Newport Commissioner's Christmas Display is a Tradition Decades in the Making
When Frank Peluso was eight years old, his mother took him shopping in Downtown Covington. At the S.S. Kresge store at 624 Madison Avenue, young Frank spotted a nativity scene that captured his attention.
"At the (Kresge) in Covington, the lunch counter on the first floor had a shelf twelve feet up in the air and there was this beautiful plastic nativity scene and I said to my mom, that would be beautiful to have," Peluso told The River City News.
On Christmas morning, that nativity scene was given to him as a gift.
Now, five decades later, that same nativity scene is on the back patio of Peluso's Newport home inside a little stable that his daughter made for him as a Christmas present three years ago. The home high on a hill on West Broadway is now surrounded by an elaborate Christmas display that has become a Peluso tradition. Now a Newport City Commissioner, Peluso invited the entire community to his home on Friday as he switched on the thousands of lights for the first time.
"It grows each year," he said. "You have to be here to witness the joy and happiness that the display brings."
Frank and his wife, Susan, have lived at the home for thirty-six years and the decorations started modestly with just one or two strands of lights, he said. "It started a long, long, long time ago. I've been doing this since I was eight years old," he said. Now the display requires twenty-two circuits with lights plugged into them. There are multiple train displays and an animation box in the front yard with a large Santa that moves.
He and Susan came across that Santa while shopping at a flower shop in Delhi. "They had this really neat Santa and it looked like he was in a chimney and it was in red and white paper around a box. They had it as part of their display," he said.
He said the Hamilton County Park District had used for it years, too. "I said if you folks ever want to sell it, I'd appreciate you giving me the opportunity," Peluso said.
The pursuit of more items to fill his elaborate display is a regular part of Peluso's life. It's become an annual tradition for families to trek up West Broadway where only four houses sit overlooking the city and where one is a lot brighter than the others.
"I'm just an average Joe," Peluso said. "We work every day and save when we can. A lot of people have a lot of different things they do with their money. They save up and go on their vacations. Guys my age have their Corvettes or their motorcycles. I have my Christmas decorations. We invest our money in our Christmas display."
Some years, fifty to sixty people show up for the first night when the Pelusos pass out cookies and hot chocolate.
"It's amazing to watch the children and their faces," he said. "And there's a story behind everything."
One such story involves a wreath, eighteen feet in diameter that Peluso got from a department store in Dayton. A friend of his who works as a roofing inspector was doing work at the Dayton store and called Peluso when he found out the large wreath, which had been used in the store's own display, was headed for the trash. "He said, 'Frank, I got a wreath'. I said, talk to Susan!"
The friend told the Pelusos that the wreath would be way too big to be hung from the side of their home. It was designed for large commercial buildings. Deciding it was a missed opportunity, Peluso told a neighbor that there would be no way he could go to Dayton and bring back the large wreath.
Two weeks later came a knock on the Pelusos' door. It was their neighbors, the Schmidts, who had made the trek to Dayton and picked up the wreath which is now hung across the street where its thousands of C-9 lights (you know, the big ones from the old days) illuminate the hilltop. Through its center hole, visitors can see Great American Ballpark in Downtown Cincinnati.
"When you're close to the wreath, there's heat," Peluso said of the lights.
It's an image perfect for a Christmas card.
"There have been lots of Christmas cards made with this wreath," Peluso said. Last year he saw a car pull up and stop and while that is not uncommon during the holidays, Peluso went outside to check on things. To his surprise it was Ken Shields, the former longtime Northern Kentucky University men's basketball coach and his wife.
"He said, 'I hope you don't mind but my wife wants our annual Christmas card picture taken in front of that wreath'," Peluso said. The next week, the entire Shields clan was positioned around the wreath using 12-foot stepladders acting as though they were changing the light bulbs.
"What's really neat is that Coach just stood there," Peluso said.
The retrieval of the wreath by the Pelusos' neighbors is just one example of folks bringing the yuletide spirit to West Broadway. "What's amazing is, we'll come home, my wife and I, and we'll find Christmas decorations here where people will drop them off. Sometimes they leave notes, and it's amazing."
Most of it is accumulated through the effort of Frank himself, though. "I used to put an ad in the Kentucky Post in the wanted section and every year we'd say, Wanted: outdoor Christmas decorations," he said. "One year I saw this ad in the Post that said, For Sale: animated Christmas decorations." That was nearly three decades ago and when Peluso called the number listed on the ad, someone at the Florence Mall answered. "I just chuckled thinking, I'd never be able to afford anything these people have."
The mall was changing out there interior display. Peluso recalls that there were logs with bears and other animals climbing them, little Santa Clauses, and thousands of lights. The two big items, Peluso said, were elf houses about six or seven feet long. "And they had elves inside them. Two feet tall animated elves," Peluso said. The elves were woodworkers, carpenters, bakers, and Santa himself. Peluso, armed with a photo album that shows how his display progressed from when he was eight years old to adulthood, showed his photos to the mall's marketing director. "I said, we can't afford this," Peluso remembered. "I was just a meter reader for the City of Newport."
The mall official told Peluso to put a bid in, anyway, with the promise that he'd get something.
Peluso got more than something.
"We scraped up some money and we got everything in that mall with the exception of six deer made out of bamboo that some other mall wanted," Peluso said.
The Pelusos rented a truck and brought it all home and so much garland that had been draped throughout the mall that he gave a lot of it to Newport and the Cities of Ludlow and Bellevue. "I really believe in a small way, that is one of the reasons that these cities started re-decorating, because of all of our involvement, because people really bought into the program."
The rest of the decorations are part of Peluso's popular at-home display.
"People try to give us money and we won't take money," he said. "This is our gift to the folks of Newport and Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati."
He recalls the time of a bus full of seniors with disabilities pulled up and thought the display was so beautiful that they all cried. Another time, a man came up to Peluso after driving his family to the display and wanted to give him ten dollars. "My wife said, 'no, absolutely not'," Peluso said. "And he said, 'No, you don't understand. This is all my kids will get for Christmas'."
The Pelusos tracked down the man who worked at a car dealership. They bought toys for his kids and gift cards to restaurants and the grocery for him and his wife. "And you would've thought the man had received a million dollars," Peluso said.
"It's all about caring about people, it's not about giving," Peluso said. "We just need to do this all year round. The world would be a better place."
"The only thing that bothers me the most is we can't have these smiles all year round. Out of all the years we've put this together, I don't think I've ever seen a frown. It brings joy to me and my family. I've been very fortunate."
Story by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News