He’ll never know that he was my hero.
Chevy Chase, in the movie Christmas Vacation, was patterned after William Jennings Bryan Osborne Jr. William, Bill to his friends, who passed away a couple of years ago. He was a reclusive rags-to-riches multimillionaire living well in Little Rock, Ark. In 1986, his 6-year old daughter, Breezy, asked him to put up some Christmas lights and so he did. A lot of them. And kept adding to them until his 1994 display included four, 80-foot tall Christmas-tree-shaped poles, one topped with a 12-foot tall dancing Elvis, a 30-foot diameter world globe, and a restored calliope from a Rose Bowl parade blaring over the whole shebang.
I thought of him as I plugged in the single strand that illuminates my entire concept of Christmas lighting. It was barely visible from the neighbor’s yard. The glow from Osborne’s house, on the other hand, could be seen from Russelville, 80 miles away. When the neighbors complained about the lighting on his 22,000 square-foot mansion, he simply bought their houses and expanded his display.
He said about himself, “I don’t want anyone disappointed in anything I do, so I have to constantly do things bigger and better.” In 1993, Bill threw the switch on his lights and blew out a transformer, darkening the neighborhood. This was the final straw, causing all his neighbors to sue him in an escalating series of court battles that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He was rich, spoiled, and eccentric. There were rooms in his palace that his wife of 30 years, Mitzi, had never seen. Among other furnishings recently uncovered were a reindeer hide, a personally signed Roy Roger pillow, and a line-up of ventriloquist dummies.
The neighbor’s suit first went to trial in November of 1993 in the Pulaski County Court, where the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that the lights did constitute an annoyance. The lights in the display at this time numbered 1.6 million. The judge restricted the hours and made Osborne hire security guards to handle the crowds. Neither side was happy with the ruling.
When 1994 rolled around the lights in the display numbered more than 3 million and the case went before the Arkansas Supreme Court. Twenty days before Christmas, the justices concurred that the Osborne’s lights were indeed a public and private nuisance and directed Bill to tone down the lights to where they did not attract a crowd and to reduce the noise levels so as to not disturb the nearest neighbors.
Undaunted, Osborne immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and was planning a 1995 display of 4 million lights and, “something aerial.” Sadly, the Supreme Court declined to hear his plea, leaving Osborne no choice but to break Breezy’s heart and cut back to a modest display of a few hundred-thousand lights.
Shortly after his Supreme Court defeat, Disney made a deal with Bill, sending four 18-wheelers to pick up about half of the lighting. They hauled it to Disneyland, where you can still sign up for tickets to the “Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.”
He grew his garage lab into a huge pharmaceutical-testing laboratory and sold it for the fortune he spent lavishly, sponsoring elegant Christmas displays in dozens of nearby towns and funding the lighting display at Elvis’ Graceland.
Great guy, horrid neighbor.