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Amazing Rogers' Christmas House was reflection of its owner

We've had the death watch for Rogers' Christmas House Village and an auction on Wednesday that felt like a funeral.

So maybe it's time for a wake, time to toast a brief, eventful life.

That's right, brief. Even though it was a Brooksville institution and people think of it as an "Old Florida'' attraction, the Christmas House opened in 1972, the year after Walt Disney World. And, other than their size, the two were more alike than a lot of people realize.

Flowers were important at the Christmas House: dogwoods, magnolias, African amaryllis with massive blossoms, tulips that grew this far south only because founder Margaret "Weenie'' Rogers Ghiotto stored the bulbs in a refrigerator.

"The grounds were always beautiful,'' said Weiland Rogers, Mrs. Ghiotto's nephew. "We'd have people come and spend half a day in the garden.''

It seemed crazy that Mrs. Ghiotto was able to make a town in Florida nationally recognized as a home of Christmas, but the location, along with the landscaping, worked to her advantage.

In the main entrance, Mrs. Ghiotto hung tree branches wrapped with dry-cleaning bags, sprayed with fake snow and covered with tiny lights that sparkled like ice. The air-conditioning blew full blast.

So customers went from lush and subtropical outside to winter inside. It was like going from a wardrobe to Narnia, or at least like going from one of those huge Disney parking lots to Main Street U.S.A.

"There was definitely a transformation,'' said Tricia Bechtelheimer, who worked at the Christmas House on breaks from high school and college. "There was literally oohing and ahhing. People would come in and just look and look and look.''

Another way the Christmas House was like Disney: relentless marketing.

Mrs. Ghiotto stocked brochures everywhere, even forced them into the hands of airplane passengers when she went on buying trips, said longtime buyer Beth Tarr.

The Christmas House once leased 18 billboards, starting with one 90 feet wide on Interstate 75 near the Georgia state line, Weiland Rogers said. The silhouettes of Christmas trees stuck up above the rest of the sign, and metal discs screwed into the plywood glittered like tinsel when headlights shined on them.

It worked, Tarr said: "You hear a lot about the tour buses — and they brought in a lot of people — but they weren't the main customers. We just had hordes of people who'd heard about the Christmas House coming in from Orlando, Ocala, New Port Richey, Tampa. … They came from all over.''

They found ornaments from the former Czechoslovakia, Italy and China — back when that meant handcrafted rather than mass produced. Before the era of the Internet, you couldn't find them anywhere else. And definitely not anywhere else in Brooksville.

Every year, after Thanksgiving dinner, the Bechtelheimers went to the Christmas House to let every child pick out an ornament. A family friend of Sandra Bell Shorter's, "Aunt Josie'' Albritton, worked at the store. She called Shorter and her boys over to write their names in the concrete every time a new slab was poured.

So, locals had a personal connection to the place.

That doesn't sound like Disney, a big corporation even 40 years ago. Neither does this:

The Christmas House was the work of one woman, Mrs. Ghiotto, who at the time of its founding was in her mid 50s — a former schoolteacher, divorced and broke. Her father owned a Brooksville department store that had been outcompeted by malls and shopping centers. When he was dying, Mrs. Ghiotto looked at an empty Kleenex box next to his sick bed and wondered how she'd get the money to replace it.

But she knew construction and landscaping. She had studied chemistry, physics and design.

"I know it's probably not politically correct to say it, but Weenie had class,'' said Tarr.

Businesses tend to have short runs in Florida, said Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida. Flagship department stores such as Maas Brothers are long gone. Sunken Gardens and Weeki Wachee had to be rescued by taxpayers.

"I dare anyone to try to name all the skyscrapers in downtown Tampa,'' Mormino said. "The names of the banks change all the time.''

The Christmas House was probably doomed in 2006, when Mrs. Ghiotto died. Maybe some new gift shops will open on her old property. Maybe one of them will carry on the Christmas theme. But, no matter what its name, it won't really be Rogers' Christmas House.

So, say goodbye. And cheers.

• • •

It won't do for Brooksville what the Christmas House did, but the Brooksville Business Alliance has an idea to further one of its goals: bring shoppers downtown in the evening.

To that end, the Main Street Market, held on the third Saturday of every month, will move from daytime to evening this summer, starting June 19. It will offer music, art and craft booths and locally grown produce. Downtown stores will stay open, as well as restaurants.

If you like the idea of a busy town center, with things to see, places to sit down and have dinner, this is a chance.

Amazing Rogers' Christmas House was reflection of its owner 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 7:33pm]
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