By Rubin E. Grant
Bob Cissell might be 90 years old, but he has the heart of a child.
Perhaps, that’s why the quirky, funny Christmas village at his home in Mountain Brook, on 4125 Brook Way, appeals to kids and adults alike.
This is the third consecutive year Cissell has decorated his yard as part of the Wacky Tacky Light Tour, which runs Tuesday-Thursday this week. The bus or car tour features houses where the owners went over the top to decorate for the holidays, and Cissell’s certainly fits that category.
Cissell’s handmade Christmas display with his original designs has 80-plus figures, mainly reindeers with wings made from recycled tree limbs.
The first year, Cissell’s display featured Rudolph and his friends waiting for Santa, but for the second straight year, his theme promotes adoption and has handcrafted children.
“I do like to promote adoption because kids need a mommy and daddy,” Cissell said. “I carve the heads and bodies, put up signage and equip them. They wear uniforms for different situations. They’re like real-life orphans, from toddlers to 10-12 years old.”
A colorful character himself, some of Cissell decorations come with a story, including one this year from the old television western Gunsmoke that features a hand-carved Matt Dillion and Chester.
“I’ve built some tongue-in-cheek characters,” he said wryly.
Cissell starts collecting items during the summer, including clothes to dress the reindeer, and spends months putting the display together. Others pitch in to help.
“I’m 90 years old,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without my family and friends.”
Cissell invites people to walk through and read the signs accompanying his exhibit. His yard decorations will be on display until after Christmas.
Something of a Renaissance man, Cissell dropped out of school at 15 and began singing on his sister’s amateur Saturday radio program in Paducah, Kentucky. That led to him becoming a featured vocalist with big bands in the 1940s and 1950s.
After several years of traveling with bands, Cissell was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, but he wasn’t sent to Korea. Instead, he was stationed in Italy for 17 months.
Upon returning home and getting married, Cissell went back on the road with bands, but with a wife and two children to support, he figured it was time to settle down.
He began working at a store in Paducah and in 1954, when the store’s display man died, Cissell filled the spot. Eventually he moved to another store in Evansville, Indiana, and designed a Valentine’s Day window that was featured on the cover of Display World, now VMSD Magazine.
In 1960, Cissell moved to Birmingham to work for Blach’s clothing store, working as a store planner and spearheading a remodel shortly after his arrival. With that experience, Cissell realized designing interiors was his true passion, and in 1974 he began working his off hours and Saturdays designing for small non-apparel stores. In 1986, he began doing that full-time. His one-man design business had clients that included The Pink Tulip. He retired in 2003.
Ever the designer, Cissell gets a kick out of his Christmas yard creations.
“When the little kids see the wings on the reindeer, they get really excited,” Cissell said. “The song said every mother’s child will spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly, so I extend them on wire 20-feet high.
“It’s so rewarding. The response has been absolutely phenomenal. A high percentage of the people stop and say thank you for doing this. It’s open 24/7. I never turn it off, so folks can come by any time.”
The Best of the Worst
The Wacky Tacky Tour is a two-hour guided bus tour that goes along a carefully curated route of the best of the worst of Birmingham’s holiday lights, including Santa’s Trailer Park, the Hanukkah House, Dueling Neighbors and Star Wars Christmas. New this year is Saddle Up Santa and Xmas on a Limb.
The event begins at Tropicaleo, a Puerto Rican Restaurant at 4426 4th Avenue South in Avondale. The gathering point is in a large outdoor space with heaters for the comfort and distancing of participants. The mid-point is Soho Social, which has another outdoor area and a private room with bathroom. The restaurant is at 1830 29th Ave. South in Homewood.
Tour buses leave every 15 minutes from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. This year, there are a number of 13-passenger vans and buses that can be reserved. New this year is a Tuesday night Do-It-Yourself tour with turn-by-turn directions for people in cars.
Reservations are required. Tickets cost $27.50 to $32.25, but prices vary for private buses. The private car option is $25 for members of Fresh Air Family and $60 for non-members.
The tour is a fundraiser for Fresh Air Family’s Gross Out Camp Scholarship. Last summer, it provided $54,000 in financial aid to 170 children, including children escaping violence and orphans of suicide, to attend the award-winning science camp. This year the group hopes also to raise enough to match last year and provide help to children and families affected by COVID-19.
Fresh Air Family offers more than 400 outdoor educational activities for families throughout Alabama.