Santa's Helpers: Decorators Light Up the Holidays

With Thanksgiving now past, home holiday decorating begins in earnest for most. But Gordon Becker is past all that. He's already thinking about the Easter Bunny (search).

His Becker Group, the largest holiday decor company in the world, has just wrapped up the holiday season with a 60-foot Christmas tree light-show in front of Caesar's Palace (search) in Las Vegas and is now turning its focus to Easter Bunny sets, summer projects and designing next year's Christmas magic.

It's a long way for the Baltimore-based company that began 50 years ago with a Santa business in Becker's mother's house and has since spread to offices across the country -- and overseas -- that decorate malls, hotels, amusement parks and casinos.

Becker, 70, is surprised at the scope of the business -- but not the direction.

"This is what's turned out to be my work," he said, pausing to look at a Normal Rockwell Christmas display in one of his showrooms. "As a kid, I was such a Santa Claus believer."

Becker got his first taste of the Christmas business at 14, when he dressed as Santa Claus (search) to bring business in to his cousin's children's clothing shop. That led to local department store gigs and eventually, his own Santa school while he was a University of Maryland undergraduate.

"My office was a bedroom in my mother's house," Becker said.

He employed as many as 50 men through the holiday season, keeping extra Santas on his mother's living room sofa all afternoon, just in case a Santa did not show.

Becker began decorating as shopping centers were built in the 1950s.

"One of my clients said, 'Can you get me a Christmas tree?' And I never said no," Becker said. "I'd hang up the phone and figure out how to do it later. All of a sudden it was a need."

By 1986, Becker had closed his first million-dollar decorating deal, persuading a mall owner to give him all 12 malls to decorate rather than bidding on each one. 

In 1998, Becker sold most of the company to an investor group that includes himself, his two sons and company President Glenn Tilley, among others. With capital from the group, the company has expanded beyond Christmas displays and launched its Barnstorm division, which creates entertainment and interactive "edutainment" displays to help malls, museums, theme parks and casinos entice visitors.

Despite the company's new reach, both Tilley and Becker are adamant that Christmas is still at the heart of the Becker Group.

"All this is an outgrowth of working on stuff for the holidays," Tilley said.

In the upstairs of the 1870s brick house that holds the group's main offices, Tinker Toy models lie under a large table stacked with foam for building model sets. Christmas balls of all sizes, in rich oranges, purples and reds, are pegged to a wall. Candy canes and Christmas decorations are plentiful in the house.

Next door, in the house that acts as a showroom, the Christmas spirit is even more evident.

Just inside the door of that house, visitors walk into a Rockwell Christmas, with warm lights and holiday music, and an older couple sitting by the fire. The kitchen in this house belongs to Mrs. Claus, of course, and is decorated in red and green with hollies stenciled on the cabinets and gingerbread cookies on the counter.

The main conference room holds big wreaths and windows decked with garlands, and a rubber elf that kids can climb on. Models of past Christmas designs sit in display cases and above one cabinet is an old-fashioned red motorbike with Red Whizzer painted on the bar and a little gold plaque that reads, "Gordy's Dream."

"It's a lot of fun," said Tilley, who has been with the Becker Group 14 years. "It marries creativity and business together."

Tilley apologizes that the staff has plucked some things from one showroom -- like the elf hologram and the flyer usually suspended from the ceiling -- to meet last-minute needs of a couple of clients.

The group has a three-week window in November during which it has to get even the biggest displays in place.

"It's a challenging business," said Tilley.

Today, the business that began in a college student's bedroom sprawls out over the two houses at Cathedral and Read streets in Baltimore, to a lights and manufacturing shop 25 minutes away and remote offices in Los Angeles, Orlando, Atlanta and Spain. The group also has a franchise in Brazil.

But back in the day when his mom was his bookkeeper, Becker had less-lofty goals. He started the business "in a sweet way," he said, with a mission to spruce up the "dirty-costume corner Santas" he used to see.

"When I was young, that's what you would see . . . dirty beards. Where's the magic?" he asked, as his company wrapped up another Christmas season.

"Because of my fascination and love of what you could do with the magic. . . the gleam in children's eyes, it's very special," he said. "And you really have, if you think about it. . . a wonderful opportunity."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.