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Joe Drelick

The Real-Life Griswolds Behind an Incredible Holiday Display

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Joe Drelick

When the newly-married Joe and Tracey Drelick pulled up in front of a house for sale in Harleysville, Pennsylvania in 1998, she thought it was one of the most attractive properties she had ever seen. It was in their price range, well-cared for, and in their preferred neighborhood.

Joe refused to get out of the car.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Are you kidding?”

Joe shook his head. “The castle,” he said. “The castle won’t fit in the front yard.”

For 15 years, Joe’s father, Bill, had been engineering one of the most elaborate and spectacular displays of holiday cheer of any private residence in the country. In addition to a 17-foot-tall castle, there was a church, a nativity scene, tens of thousands of lights, and over two dozen interactive displays. Press a button and an animated Santa would laugh heartily or the Little Drummer Boy would bounce up and down. Press another and tiny figures in the windows of the miniature buildings would dance.

Bill Drelick's spectacle had attracted thousands of visitors from every state. But Joe knew his father wouldn’t do it forever. The day would come when the Drelick tradition would fall into his hands. And he would need a large enough yard to tend to it.

The couple kept looking. When they found another house, Tracey walked through it with the realtor while Joe stayed outside, measuring tape in hand. He wanted to be sure the spirit of Christmas could fit into 800 square feet.

 

The Drelick preoccupation with holiday excess began in 1983, the year Joe, then 13, begged and pleaded with his parents to put up a more elaborate display than the spare decorations they preferred. One night, with Bill and his wife at a party, Joe brought friends over and had them help with the lights. When the Drelicks returned, the exterior of the house looked like a Macy’s department store.

“My wife was very upset,” Bill tells mental_floss. “Hollering at him. ‘I’m gonna kill that kid.’ Typical mother.”

Bill convinced her the lights would be a fitting tribute to her father, who had recently passed. She relented. For years, Joe and his mother added to the display, hanging a series of lights until Bill realized he couldn’t watch television because all of that holiday spirit kept blowing fuses.

“That’s when I decided to get involved,” he says.

A facilities manager by trade, Bill had the electrical and carpentry knowledge needed to match his son’s ambition for increasingly involved decorations. “Around 1990, I made a castle out of plywood,” Joe, now 46, tells mental_floss. “Every time the wind would blow, it would fall over. So my father essentially remade it using metal screening so the wind would go right through it. We had little windows with elves in them. And that was really the beginning.”

The activity in the castle's windows soon began to attract passersby, who would stop and peer out of their cars. “I thought, let’s give them something to really look at and study,” Bill says. “So each window had an ornament, and when you press a button, it would turn on."

“I equate that to the invention of sliced bread,” Joe says. “It was huge.”

The push buttons gave the Drelick yard interactivity. Soon, dozens of people were getting out of their cars and approaching the residence, marveling at the growing population of plastic reindeer and animatronic figures. Despite $600 utility bills, Bill kept the lights on for hours at a time, setting a curfew only when he realized that people who came later at night had enjoyed a little too much liquid cheer.

“I would have buses from the senior home pull up,” he says. “Some of them were too old to get out and look, so I’d get on the bus and describe everything to them.”

Bill’s neighbors were generally tolerant of the traffic, apart from one resident who had just moved in and never quite acclimated to the goodwill. He had police come out nightly and complained to the township over noise levels, which put Bill on the radar of local electrical inspectors.

“They wanted me to get licensed or something,” he recalls. “But the push buttons were hooked up to a 5-volt battery. It’s no different than holding a flashlight.” Bill finally got an attorney to write a sternly-worded letter, which ended the back-and-forth.

“Still won’t talk to us,” Bill says.

Three generations of Drelicks—Joe, Jacob, and Bill—prepare the castle for display.

 
By 1998, Joe was out of the house, married and expecting his first child. His own display was comparatively modest, but he’d spend up to eight weeks helping his father get ready for the unveiling of the Ambler display on Black Friday.

“We just enjoyed each other’s company,” Joe says. “I knew he’d retire at some point. He did it until he was 75 years old.”

Bill’s final year as the lead builder was 2010. “I’m 80 now,” he says. “It just got to the point where it didn’t feel right. I’d be out of breath and have to sit down in a chair and burp every 20 minutes.” His retirement was official after both a quadruple bypass and a spill off a ladder. “That had nothing to do with my health, just my own stupidity,” he says. “I was standing on the very top step of a 12-foot ladder, which you should not do. The sun was high and I was trying to see around it. Down I went, brrrrrappp down the steps. They slowed the fall.”

Bill was fine, but done. In 2011, he and Joe began the laborious process of moving over all of his materials 20 minutes away to Joe’s residence in Harleysville, where Joe constructed a shed in his backyard to help contain it all. You could fit three cars in there, Joe says, except it’s full of gingerbread houses. Displays like the castle—which measures 24 feet across—were designed by Bill with storage in mind. The pieces are like Russian nesting dolls, folding into one another. In Joe’s basement workshop, he and his father spend time repairing displays that were pounded by weather the year prior.

“Olaf from Frozen took a beating,” Joe says.

New additions are frequent. Last year, Joe built a Philadelphia skyline featuring his beloved Phillies and a silhouette of Rocky Balboa. Two years before that, he constructed an immense clock tower that he had fantasized about crafting since he was a kid.

“It’s 19 feet tall and sits on top of the shed,” Joe says. “Kids look up in awe. It's like Big Ben.”

Last winter, ABC came calling, wanting to film the Drelick display so they could go up against other light fanatics in a primetime contest special. The Drelicks lost. Sort of.

“Someone left a handmade trophy on our porch shortly after the show aired,” Tracey says. “It came with a note saying, ‘You guys were the real winners.’”

 

Joe has been a facilities manager for 25 years, which gives him a fair amount of vacation time. He uses 10 days of it every year to help meet the demands of preparing the display, which is sometimes enough to keep him up at night.

“I just want to get it done for Black Friday,” he says. “You hope the weather is good. I always worry about Nor'easters.”

He likes to say he's happy year-round and Christmas is a time when everyone else catches up. Joe will play Santa at least once this year, handing out stuffed animals and coloring books. When his children were younger, they would play elves. “We have that on videotape,” Tracey says, which sounds vaguely threatening. Their oldest, Jordynn, wrote her college application essay about the display. Jacob, 16, is responsible for carrying parts around.

“It’s coming his way if he wants it,” Joe says. “I’m grooming him.”

Last year, the family received more than 12,500 visitors, with an average night attracting around 500 people. There’s no admission charge, though sometimes people will leave cookies or festive sweaters. Many sign the guestbook, which Tracey and Joe read after the 35,000 lights—mostly LEDs—go out at 9:30 p.m. It's tangible evidence that their work has brought a lot of people a lot of happiness.

“Reading things like, ‘You have an amazing soul’ can get to you,” she says. Men have proposed to girlfriends in her yard. Young couples who visited Bill’s display in the past now show up with their own children in tow. Local police have told her they’ve driven by the house on nights they need cheering up. It always works.

You can follow the Drelicks' progress as they set up the lights—and find out how you can visit—on their Facebook page.

All images courtesy of Joe Drelick.

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Courtesy New District
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Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Warner Home Video
25 Things to Look for While Watching the 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon
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Warner Home Video

You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story enough times that you never really need to watch it again. But watch it you will. And enjoy it, too. Even though you know every twist and turn it will take for our young hero Ralphie to finally get his hands on his much-desired Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (An item he repeats 28 times throughout the film’s 94-minute running time; you could make an eggnog drinking game out of that.) 

This Christmas, when you inevitably tune into catch at least one airing of Bob Clark’s holiday classic during TBS’ 24-hour marathon, we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience. 

1. RALPHIE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL “CHRISTMAS.”

At least it doesn’t appear that way when he gets his Christmas theme—or shall we call it a Chistmas theme—back from Mrs. Shields, who also didn’t notice that the “R” is missing from the word.

2. JEAN SHEPHERD MAKES AN ON-SCREEN APPEARANCE.

If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.

3. BOB CLARK JOINS IN THE CAMEO FUN.

Not to be outdone, director Bob Clark pops up in front of the camera, too, as Ralphie’s neighbor, Swede. He’s the guy who seems awfully curious about how Ralphie’s dad managed to snag himself a leg lamp. When The Old Man Parker informs him that it’s a Major Award, Swede responds: “Shucks, I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp."

4. RALPHIE’S DAD IS NEVER GIVEN A NAME.

Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”

5. SPEAKING OF THE LEG LAMP…

The continuity folks must have been taking a coffee break during the unveiling of the leg lamp. Watch closely as the amount of packing debris covering The Old Man’s back and head changes from shot to shot. In one shot, his back is covered in the stuff; cut back and there’s nothing there.

6. IS THE LEG LAMP REALLY A LAMP?

In addition to being stumped by the word “fragile,” The Old Man—and the rest of the family—is initially confused as to what the leg’s purpose is. Is it a statue? (“Yeah, statue!”) One can’t blame them, as there’s no electrical cord to be seen. It’s just a leg. Yet, once the lampshade is discovered, the Parker clan is magically able to plug that titillating little fixture right in. 

7. ONE FINAL THING ABOUT THE LEG LAMP…

After witnessing the moment that Ralphie explains would become “a family controversy for years”—the breaking of the leg lamp—Mrs. Parker balks at her husband’s accusation that she would be jealous of a plastic lamp. But just moments before the “accident” in question, we hear the sound of breaking glass. And lots of it. Plastic doesn’t sound (or break) like that.

8. IS IT TORONTO OR IS IT INDIANA?

Though the film is set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictionalized town based on Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana—parts of the film were shot in Toronto. This becomes apparent in some of the outdoor scenes, such as when the family is shopping for a Christmas tree, as one of the Toronto Transit Commission’s signature red trolley cars zooms by.

9. BOLTS VERSUS NUTS.

We all remember Ralphie’s reaction when his attempt to help his father fix a flat tire goes terribly awry. But here’s a fun fact that only true motorheads would pick up on: In the scene, Ralphie’s dad implores him to hold the hubcap horizontally so that he can put the “nuts” in it. But the 1938 Oldsmobile that he’s driving actually uses removable bolts. A fact that Shepherd confirms in his narration of the scene when he recalls that, “For one brief moment I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic—and then they were gone.” Oh, fudge!

10. SCOTT SCHWARTZ IS NOT SCHWARTZ. BUT HE IS.

Ralphie’s two best friends are Schwartz, played by R.D. Robb, and Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. As if this tale of two Schwartzes weren’t confusing enough, when Ralphie tells his mom that it’s Schwartz who taught him how to drop the F-bomb, Mrs. Parker immediately calls the boy’s mother. But the voice we hear of fictional Schwartz taking a whooping is actually the voice of Scott Schwartz. Got it?

11. SCHWARTZ’S WHEREABOUTS.

Immediately following his unceremonious (and totally false) ratting out of his buddy, Ralphie remembers how “three blocks away, Schwartz was getting his.” In the original story, that may have very well been the case. But the film’s production called for Schwartz’s home to be just a few doors down from Ralphie’s, as we see as the kids walk to school together. Not three blocks away.

12. RALPHIE’S NOT A VERY GOOD LISTENER.

Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine. But he’s lucky he could decipher the message at all, because a few of the numbers that he wrote down don’t match the numbers that announcer Pierre Andre broadcast, most notably the last one; Pierre said 25, Ralphie wrote 11.

13. UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE?

Perhaps it’s that very error above that made it necessary for Ralphie to decode Annie’s message on at least two pieces of paper. How do we know that? Check out the difference in the “E” in the word “Be.” In the earlier shot, it’s an uppercase E; in the final message, the letter is lowercase. We’re on to you, Ralphie. 

14. FOR A SPORTS FAN, OLD MAN PARKER DOESN’T KNOW SPORTS.

Though the exact year of A Christmas Story’s setting is never stated, many of its context clues—including the makes and models of the cars we see and the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and Little Orphan Annie—put its year around 1939 or 1940. Yet in the beginning of the film, Mr. Parker becomes irate after reading in the paper that the White Sox “traded Bullfrog.” But the White Sox never traded Bill “Bullfrog” Dietrich, though they did release him on September 18, 1946, which would make this comment six years premature. He also refers to the Chicago Bears as the “Terror of the Midway,” when in fact their nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”

15. THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS LEVERS.

Old Man Parker seems to have a lot of non-human enemies—his car, the Bumpus hounds, and a seemingly possessed furnace among them. In one scene, The Old Man yells upstairs for someone to open the damper, which Mom does rather reluctantly. But watch closely when the camera cuts back to the levers, which are in the opposite position as Mom set them just seconds earlier.

16. DIVERSITY AS AN ANACHRONISM.

By the time A Christmas Story was released in 1983, racial segregation in Indiana public schools was a thing 34 years in the past. But if Ralphie’s story takes place any time before 1949, he would not have had any African American classmates, as he does in the film.

17. THE ROTATING BANANA.

Hoping to score some extra points with his teacher, Ralphie presents Mrs. Shields with the world’s largest fruit basket. It’s so large, in fact, that its individual pieces of fruit seem to have a mind of their own. Watch the way the banana shifts position each time the camera cuts back to Ralphie.

18. A DRAWER FULL OF UNIMAGINABLE MISCHIEF.

Ralphie and his classmates are a troublemaking lot. And when they decide to launch a classroom-wide prank in which they’re all wearing a set of false teeth, Mrs. Shields is well-prepared. She’s got a drawer full of pranks past, including a pair of chattering teeth … a gag gift that wasn’t actually invented until 1949.

19. SPEAKING OF TOOTHY ANACHRONISMS…

In his attempts to make Ralphie’s life a living hell, we get an up-close view of the braces worn by Scut the bully. They’re the kind that are directly bonded to the front of his teeth, a process that wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Until then, metal braces were wrapped around the teeth.

20. THREE-BARREL HINGED GLASSES WEREN’T A THING EITHER.

After nearly shooting his eye out on Christmas morning, Ralphie steps on his own glasses, revealing them to use a three-barrel hinge connector, which would not have been possible until the 1980s.

21. RALPHIE SHOOTS THREE TIMES, HITS FOUR.

When Ralphie is forced to defend his family against the rascally Black Bart (in his own imagination), he shoots three bad guys before his nemesis Bart escapes. But when the pile of bad guys is shown with their eyes X’ed out, there are four of them.

22. A VERY BING CHRISTMAS.

On Christmas morning, the Parkers kick back with that most classic of Christmas albums—Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas—in the background. As cherished a tradition as that may be, the album wasn’t released until 1945.

23. A BOWLING BALL FOR CHRISTMAS.

Old Man Parker is thrilled when his wife gifts him with a shiny new blue bowling ball for Christmas. There’s just one problem: colored bowling balls weren’t introduced until the 1960s. 

24. MELINDA DILLION GETS TOP BILLING.

Getting top billing must have been quite a thrill for actress Melinda Dillon… until the actual credits rolled and her name was spelled incorrectly!

25. FLASH GORDON GETS CREDIT, TOO.

Keep watching the end credits roll and you’ll see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless among the names that scroll by. Though it never made the final cut, the credits for an additional fantasy sequence in which Ralphie and his trusty firearm help Flash Gordon face off against Ming remain.

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