December 20, 2006
After an emergency appendectomy derailed his holiday decorating mission last year, Bill Doonan, the man who has unofficially been dubbed Riverhead's King of Christmas, is back in business.
Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick, battling it out for the biggest and brightest Christmas lights display in the holiday movie Deck the Halls have nothing on Doonan.
Doonan, who for the past 11 years has lit up the night on Route 25 in Riverhead with what is hands-down the most elaborately decorated house and yard on the North Fork, brings joy to countless residents and visitors for whom the house, ablaze with color and light, symbolizes the holiday season.
And with over 100 plastic molded decorations, 36 huge inflatables, and more lights than Doonan and his wife Sharon can count, the house has become a holiday destination. "We have people out there right now, taking pictures. People were here recently taking pictures to send back to Poland."
For Doonan, the love affair with lights began 28 years ago, when his first son Billy was born. And the passion has spanned decades and locations as Doonan moved from Queens and eventually to Riverhead, where he has a limousine business. Today, both Billy and Doonan's second son Sean help their father with creating the elaborate display.
The holiday light extravaganza requires seven 20-amp breakers; currently, Doonan's power is at the max. "I always laugh when I tell people that when I turn it on, and the house doesn't go up in flames, I'm really happy," he said. "Unless I bring in more power, more lights are out of the question."
Both Doonan and his wife enjoy greeting spectators outside — Doonan dressed as Santa, Sharon as either Mrs. Claus or an elf — and handing out candy canes.
Satisfaction at seeing the fruits of nine days, or 90 hours, of labor and months of planning is sweet. "It's the first vanload of kids who have their faces plastered against the window — the look in their eyes and the smiles on their faces, that's why I do it."
Although Doonan takes no donations and has sent back checks, this year, the couple asked that donations be given to a local toy drive or homeless shelter — the Christmas project can be pricey. Last year, when Doonan was ordered by his doctor to recuperate, the couple saved $1500 in budget electricity billing. And that's not counting the money spent on new inflatables and new strands of lights each year.
But the rewards are immeasurable. And the community does give back. "Little kids come up and give you a hug," he said. "We've had busloads of carolers show up. I had one man pull up in a Mercedes and hand me a bottle of Bailey's." The couple also receives cards and candy and a treasure trove of memories, as residents who are moving donate their own decorations to the cause.
Decking the halls has become a hallowed family tradition, with Doonan's two sons decorating the roof and Sharon checking all the lights. "She's gotten very good at it," said Doonan. "She's really become a good light technician."
For Doonan and his wife, the tradition has become etched into their love story. Not only do they work together to create the magic, but they scour yard sales year-round in search of Christmas booty. The couple married seven years ago and, "my wife has gone from having four or five strings of lights on her house to a major, major display. I told her, 'I guess this is one of those things you didn't really know about me when you married me.' She said, 'Well, I knew you decorated.'"
Despite the slight understatement, it's clear that the couple is united in Christmas harmony. "She's my partner in business, in everything. I saved the best for last."
As for Doonan, he'd like to set the record straight regarding the rumors that ran rampant after his illness last year. "A lot of people thought I had passed away."
But Doonan is alive and well, and this year, he began constructing his holiday house right after Thanksgiving, as usual. The lights traditionally shut down on Little Christmas, but it can sometimes be spring before Doonan braves the roof to take down the strands of lights. After all is taken down, the decorations go into a sea of Rubbermaid boxes in the basement, awaiting next year's unveiling.
Even with a wonderland in his yard, Doonan still has visions of sugarplums dancing through his dreams for the future. "I don't have a complete set yet of Santa and the reindeer. I only have two reindeer, but I'd like to have all eight."
Despite a few naysayers who complain about spectator-sparked traffic, Doonan says the community has embraced his traditions. "It really puts a lot of people in the spirit."