Georgia’s contribution to Christmas is varied, including Lithonia’s Brenda Lee, whose 1958 hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a seasonal staple, and Savannah resident James S. Pierpont, who wrote “Jingle Bells” shortly before joining the Confederate cavalry.
Then there’s Tony Paradowski, who in recent years composed one phantasmagoric set-piece after another on his front lawn in the Oak Grove neighborhood just outside Decatur.
It’s nearly impossible to describe what Paradowski culled out of Christmas lights, and just listing the hardware is overwhelming: 125,000 lights, six miles of extension cords (all camouflaged), two 200-amp breakers and 50 Light-O-Ramas that synchronize lights to music (“Shake Up Christmas,” “All I want for Christmas is You,” “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas,” among others, though not Lee’s “Rockin’ “).
He had exquisite style and taste (no inflatables). His shows ran 6 to 10 p.m. (or longer) daily starting on Thanksgiving and running through January 3. Though precise numbers don’t exist, thousands came every season, sometimes parking blocks away. No admission was charged though Paradowski took donations all going towards ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it’s estimated he raised $15,000 to $20,000.
Ken MacMaster, who unveils a virtuoso show of his own each season in Alpharetta, first met Paradowski at the Christmas Expo, the lighting community’s annual national convention.
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“With a lot of people who do these things, it looks like Christmas threw up in their front yard,” MacMaster said. “ But Tony’s display was meticulous, organized, symmetrical. He used a tape measure rather than stabbing things in the grass. It was appealing to the eye and he did all the sequencing himself.
“Among residential displays, and I’ve seen all the big ones,” he added, “Tony had the best one in Georgia. Mine included.”
Anthony Michael Paradowski, 60, died unexpectedly on June 15 of natural causes. A Delta pilot for 31 years, he had just returned from Sacramento when he collapsed at home. A memorial service is scheduled for June 23, with a noon visitation and 1 p.m. service in the chapel at A.S. Turner & Sons, 2773 North Decatur Road, Decatur.
Paradowski was born July 24, 1957, in Buffalo, N.Y., where he grew up. He attended the Air Force Academy, graduating in 1979 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He remained in the Air Force until joining Delta in 1986, living 10 years in San Antonio before moving to metro Atlanta in 1997. He and Katie Paradowski married in 2005, the third marriage for both.
In recent years Paradowski’s Delta schedule had him working 14 days monthly, leaving time to pour his engineering and woodworking skills into Christmas.
In the early 2000s, the replacement of old-school incandescent lights with LEDs largely rendered the Clark Griswold-style of massive though static displays obsolete. Thus began the transition to multimedia, brazenly creative concoctions featuring choreography, fading lights, lights changing colors and dancing in tempo. (A 2005 Miller Light commercial featuring house lights in rhythm to “Wizards in Winter” was, for the lighting community, a watershed moment).
Paradowski’s first display was in 2010, and by 2013 he won an episode of ABC’s “Great Light Fight,” making him a lighting superstar.
“When Tony jumped into the Christmas displays,” said his best friend Rick Garnitz, “I bugged him to get counseling.
“But gradually I realized that this was his ministry,” he said. “I say that even though the shows were almost entirely secular. But it reached a lot of people and it gave such joy. It got folks out of the house and created community with people engaging and sharing stories.”
His neighbor Brittany Mackey, who visited almost every night in the season, concurs.
“His lights were extravagant,” she said. “But they were in fact a distraction from the commercialism of Christmas. You’d go there for an hour and Tony’s lights would slow you down, and all that holiday stress of shopping, presents and the parties, all that would go away.
“He wanted people to stay,” she added. “He had benches, and the yard was set up to where you could walk through and linger. I remember one time he said to me, ‘Just look at their faces.’ He knew the joy that it brought.”
This weekend many Oak Grove residents will drape Christmas lights or other decorations in Paradowski’s honor. But according to his wife Katie the main event is all but over.
“Part of me wants to do it,” she said. But nobody else knows how to do it — it all came out of his head.”
“I can’t even describe how big a loss this is in the (national lighting) community,” Ken MacMaster said. “There’s been an outpouring on Facebook, people have been commenting from different states. And he was getting ready to go into pixels, where you can control every single light and put words and pictures on trees. Oh man, he had a lot more to give.”
Paradowski is survived by his wife Katie Paradowski, his daughters Lindsey Turner, Emily Ciccone and Taylor Goolsby, and grandchildren Blakely Goolsby, Macy Turner and Knox Turner.