By Alan Burke
---- — When John Murphy and Joan Pappalardo decided to create a winterscape, using lighted model buildings from a company called Department 56, as well as tiny figures, tiny trees, cotton snow, animated skaters and skiers, and a working train, well, it wasn’t enough to just clear off the coffee table.
Instead, Murphy, 73, a retired businessman from Melrose, started work on the project last October, determined to produce something bigger and more exciting than he’d managed last Christmas.
He constructed a table 16 feet by 7 feet-plus, with one end tapering off to 4 feet. It’s built of plastic foam and chairs.
And, by the way, that 4-foot length is necessary because, in the first place, it’s located in Joan’s apartment. “My furniture is now up in his apartment,” said Pappalardo, 79, a retired Massachusetts General Hospital nurse originally from Medford.
In the second place, a lot of the people who come to admire the North Pole Village are in wheelchairs, and they need room to turn around.
The apartment is at Brooksby Village in Peabody, and the North Pole Village has become something of sensation there as a large parade of residents, employees, and various children and grandchildren have made the pilgrimage to see it. As many as 700 saw it last year, and Murphy expects even more stopping by, at prearranged hours, this year.
It’s an impressive piece of work. Of course, most of the elements are purchased, but the magic is in the way Pappalardo and Murphy have artfully set them up. A black cloth on the wall mirrors the night sky. Cotton snow dominates an area sculpted to include hills and mountains. Finally, a red material fashioned as a skirt by resident Alice Gross hides all the wires and supports.
The train nearly disappears beneath a second level of the table, and when it re-emerges, it twists and turns past the elaborately styled ceramic buildings.
There are 70 lighted elements to the display, Murphy said. “All the houses are different.” For example, the stylized headquarters of the “Naughty or Nice Detective Agency” features a giant spyglass.
Murphy can’t help showing his excitement as residents knock on the door and are welcomed in to admire the work.
“It’s a lot better than last year,” one says. “My grandchildren would love this.”
“It’s just beautiful,” Joyce Thornburg said. “You gotta see the skiers.” She points with delight as a pair of them, apparently pulled along by hidden magnets, manage to ski down the slope and then up again. Similarly, skaters do turns and spins over a white pond.
Both Murphy and Pappalardo have lost their spouses. They’ve been together the last five years. She speaks of four grandchildren, while he has 17. Both live at Brooksby, and they enjoy the sense of family there.
All this started, however, 15 years ago when Pappalardo bought her first Department 56 house.
“I fell in love with one piece,” she said.
Over the years, her family would give her more houses as presents. The hobby really took off, however, when she got involved with Murphy. And when she seems a little overwhelmed by it, someone reminds, “You started it.”
“I started it,” she confesses.
As a nurse, she cared for people like John Wayne (“He was wonderful”), Katharine Hepburn (“Very eccentric”) and Bruins great Johnny Bucyk, whose muscles were so well-developed that Pappalardo couldn’t stick the needle in the usual place.
Murphy, who owned a company that produced a specialized detergent used to clean things like helicopters, is excited to have control of a whole village, even if it is scaled at a ratio of 1-to-87.
“He’s talking to it in the morning,” Pappalardo said, smiling at Murphy. “And he talks to it at night before he goes to bed. ... I’ve gone from No. 1 to No. 2.”
“Not quite,” he begins, before confessing, “I keep asking her if I can put it up for the Fourth of July.”
She shakes her head.
Knowing it will soon be time to take it down, he gives it a longing look. “There’s not much more I can do to enlarge it. Joan won’t let me extend it into the living room.”
It does the job pretty well at this size, Pappalardo said. Watching her friends crowd around the display, she nods and says, “They come in here, and a lot of them start crying.”
The winter scenes, the cheerful figures and the brightly colored houses harken back to an era when Christmas seemed cheerier, less hectic, more about love and wonder.
“And they remember when they were children,” she said.