Kendra Fisher was clearing out the garage of her grandparents’ Costa Mesa home during the pandemic, when she discovered a box of trophies and Daily Pilot newspaper clippings that shed light on a lesser-known part of her family history.
From 1959 well into the ’60s, John and Rosalie O’Brien were recognized as the winners of a citywide holiday decoration competition, even nabbing top prizes in an “Inter-city Yule Contest,” for large-scale displays that would have families lining up around the block just to get a glimpse.
“My grandpa was super creative — they built a train set and a huge rocket — people knew he was going to do something special, so they looked forward to going to their house,” Fisher said.
“I knew about it vaguely but didn’t realize the extent of it until I was cleaning out their garage,” she continued. “Then, I was like, wait, why don’t we do that now?”
A new member of the Torelli Realty team, Fisher decided to try and resurrect the contest by creating a brand-new holiday decoration competition in Costa Mesa.
“I feel like there’s this sense of tradition behind it, and tradition is so important in cities, neighborhoods and towns,” she said of her inspiration. “It’s an easy way to bring the community together.”
To help pull off the feat, Fisher enlisted the help from local business owners, including Ally Garvin, who owns Neat Coffee on Pomona Avenue. Together, the pair have been passing out fliers to let people know about the contest.
Families and individuals, or even entire streets, can enter the competition. But to cast an even wider net, judges have committed to driving through the streets of Costa Mesa on Friday, Dec. 10, in search of stunning holiday displays.
Individual trophies for Best Theme, Most Creative and Best Overall displays will be handed out Dec. 11 in a special ceremony and movie night with hot cocoa and refreshments at Neat Coffee. Winners will be announced at 6 p.m., and the movie will start at 7 p.m.
Garvin said she hopes to help Fisher create a new way for people from the local community to come together and celebrate.
“It sounded like a real fun to create a new tradition and make it feel a little bit more like a hometown,” she added. “A lot of people already decorate their homes for Christmas, and it brings so much joy to the neighborhood.”
In an interview Thursday, John O’Brien said he had no doubts his granddaughter would be successful in her attempt to resurrect, in some manner, the competitions of yore.
“She’s unique — she goes full speed ahead in everything she does,” he said.
He recalled the very first year he and his wife entered the citywide contest in 1959, having moved to a house on Costa Mesa’s Molokai Place from Glendale. He worked on the yard while Rosalie decorated the door and sewed clothes for the elves in the display.
Little did they know that decision would snowball into local fame.
“We saw an advertisement for it in the paper, so we got going on it and had really good success with it for a few years. It became like a tradition to enter,” O’Brien said, recalling the time he built a huge train in the yard.
“It had an engine and an open boxcar that had presents and toys coming out of it,” he said. “The locomotive had a smokestack with steam coming out of it and wheels turning. It brought joy to a lot of people.”
As for Costa Mesa homeowner Alli Talley, she, her husband, Bobby, and 1-year-old son, Jude, are all in. They’ve decorated their 19th Street home with lights and inflatables — all the things as a young married couple they sweared they’d never do.
“We’re just embracing it all. It’s so fun,” she said Friday. “I don’t think we’ll win any awards with what we have, but we’ll totally be in it.”
Those interested in entering the holiday decoration competition can call Fisher directly at (714) 606-3376 or email [email protected]. Participants can also sign up at Neat Coffee, 1922 Pomona Ave., in Costa Mesa, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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