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Friday, July 20, 2007

The publisher’s Christmas spirit

By Paul Bannister
Of itself, the decoration of the Enquirer grounds is worth a mention – even if only to help describe the publisher’s mentality.
When Generoso Pope moved to Florida in 1971, he brought with him memories of large public Christmas trees in snowy New York venues. For Christmas ’72, he had his first big tree, a 45-footer, decorating the office’s extensive gardens. Traffic backed up on adjacent Highway One, as people gawked.
GP was gratified. He wasn’t a man to seek attention, and in his grey button-down short-sleeved Sears shirt and grey pants, with his favourite re-soled Florsheim moccasins, strangers didn’t give it to him. He might speak like his favourite movie actor, Humphrey Bogart, but he looked more like a janitor or gardener than a mob-connected big-time publisher.
There was no budget for decorating the gardens and acquiring the tree. It cost whatever it cost, ‘How many hamburgers do I need to eat?’ Pope would growl, if the question of profits came up.
The tab for the giant spruce and the gardens display was around a million dollars a year almost immediately.
‘Mr Pope loved the three or four weeks before Christmas, when he opened up the gardens, with the tree and Christmas display,’ said a former articles editor. ‘He disliked Christmas itself; it upset his beloved routine. He’d be morose around the house and play Mario Lanza songs, one after another, but getting ready to make the visitors happy gave him a deep satisfaction, and he got to show off his prized gardens.’
The manicured grounds really were his pride and joy. He had a few plants in that reminded him of New Jersey, and although it wasn’t a showpiece of rare and exotic plants, it was lush and green. The hedges were trimmed to an exact 9ft 6ins height, the lawns of Bermuda grass were cut exactly three inches high – he used a ruler to check on the gardeners – and it was, well, an engineer’s idea of nature as it should be.
‘He had aerial photographs taken and studied them. He at once saw that the gardeners had followed the same tracks when they mowed the grass, both at his home or at the office,’ said the one-time editor.
‘GP was not pleased. He said it left ridges. You might not be able to see the marks from ground level, but they were clear from the air. The gardeners had to vary their routine.
‘Yet he never minded that the grass got trampled by the Christmas crowds who jostled through the displays. He’d actually beam at some of them while he supervised every detail of where the model railroad went, how the lights were hung. It was like a kid playing with his best toys.’
But GP wasn’t playing. Being the man he was, he decided his paper was going to have the world’s largest Christmas tree, and he’d display it in a decorated landscape suitable to its status. If the Rockefeller Center had a 70ft tree, he’d have a 140ft one.
First, GP had a six foot deep concrete sleeve set into the ground, with a Stonehenge of concrete piers and an array of stout guy wires around it.
This footing and support would hold a tree that was usually around 120 feet tall, and withstand 80 mph winds, or ‘strong gale’ force nine on Sir Francis Beaufort’s scale.
The sump was filled with water, to reduce the chance of the tree becoming a burning bush, and to keep it hydrated for its two weeks of gawker fame.
Once erected, the giant spruce was given some artificial aid. Because very large trees usually don’t have branches for the first 25 feet or so of their trunks, they don’t look much like the traditional six-foot Douglas fir with its branches low to the ground that we see in our living rooms at Christmas.
Pope looked at his untraditional Christkindlein’s Baum with enough room to park a double-deck bus where the presents should go and decreed: ‘Give it more branches!’
A crew of tattooed bikers who were employed to hang the decorations on the tree found themselves affixing giant fir boughs to the trunk, boughs so long they were too heavy just to be nailed on, but needed to be suspended with hidden cables.
Only then, with massive creaking boughs sweeping low over the onlookers’ heads, was the tree decorated with its 15,000 light bulbs, a mile of garland and 1,000 oversized ornaments.
Several hundred red bows added the finishing touch.
Around this forest giant, all across the manicured grounds and lawns of Bermuda grass, was an array of individual displays.
They were Toytown landscapes, complex model railroad layouts, animated Santas and elves, reindeer and chimneys. Bemused busloads of tourists strolled the displays to canned Crosby or Sinatra songs, under the illumination of almost half a million lights strung through the trees and shrubs.
The displays were something, but the prime attraction, the mind-boggler to end them all, was The Tree.
It wasn’t just any tree, the colossus of conifers was claimed as the world’s biggest, and it was the Enquirer’s.
Over the 16 years the tree was erected, maybe two million people pilgrimaged to view it from all over the continent. When you live in December-frozen Michigan, a trip to see a Christmas tree in balmy Florida seems like a very good idea.
They came in busloads, carloads and on walkers. One old dear, driving the curve of Highway One into which the tree was tucked, happened by just at the moment some tired comedian from Pope’s youth was throwing the illuminations switch.
To the old lady’s startled eyes, a 120 foot lighted Christmas tree seemed to leap out into the road beside her, causing her to swerve onto the parallel railroad tracks and get a nose bleed.
That made a paragraph or two in the next day’s local paper, but they never did have the untold story of how the giant got there.
To find the magazine’s annual evergreen and fetch it home was a task given to an Australian journalist who was the wily sole survivor of the PR department purge, thanks possibly to his Dale Carnegie social skills training.
He flew to the Pacific Northwest in the fall and spent weeks with loggers, searching Oregon and Washington for the perfect spruce, one shapely enough and tall enough to please the boss.
Most years, the job was reasonably routine, but when GP heard of a 120 footer put up for the opening of an Oregon mall, he wanted to cap that.
The Tree Team located a 135 ft beauty after three weeks of damp tramping through Bureau of Land Management wilderness and called the office.
Enquirer business manager Dino Gallo flew west. He hired a team of loggers and had Southern Pacific roll up a rail flatcar to carry the forest giant 3,000 miles to Lantana.
All was ready, chainsaws primed, when a uniformed ranger stopped the show. ‘No trees can be cut this year,’ he said. ‘Conditions are too dry. There’s too high a fire danger. Dragging that through the forest could cause a friction fire.’
Thwarted only momentarily, Dino remembered another tree, 126 feet tall, he’d surveyed on a nearby Indian reservation. The Native Americans, he reasoned, lived outside federal laws.
After considerable negotiation with the tribe, a deal was struck.
The Indians would do a rain dance, soaking the ground and safely prepping the area against fire hazards, and the tree could be cut. Much cash changed hands.
The rain dance didn’t work. ‘The old guys can’t remember it properly,’ sighed one brave. That was when the Indians did remember that they’d be in trouble if they started a forest fire. The deal was off.
Dino made for the state capitol in Olympia and talked to the legislators.
Which lobbyists got what we’ll never know, but a special tree-cutting permit was arranged, with conditions.
Platoons of firefighters on five engines joined the Enquirer payroll for the day, an air tanker carrying tons of fire retardant circled overhead and a US National Guard Chinook helicopter was drafted to hook the tree into the sky and deliver it to the waiting rail car without danger of fire-producing friction.
A week later, the rail car halted on the curving line alongside the Enquirer office. The Tree was delivered.
It cost about a million dollars for the one evergreen, but the public got to view it for free.
For all that, GP never got his wish to have the world’s biggest tree.
He found that the Oregon mall’s one-time tree was actually 150 feet tall and had claimed priority in the Guinness Book of World Records.
His tree was in second place. Determinedly, he promoted it annually as the world’s tallest, using qualifying phrases to eliminate the competitor, and sent a series of editors to negotiate with the McWhirter twins who compiled the record book.
Ross and Norris were adamant. They’d turned down a Tasmanian Christmas tree because it was a eucalyptus, not a spruce, they’d disqualified a smokestack decorated as an artificial tree and they weren’t going to give the Enquirer’s annual tall Tannenbaum the official world title.
GP probably never knew which was worse: being frustrated in his purpose, or being unable to fire the McWhirters.