EnlargeNJ.com Staff Livingston Deputy Mayor Steve Santola helps Sam Bennett of Westfield flip the switch during a ceremony held for the lighting of the Holiday display in Livingston which was donated by the family of Ernest Camuso, who had the handmade decorations adorn his home for 50 years on Saturday, December 03, 2011. Andrew Miller/For The Star-LedgerLivingston Christmas display gallery (15 photos)
LIVINGSTON — For decades during the Christmas season, the house on Burnet Hill Road attracted thousands of spectators from across the tri-state area, all wanting to see The Spectacle. There were giant candy canes and life-sized old-fashioned carolers. Santa on his sleigh. Skaters on a pond. Snow White and her dwarfs. Minnie Mouse. And, of course, a giant tree that was so bright it lit up the street. Everyone, it seemed, made the pilgrimage to the Christmas house of Ernest Camuso in Livingston. The congestion was so severe that police were called in to direct traffic and visitors would park their cars blocks away so they could walk past the home. But when Camuso, who early in life worked as a toy maker and created much of the display, died last year at age 89, it was feared the elaborate display of lights and holiday scenes would go dark forever. During an estate sale on his property, residents came up to his daughter, Susan Camuso, asking to buy pieces. "Everybody wanted a piece of the display," she recalled. "We didn’t want to do that." She said it needed to be just as he left it and wanted it to be. So not long afterward, the family decided to donate the treasured, but weathered Christmas display — more than 100 items in all — to the town last year, to live on at the Livingston Oval. The collection needed no small amount of tender loving care before it could be put on display. When word got out that many of the pieces needed repair, there was no shortage of volunteers to help. By spring, a group had converted the basement of a municipal building into their own "Santa’s workshop" to get the items ready for this month. Like elves in a workshop, they spent months painting faded faces, gluing and repairing broken limbs, and replacing frayed wires.
Carmen Juri/The Star-LedgerTom Cooney working. For over 50 years, Ernest Camuso decorated his Livingston home with elaborate displays that would attract thousands of people from all over. His home was known to everyone as the place to see every year. Last year, Ernest died, and his family decided to donate his collection of over 100 lawn ornaments to the town.
Some items were half-a-century old. Others reflected the generational pop culture trends, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob. Some pieces had to be rewired. Others had to be painted fresh, filled with Styrofoam, or wrapped in wood. "To me, this is more like a historical restoration than a holiday display," said Tom Cooney, a local firefighter and volunteer. "We’re getting them back to their original state so everyone can enjoy it." Retired art teacher Joyce Gore, one of the volunteers, said what made it special to her was that some of the those working on the display were former students dating back to the day when she first began teaching. Stan Graboski, who was repairing a candy cane decoration, noted Camuso used a three-inch drain pipe to build it. "The guy was a genius," he said. Jay Isherwood, 49, who grew up in town, said he would go nuts during Christmas, "probably because I spent so much time up there as a kid with my mouth wide opened," he recalled of the Burnet Hill Road home.
Camuso was born in Newark and had lived in Livingston since 1949. A World War II Army veteran, Camuso began his career working for Lionel Trains, then later opened his own shop of manufactured toys. From there, he opened a injection-molding and plastics business, which he operated until he retired. He was a mechanical engineer by trade and would begin assembling the decorations around Halloween, working nights and weekends until the second week of December, when the display was ready for show. Because of his connections with toy manufacturers, he was able to add to his Christmas display each year, Susan Camuso remembered. Each season, the display would be lit from dusk to 10 p.m. on weekdays and to midnight on weekends. "I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights at 2 a.m. people would ring our bell asking us to turn it on because they came from out of state and their families were here," she said.
Andrew Miller/For The Star-LedgerRevelers take photographs of a Holiday display in Livingston moments after it was lit on Saturday, Dec. 3.
Even during the weeks before his wife of 63 years, Sue, died in December 2006, Camuso decorated his home in her honor. "It was a lot of work. It made him smile," said his daughter, who designed a Facebook page about the display (Camuso Family Christmas Display of Livingston). She does not live in Livingston anymore, but returned last weekend to see the display illuminated in honor of her father, which will remain up through New Year’s Day. Center stage was Camuso’s 25-foot tree with tens of thousands of lights — 3,600 watts are needed to light it. The tree was fashioned from an old industrial washing machine. "I think he’s looking down to see his light is shining brightly in Livingston where it belongs," she said.
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