For many months of the year, the outside of 166 Central Street looks like any other Somerville home. It sits on a steep, quiet road between the two main streets of Winter Hill.
But inside, in the cellar and attic and garage, beloved characters come to life. Santa and Mrs. Claus dance, an ogre bares his teeth, and Olaf reaches for a hug.
Lenny Rigione started making his own wooden decorations in the ’60s, when a friend got him into it. Soon he grew to love handcrafting the characters, and he whittled and tinkered in the evenings after his job where he worked with people with disabilities.
When he and his wife, Candy, moved from elsewhere in Somerville to Central Street 25 years ago, he found that the kids on his street were awed by his characters.
“Rugrats, little tykes used to be down the street. I put something out, and they all would be out here, sitting on the sidewalk, ‘Oooh, look!’” he says. “I enjoy that, watching people enjoying themselves watching somebody else’s stuff. I have fun watching kids—the adults too, because half the adults are bigger kids.”
Every Halloween and Christmas, Rigione brings his creations outdoors. His home has grown to be one of the highlights of the Illuminations Tour, a trip to the city’s most decked-out houses run by the Somerville Arts Council each December.
The magic starts in Rigione’s cellar, where he pores through design books, coloring books, and magazines for ideas.
Usually he can figure out how to replicate the decorations on his own, but sometimes—like with a backlit pumpkin design that hollowly glows in the dark—he pays a small fee to get directions.
He draws the designs on a clear plastic sheet, and then projects them onto wood so he knows where to carve. All of his creations are made of wood—convenient, since two of his sons work in the lumber industry. After he finishes carving the wood, it’s time to paint.
Many of Rigione’s decorations are motorized. He learned quickly that he could get windshield wiper motors from junkyards cheaply, and so discarded car parts get a new life in characters that dance and wave. Occasionally he’ll get even more creative: a rotisserie motor powers a mini Ferris wheel and an old jewelry store display case motor is now a rotating platform.
“I was the first person in this area to do the Christmas decorations,” he says. “When we first came in, nobody had lights, nobody had nothing. I had [someone from] down the street come over, shake my hand. He says, ‘Thank you. You’re making Christmas again for us.’ They’re all doing it now around here.”
The Illuminations Tour, which was started in the late 1990s, is competitive in more ways than one. Popular time slots sell out quickly, and the decorators who are featured on the tour sometimes try to one-up each other, Cultural Director for the Somerville Arts Council Rachel Strutt says.
But ultimately the event is a celebration of light close to the winter solstice.
“People think that to make art you have to go to art school, but that’s not really the case, and I think Illuminations showcases that—anyone who has holiday spirit and goes out and buys some decorations or makes some decorations and makes aesthetic decisions,” Strutt says. “It’s a great example of art in the larger sense of the word in that it’s so public and it’s art that spills onto the street.”
Rigione certainly meets that description, as he has no formal artistic training.
“It’s something I enjoy doing. It’s like therapy. If I get too nervous, I go down in the cellar and I grab my paint brush,” he says. “I never went to school for it, I don’t think I’m an artist. I’m gifted to be able to do some of this stuff.”
Candy says she likes her husband’s unusual hobby, as it keeps him busy. Has she ever considered giving it a try herself? “Never.”
While those original kids on Central Street are long grown up, kids know of the Rigiones’ house from passing it on the way to the Winter Hill Community Innovation School. At Halloween, a giant pumpkin with human legs coming out of its mouth sometimes scares some kids from coming to the Rigiones’ front door. When that happens, the couple hands them candy in their front yard.
Lenny and Candy’s five kids are grown up too—even the grandkids are “gigantic.” But Rigione, who says he’s “76 going on 25,” still gets to make presents for his three great-grandkids. He makes sure to build Olaf decorations because they adore the “Frozen” character.
And his decorations welcome the whole family when they come to Central Street for Christmas every year. “We have 20-30 people at the house. I told all my kids, ‘Christmas is the only time I want to see you all here.”
A picture-perfect Christmas tree grows in the backyard.
This story appears in the November/December print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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