Although Christmas in the Park opened the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Altus Parks and Recreation Department's behind-the-scenes preparations started during the summer -- long before people even thought about Christmas.
The 11th annual Christmas exhibition is open to the public from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1. Santa visits the park on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and free rides around the park on First National Bank's train are available nightly.
Randy Marple, city Parks and Recreation director, ordered two new displays this year -- a set of two 4- to 5-foot waving penguins and a 15-foot dancing snowman. "I'm trying to add animated figures every year," Marple said.
Also new this year for greater safety are lighted archways to carry the electric cords over the sidewalks; in previous years, cords were taped to the sidewalks. Due to a request by Margaret Worrell, an original Christmas in the Park committee member, new green bows decorate the streetlight candy canes.
Women inmates from the Altus Community Work Center began refurbishing and repainting the figurines during the summer. Tommy Hobbs, Parks Department employee charged the exhibit setup the last five years, started stringing lights in the trees and on the buildings near the park after Labor Day. Five to six inmates worked alongside two to three city employees most days -- more as opening night approached.
"I'm fortunate to have Tommy Hobbs; he knows where to put everything and what things need to go up first," Marple said. "We absolutely couldn't do it if we didn't have the inmates. In Lawton and other towns, they are always advertising for volunteers to get it done."
The city of Altus provided the $10,000 annual funding for refurbishing and new light bulbs. The $1,500 spent on new items came from local business and individual contributions and from the sale of Christmas in the Park at night postcards.
Continued donations are needed to replace bulbs and expand the number of displays. Contributors may make checks payable to Altus Great Plains Recreation and send to P.O. Box 521, Altus, OK 73522. To order post cards at four cards for $5, call 481-2266. "If it weren't for the donations, we wouldn't have enough money to add new things each year," Marple said.
During the first years, Parks Department employees transported the lights and displays from the park to storage areas in pickups and flatbed trailers. Later, the employees built special trailers, and now decorations are stored -- many with lights still attached -- on the trailers in the old fair barn and other locations.
"When we put it up, it comes off the trailers and when we take it down, it goes back on the trailers. That helps in organizing it and keeps it from getting torn up," Marple said.
The 2001 additions included the concession trailer and a new tunnel of lights across the 30-foot-wide central sidewalk. Bent muffler pipe formed the first tunnel of lights, but Ed Swaffar, Parks employee, fabricated a new steel tunnel.
The first year's small twinkle lights outlining the park's many sidewalks suffered a high breakage rate. To solve the problem, the Parks Department purchased the larger C-7 bulb s-- requiring fewer lights --- and strung them above the sidewalks on rebar candy canes. "Some cities buy all new lights each year. But we reuse bulbs, light holders, wiring and put it all back together. We save a lot of money the way we do it," Marple said.
After setting up the displays, the challenge becomes keeping the lights on and not overloading the circuits. Each night, two employees replace bulbs and monitor plug-ins. The approximately 300,000-bulb exhibit requires between 5,000 to 20,000 new bulbs a year. A guard watches over the exhibit at night.
"We have more lights broken and stolen than we do lights that burn out. We have a lot of problems with people stealing bulbs," Marple said. "I thought we might not need a guard on Sunday night, but one Sunday night somebody broke a toy soldier in half. It's sad that we've got to do that."
The city's Electric Department connects about 30 portable electric pedestals to underground boxes throughout the park and removes them in January. Each pedestal contains 20 electrical outlets and can be returned for special events that require electrical power.
"Some cities leave them up each year, but it's really not that attractive in a city park," Marple said. "The Electric Department is very instrumental in helping us keep the power on, and if we ever have any major electrical problems, they help us straighten it out."
Swaffar also made the 120 candy cans for streetlight poles on Main Street and Broadway and at Bunker Hill and Plaza shopping centers. He constructed the star at the top of the Jackson County Courthouse, which the Parks Department sets in place annually. The Parks Department made the downtown decorations and the Electric Department placed them in position.
Christmas in the Park originated in 1993 when Boozie McMahan was Altus mayor. Mayor T.L. Gramling, a City Council member at the time, said the Community Work Center housed men inmates then; and Sonny Tims, local minister, took an inmate--an ex-University of Oklahoma football player -- with him to raise funds to start the exhibit. The Rev. Gene Foreman donated decorations that he made and Central Garage welder Jim Newman contributed his talents.
"I want to compliment the mayor, Randy, Sonny and the entire committee for their foresight and efforts," Gramling said.
Committee members included McMahan as chairman, Margaret Worrell, Pat Colville, Butch English, Gary Bonds, Gayla Smith, Eddie Becerra, Linda Becerra, Janet Diltz, Bob Beers, Don Johnson, Foreman, Tims and Marple.
The committee planned a small exhibit the first year and expected to increase the size each year. "But Sonny said we're going to make it look like Disney Land this year," Marple said. "So, Sonny raised the money and I was the one spending the money. We never dreamed we'd get so big the first year."
The Oklahoma Department of Tourism distributes brochures to advertise 13 Oklahoma towns with Christmas displays and encourage the public to tour all the exhibits.
"We don't have a way of gauging how many out-of-town visitors come," Marple said. "We hope to get bigger and better each year. I think ours is one of the nicest displays around."