Dec 23 , 9:38 AM (ET)
By LAURA WALSH
KILLINGLY, Conn. (AP) - Christmas just isn't the same for this small eastern Connecticut town that was once set aglow during the holidays by one man and his spirit.
Mervin Whipple, known as "Mr. Christmas" to the people of Killingly, has decided to pull the plug on his brilliant, gigantic holiday light display. There will be no lights this year.
Partly, it was the pricey bills. But mostly, there just isn't enough Christmas spirit, the once-jolly Whipple said.
"It's a changed world," Whipple said while fighting back tears. "The spirit of Christmas is gone."
Whipple had threatened to close down the display in recent years. But now he says it's official: Whipple's Christmas Wonderland is no more.
More than 1.5 million people from across the country visited the display over its 35-year run. Decorated with 110,000 bright lights and 300 moving figures, including everything from Santa Claus to life-size angels, Whipple's home was a holiday tradition and a Connecticut landmark.
"He's our Father of Christmas," said Killingly resident Bethany Milardo, 29, who had visited the display every year for as long as she could remember. "I have never, ever seen anything like it before, and I doubt I will ever find anything that tops it."
Whipple said volunteers began to dwindle over the past few years, and the bill - $19,000 last year - had grown too costly.
"Help was becoming far and few between and I kept getting bigger and bigger," he said. "I just couldn't keep up anymore."
Whipple said charging visitors to see his display was simply out of the question, even if it meant saving his Christmas Wonderland.
"No way," he said. "I made a vow 35 years ago that I would never charge anyone one penny and I never did."
Although he did have a small donation box stowed away in the corner of his showroom, it remained virtually empty over the years. In 2001, Whipple said the first two days' donations brought in less than half a cent per person.
Whipple said he had hoped the town would purchase his Winter Wonderland and put it on display in Killingly's Owen Bell Park. He even offered it to town officials for the discounted price of $200,000. Whipple said the Disney-like display costs more than $1 million.
But Acting Town Manager Peter Curry said Killingly could not afford it.
"It just isn't something the town could shoulder," Curry said. "We are certainly going to miss it though."
Whipple's Christmas Wonderland opened in 1967 with a nativity scene and 225 lights as a tribute to his stepson Edmond, who died in an accident the year before at the age of 20. Before Edmond died, Whipple had promised to help him decorate the home for the holiday.
"It never became a reality for him so I decided to carry it on myself," Whipple said.
Whipple owns a gravestone business and is the town's cemetery superintendent, a profession he inherited from his father. He is also a justice of peace who has married more than 1,500 couples.
For Craig Griffin, 33, of Killingly, who had been Whipple's right-hand man for 16 years, it feels strange not to begin the holidays in September, when the pair usually began setting up the display. It would take another two or three months just to take it all down.
"Things used to be a lot simpler," Griffin said. "The expectations kept growing. It used to be a lot easier to amuse people."
Since Whipple put his Christmas Wonderland on sale in January, he has received seven offers from people in Rhode Island and New York and as far away as Utah and Oklahoma. But nothing has really stuck, he said. Part of the problem is that Whipple refuses to disassemble his display. It's all or nothing, he said.
"I don't want to sell the seven dwarfs without Snow White," he said. "It wouldn't be the same. It would spoil it."
(See earlier related article)