By Steven Slosberg <email@example.com>
(Newspaper article from The Day, New London, Connecticut, Tuesday, November 30, 1999, Section B, page 1. Submitted to the Whipple Website by Robin Gilebarto)
Ballouville, up under the stars in the north country around Killingly where it doesn't take long to divine how places like Elmville and Pineville were named, boosted Northeast Utilities' revenues in a hurry on Sunday night.
His honor, Mr. Christmas, who is otherwise known as Mervin R. Whipple, the monument maker, lit it up for another holiday season, illuminating much of Windham County and the Rhode Island border with, at last count, 106,900 candy-colored lights and powering the music and the movement of some 385, in his decorative word, animations.
Christmas is on.
Whipple, a pink-skinned, white-haired, bespectacled man, about five-by-five and of rosy disposition, is hardly the only soul in Ballouville, and all of sparsely populated Killingly, for that matter, to trim his home and grounds in holiday glow. But his Christmas Wonderland, which began at his home more than 30 years ago as a memorial to his late stepson, has become the ultimate verve center of Santa and spectacle, and wire and wattage.
Himself was decked out as he will be seven nights a week from 5 until 9 p.m. through New Year's Day, in a red blazer with black trim, black vest with red buttons, starched white shirt and ripe red tie. His role is to greet visitors in a small building in the heart of Wonderland ceaselessly humming with the bobbing and revolving of Christmas figures and a toy train circling the room overhead, During business hours, the room takes on the more sober ambiance as display area for Whipple's monument trade. He is superintendent of the town's seven cemeteries.
"This is the one time of the year I can see you," he tells the visitors, which, as the season progresses, may average 800 to 1,000 strong a night.
On this Monday night, the second night Wonderland was plugged in, dozens of folk of various ages and mobility have driven the long and woodsy Ballouville Road following the turns and village street signs for Whipple's Chapel. The chapel is not a historic site suggesting the Revolutionary War, but a granite and teak sanctuary dating to 1981 in which Whipple has married thousands of people. He is also a justice of the peace.
On this night, the mood was "Silver Bells," not wedding bells. The 225 lights that Whipple strung up in 1968, the year after his stepson, Edmund Boursa, 20, was killed in an accident while building a manger on the property, have multiplied exponentially to nearly 110,000, many of them climbing, row after row after row, on wires 25 feet high into the night sky.
Glass-encased animated displays, from Dickensian to Disney, are banked by castle walls of red and green lights. Stuffed animals, stone creatures, plastic Frostys, fluffy reindeer, angels in bangles, sleighs on snow, Cabbage Patch carolers, Victorian skaters, trumpeting elephants, Uncle Sam and Santa himself await children beneath an American flag composed of jelly bean lights. All of this populates the three acres next to the home in which Whipple lives with his wife Barbara. Next door is the home in which Whipple was born 71 years ago.
"I'm related to the Whipples of Ledyard," he says. "But we're Whipples from Rhode Island."
Once a doorkeeper in the state Capitol when Abe Ribicoff was governor, Whipple still thrives at playing the host. He asks no entrance fee, but has placed a barrel for donations next to the makeshift Post Office in the greeting room. He says his electric bills can run $4000 for the five weeks, and he ends up paying as much for hired hands and new displays. Set up work begins after Labor Day.
"My wife begs me to quit," he says, "but I'm determined to go on."
It's his memorial to his stepson. It's his season to twinkle like a star.