Atomic Christmas

All is merry and very, very bright in an Overland Park home

The year was 1959, the height of the Cold War and the space race between the United States and Russia. Television shows with Bozo the Clown and Clint Eastwood (Rawhide) premiered. American Airlines ushered in the jet age with the first transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to New York. The Barbie doll debuted. Hawaii became the 50th state.

And in 1959, glittering aluminum trees with red/green/yellow/blue rotating spotlights put the “atomic” in Christmas.

That time lives on in the home of Stephen and Mary Pruitt of Overland Park, who collect and stage artifacts produced from 1959 to 1965. “Our style of decorating is like building living dioramas,” Stephen Pruitt says. “We try to find things that tell a story about that period, then arrange them together.” The six-year time frame “tells us what we can and cannot collect,” says Stephen. “Once we set the narrative, the narrative designed the house.” The paint colors they chose are authentic, such as Pink Flamingo and Holiday Turquoise, both by Sherwin-Williams. Lighting, furniture, dishes, accessories, and even holiday decorations, stay true to the period.

The heyday of the aluminum tree was brief—1959 until 1965 “when The Charlie Brown Christmas TV special killed it off,” claims Stephen, “because of the ensuing revolt against the crass commercialism represented by the aluminum tree.” Charlie Brown, sent by Lucy to get a gaudy pink aluminum tree with “modern spirit” for the school play, returned instead with a tiny, real evergreen. And just like that, the very “modern” tree faded into the past.

Today, the “crass commercialism” has been replaced by nostalgia and whimsy. “As a boy, I remember my neighbors having an aluminum tree,” says Stephen, a professor of finance and economics at UMKC. Aluminum spoke of America’s belief in a Jetsons future, where everything was automated and easy, shiny and bright. And that sparked Stephen’s imagination. “When Steve gets going, he keeps going,” adds his wife, Mary. “He researches everything.”

And so the search began. The couple started looking for aluminum trees after their grown daughters, Becky and Barri, had left home. They bought their first tree for $100 in 2001 on eBay and now have trees in almost every room, set up for the holidays. They find the trees online and buy the rotating color wheels separately. “It all takes months to set up,” confesses Mary, “but it’s a lot of fun. We have almost run out of room.”

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“The rotating color wheel is part of the aluminum tree experience,” says Stephen. “You couldn’t have strings of lights on the tree because of the possibility of electric shock.” Not what you want in a Christmas tree. But you could have boxes of Shiny Brite colored glass ornaments to decorate the tree, which the couple also collects.

The tour begins in the sunroom, where Victorian ironwork gets out-shined by the flashy silver-colored Tomar Imperial Arctic Star tree, all seven feet of it.  Nearby, the Starlite by Revlis blue and green tree is “the Cadillac of aluminum trees,” says Stephen. A four-foot silver tree with red tips is from an unknown maker.

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In keeping with the midcentury-modern vibe in the eat-in kitchen, the couple found the Paul McCobb buffet with hutch and the dining table with chairs at Retro Inferno. Two modern sconces came from Modern Love.

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The living room features a GE TV from 1959, rocket and atomic-themed accessories, and an Eames chair by Herman Miller. Fiberglass shades on the lamps hark back to the days of the original Mickey Mouse Club. But the focal point is the string of rare Noma bubble lights in the shape of rockets (1961-62) around the fireplace, also hung with vintage stockings.

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The dining room shows off a silver tree with blue tips and a full pink tree to play off the Tickled Pink dinnerware by Vernon Ware and the Heywood Wakefield dining room set.

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In the piano room, just off the entry, an Evergleam gold tree (manufactured in Manitowoc, Wisconsin) holds court amidst 20th-century art. Up the staircase, the couple threaded bubble and snowball lights.

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In the master bedroom, a Philco Predicta television from 1959 “looks like it just came from Mars,” says Stephen. A vintage Sputnik ceiling light over the bed and a Hoover vacuum called “The Constellation” add to the space-age vibe in the room. A red-and-green Revlis tree is bedecked with Shiny Brite ornaments, while the turquoise tree is a rare find. To add a feminine touch, a formidable bullet bra that Jane Russell would have loved is on display, along with a Universal hair dryer with a hood that looks like an astronaut’s gear. Mary also collects and wears “Marilyn Monroe-ish” vintage dresses.

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The guest bedroom in black and gold features a Barbie: Queen of the Prom game from 1962. It also has “the rarest of the rare” black Revlis tree and lots of panther motifs in black and gold. “Why panthers were big back then is a mystery to me,” says Stephen.

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The space-age cowboy would love the second guest bedroom, where a Space Rocket XS-17 orbit control sled takes pride of place amidst Stephen’s childhood bedroom furniture and vintage cowboy bed linens.

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In the basement, the tree to end all trees—the Bradford Snow Maker—makes and circulates its own snow, just in case a White Christmas is not in the forecast.  A forest of aluminum trees—green with red pompoms, emerald and red with gold balls, silver and green—almost glow in the dark.

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While others are jingle-belling, the Pruitts enjoy a true Blast from the Past and wouldn’t have it any other way.

SOURCES:

Modern Love
1715 West 45th St.

Retro Inferno
1500 Grand Blvd.

Urban Mining
3923 Main St.

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