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Let There Be Lights

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Not even Alice saw it coming.

Eighteen years ago, when her husband went into his workshop with some bicycle parts, Christmas lights, teddy bears and Barbie dolls, she thought Richard was doing what Richard always does: tinkering.

But now, whenever the holidays arrive, tour buses pull up outside the Kloewers' Englewood home, visitors crowd the sidewalk, and children scramble down the driveway to see what Richard has created this time. "Everyone knows about us," Alice says. "And they all call this 'The Christmas House.'"

Richard is 65, and Alice is 64. For 25 years they've lived in this tidy brick home at 4990 South Elati Street, a home ringed with rosebushes and shade trees that sits in a quiet suburb. Quiet for ten months of the year, at least. During the Christmas season, the Kloewers' front yard explodes into a glittering menagerie of porcelain dolls, grinning elves, bouncing snowmen, parachuting clowns, twirling Barbie dolls, floating Santas, rattling trains, flashing lights, glowing cartoon characters and gyrating Teddy bears wearing Harley-Davidson leather jackets.

"We got them up in Las Vegas," Alice says of the biker bears. "We pick things up when we travel."

"We have no idea what we're looking for," Richard adds. "But we know it when we see it."

The Kloewers started collecting in December 1982, inspired by the birth of their first grandchild, and they haven't stopped yet. "We were just so excited when he was born," Alice says. "He was our little Christmas baby. All of our friends had grandkids but us, so we went outside and hung up some lights."

"And a star," Richard says. "Then came the Nativity set. That was the nucleus for the whole thing. After that, it sort of mushroomed."

Between Richard's tinkering and the couple's collecting, the display has grown to include 20,000 Christmas lights, 150 stuffed animals, 75 dolls, 52 display cases, eight handcrafted reindeer, seven motor-driven rides, one garden railroad with five lines, one rooftop Santa and sleigh, one merry-go-round, one swing set, and various combinations of them all. During the off season, these components practically fill a three-car garage.

"It takes 300 man-hours to set up," Richard estimates. "We start on the first of November. We've got five kids and eight grandchildren, and everyone helps. Mom orders pizza or makes chili and we go to work."

The wiring, which runs up a utility bill that the couple would rather not discuss, is itself a minor feat of engineering genius. Fortunately, Richard is a minor engineering genius, as well as a semi-retired carpenter who's built everything from houses to grandfather clocks to bird feeders.

"We have eighteen circuits pulling 110 amps," he says. "Most of it is temporary lines running out to different points and then splitting up."

"There's nothing he can't do," Alice adds.

When Richard built the "Mousetrain," for instance, he copied the cartoon characters from a cardboard box, cut the silhouette from plywood and designed the display so it chugs back and forth in a continuous loop. "It takes 52 feet of bicycle chain to run it," he says. "The lights blink on and off, too. The motor runs from 17 to 25 RPMs and takes about two minutes to complete its course."

And when he decided to add a garden train to the display, he crafted a small mountain from concrete and stone, laid 600 feet of track and bought twelve engines and sixty passenger and stock cars. "I just keep adding and adding," he says.

Occasionally, a visitor's comments -- or the lack thereof -- will fire his imagination.

"The snowmen used to sit there in the flowerbed," Richard recalls. "Then one day, we were looking out the kitchen window and Alice said: 'No one is looking at your snowmen.' And I said, 'Yeah -- because they don't move.' So I decided to make a teeter-totter. But then it got out of proportion, like everything else. Now they go back and forth and up and down, too."

As a result of the teeter-tottering snowmen and other innovations, the Kloewer home will continue to be an electric fantasyland from 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week, through January 1.

"Visitors come by day and night and on the weekends," Richard says. "Most of it by word of mouth. Two years ago, before Christmas, it was six degrees outside and we still had 2,000 people."

"Last year it was so bad we couldn't even move," Alice says. "Standing room only."

But even with the steady stream of cars, foot traffic and Christmas music emanating from the Kloewers', their neighbors don't seem to mind.

"We might have been blocked in once or twice, but there's never been serious problems," says Lana Pickenbrock, who lives across the street. "We think that God has gifted Dick, and he's putting that gift to use. Besides, it makes it so we don't have to put up decorations. We're amazed at how he does it."

So is Richard. Even after all these years, he struggles to explain his obsession.

"One time we had this monsignor over," he says. "He was 94 years old, just a little-bitty guy, and he said, 'What possibly could drive anyone to this extent?' And I couldn't tell him. But you know, I see couples coming by here, and there's always some ol' Grinch with them. The only reason he's there is because his wife talked him into it. He's in a hurry, he's grouchy and he just wants to get out of here. But before he's through, he's standing out there with a smile on his face. That always tickles me."

And so on this blustery evening, Richard is grinning like one of his creations as families scramble through the yard, their eyes as wide as headlamps. "Wow!" says eight-year-old Jessica McIntyre, pressing her nose to a display of mechanized elves. "Look at this!"

But her parents are busy studying their own favorite displays. Laura McIntyre gazes up at balls of Christmas lights glittering from the trees like chandeliers; Kevin watches the train chug around the yard and into Richard's workshop.

"That train goes inside his garage!" he says. "How cool is that?"

"Incredible," Laura replies. "Amazing. Just like a winter wonderland."

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