Bright Idea

The rosy-cheeked Santa on the highway billboard advertising the Zmija family's holiday lights display doesn't tell the whole story. Nor does the Times Square-worthy arch on their square of front yard, proclaiming "Walk-Thru Christmas Display" in twinkling script.

The Christmas spirit is beginning to wear on Lee and Cathy Zmija, the Cuyahoga Heights homeowners who got married, had their first baby, and, that same year, decorated their seventy-foot pine tree with illuminated candy canes, in a failed attempt to win the village's holiday lighting contest. That baby is now seventeen, and the candy canes are merely freckles on the monster they've created, a monster that costs $20,000 a year to feed.

"Our whole life is based on this light display," says a cheerless Lee.
"It's gotten to be a job," says Cathy. "You get up in the morning and you feel like somebody kicked you."

Lee, a Cuyahoga Heights firefighter, added lights every year until they glittered 500 feet down a hillside to a ravine bottom, where a time-sensored rainbow now unfurls and a monumental angel flaps its motorized wings. The view and the wattage are breathtaking. "We get a lot of old people who come here," says Lee. "They'll just look over the hill and start crying."

The faithful and curious come in tour buses to see the 150,000 lights, which are up from the day after Thanksgiving through January 1 (even this year, though Cathy buried her mother on opening day). A $2 admission and a Port-a-john adorned with garland attest to adjustments the Zmijas made as crowds and expenses mounted. "Some guy got mad at us last night because we wouldn't take his Golden Buckeye Card," says Cathy. "Can you believe it?"

On a good night, thousands show up; on a bad one, a handful. Some neighbors complain about the traffic. But Mayor Louis Bacci, whose friend paid for the billboard, says the display has been a boon: "We're really an industrial town, and we don't get much publicity because of the sewage plants."

"Every night I have to feed an army," grumbles Cathy, noting the 25 or so volunteers. Maintaining the display is a second full-time job most of the year. But breaking even is motivation enough. "Every year, we say we're not going to do it anymore," says Cathy. "But the expenses are such that if we don't set them up, we're going to take a beating the next year."

-- Putre

The Zmijas' Christmas display is at 4983 E. 71st Street, 216-271-5370.