to the mannequin company to have the arms re-cut and fitted to extend outwardly. Dee had her dressmaker make a dress, and we made a long, golden wig. The only thing we didn’t think of was the wind, so every couple of days, I’d get a call from Dee saying, ’Harold, you need to come out here and brush this angel’s hair. She’s looking a little messy,’ and, sure enough, she’d look like Elvira – just horrible, with hair everywhere.”
Then there’s the client who orders a 30-foot flocked tree each Christmas, which has to be trucked from Minnesota and stored temporarily in a tent. “We have to dig a hole in the ground so the tree will fit, and a team works on lighting it for a week. Then we flat-bed truck it to the client’s house,” Hand says. Once all the furniture in the living room has been removed and the walls and floors have been wrapped in plastic, an army of 18 people hauls the tree inside and hoists it in place. The first Christmas, the client made them take the tree right back out when she saw that it was a foot too short. “We had to take a chainsaw and cut it up because that was the only way to get it out of the house,” he says. A new tree had to be found and trucked to Dallas in time for her Christmas party. She may be demanding, but she’s also sentimental. Each year, Hand sets up an identical 7-foot version of the larger tree, complete with flocking, blue balls, and ribbons, on her husband’s grave at Sparkman-Hillcrest. “He absolutely loved Christmas, and she hasn’t forgotten that,” he says.
CHRISTMAS, ON STERIODS
|CHRISTMAS IN TOYLAND: Whether customers need a Halloween ghost or a 22-foot teddy bear, Robert Justice can meet their large-scale holiday needs.|
Robert “Bad Bob” Justice prefers to meet new clients at the bar at Friday’s in McKinney, but, if necessary, he’ll meet them by appointment anytime, anywhere. You can’t miss him. He’s the 6-foot tall bear of a man with a long gray beard and long gray hair, dressed in what he calls “Viking American” but bears a remarkable resemblance to a Confederate soldier’s uniform. After years of no phone service, Justice grudgingly bought a cell phone in September of this year, so it’s a little easier to reach him. You used to have to leave messages for him at Friday’s, or drive out to the modified cotton mill in McKinney where he lives.
Justice is an artist, of sorts, who carves holiday figures out of 8-by-10-feet chunks of Styrofoam with a chainsaw, electric knives, and hot wires. He has a master’s degree in set design from the University of Southern California, but he didn’t like the sporadic nature of the work. His clients include Harold Hand, who tracked Justice down when he needed some 12-foot carrots for an Easter display. Hand says, “The first time I met him, I thought he was out of his mind, wearing that outfit and all. He’s worn it for years, and I don’t think he ever takes it off.” One of Justice’s first big jobs was to carve 22-foot teddy bears for the atrium of the Galleria.
Justice is also responsible for the carousel and giant train set that are on Armstrong Avenue, as well as all the giant storybook characters that children love so much. Most of Justice’s oversized animals have a similar body shape, so many people buy one body that can be changed out with different heads and costumes depending on the season. A Halloween ghost becomes a Christmas teddy bear, which becomes an Easter bunny with just a twist of the head and a lot of paint, but it will set you back about $3,000 to $5,000, depending on size and detail. Not everything costs an arm and a leg, though. He’ll do a 12-inch Easter egg for less than $25, and a 6-foot bunny for $1,200.