By KARINE ABALYAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - There was the year when the top went out and the year when only the top was lit.
The Maryland company that has been trimming the National Christmas Tree for more than five decades has seen its share of holiday surprises, but that, decorators say, is part of the fun.
Tonight President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will flip the switch to light the tree that Hargrove, a Lanham-based special events company, spent four weeks dressing for the occasion. The tree is the centerpiece of the Pageant of Peace celebration that runs on the Ellipse until early January.
"As many times as I do it, I still get nervous," said Chris Wellons, a project manager at Hargrove, who decorated the 41-foot-9-inch Colorado blue spruce for the sixth time this year.
Wellons remembers a ceremony two years ago when the lights came on after a one-and-a-half-second delay.
But that was minor compared to the mishap in 1955. That year, the top part of the national tree went out after it was lit remotely from Gettysburg, Pa., where President Eisenhower was recovering from a heart attack, said Marvin Bond, Hargrove's marketing director.
The scaffolding built for the decoration phase had been removed before the lighting ceremony so co-founder Earl Hargrove Jr. had no choice but to climb the tree and fix the electrical short, Bond said.
Hargrove Jr. started the business with his father after World War II, providing decorating services for local events. In 1949, their floats at Harry Truman's inaugural earned them a place at national ceremonies, including every presidential inauguration and Pageant of Peace event since.
Over the years, decorators found themselves in several unusual circumstances.
In 1963, a mourning period for President Kennedy meant the tree remained unlit until Dec. 22.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, when more than 50 Americans were held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, President Carter requested that only the star be lit atop the tree, Bond said. But upon the hostages' release in January 1981, President Reagan wanted the tree fully lit and decorated.
"It is a project that is a very definite part of the corporate history," said Bond. "There's a great deal of pride . . . It really goes deep within the company."
There should be no problem tonight—Wellons said he has tested the lights and expects a successful run.
This year, 25,000 lights, a gold, four-cornered star and 124 plastic hemispheres made to resemble traditional ball ornaments, festoon the tree.
Designed by General Electric, the decorations were shipped to Hargrove last month and began going up on Nov. 7.
"It's kind of quite the challenge to put on all those ornaments and make them look even," said Wellons.
"They always do an exceptional job," said Kathy Presciano, General Electric's lighting designer who works with Hargrove during the installation process.
The company also set up a nativity scene and 56 smaller trees representing each of the states, the five U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. Its workshop produced the red-and-gold Santa chair that sits on the stage where various performers will entertain visitors in the coming weeks.
"It's fulfilling to see something that we do and work on to be enjoyed by so many people," said Wellons. "It's quite a nice opportunity to have."
"We're pleased with the work that they do," said Bill Line, spokesman at the National Park Service, which organizes the Pageant of Peace. "This is a big deal for the National Park Service."
Approximately 10,000 people will gather at the Ellipse to watch the tree lighting, Line said.
Hargrove has tickets to the event but Wellons said he'll be watching it on the news with his family. Next month, he'll be back to take down and pack up the decorations.
"I've been seeing this tree so many times," he said, "It's nice just to sit at home and watch it on TV."