In his 26th year of having one of the most brightly decorated homes for Christmas in North Las Vegas, Tom Devoe has reached out to family and friends for extra help as he battles cancer and recovers from multiple surgeries.
But it's impossible to tell. For someone who had surgery the day before, Devoe has only one thing on his mind: finishing the decoration setup before Santa arrives with his fire department escort on Thanksgiving night, a little more than one week away when he spoke to View.
The display runs through Christmas.
Devoe has run into cancer twice this year, first in his bladder and then his kidney, and he said he is thankful he doesn't feel sick now, during his favorite time of the year. He said the cancer was caught in time and removed. Still, he needed help from his nephews in pre-production lifting as he recovers.
Most of the decorations he collected from thrift stores and Ralph Jones Display, 2576 E. Charleston Blvd., over the years, and the rest are home creations.
Sometimes strangers drop off decorations on his porch, too, including a box of porcelain dolls and classic cars three years ago. They did not leave a note but were charmed when they saw their gifts included in the following year's exhibit, Devoe said.
New this year is the dollhouse in the back corner behind glass. A Disney castle featuring Nemo is expected, too, and a one-story-tall Santa.
One of his favorite new items is a roughly 3-foot-tall stuffed bear from Yellowstone T-Shirt Company that he saw this summer in a clothing store and had to have. The owner told him the bear had been in his store for 20 years, and he was reluctant to sell him, but when Devoe showed him what he does for the community, he changed his mind. The owner gave Devoe the bear free.
"What I did was told him to name his price, but ... he gave it to me," he said. Devoe plans to take photos and send it to the owner to show him the bear's new home.
The bear is kept in the playhouse because Devoe wants to protect it from potential bad weather.
Devoe said he was touched by the kindness he saw in Yellowstone and paid it forward. On the same trip, he stopped at a '50s-style diner, the Canyon Street Grill, and saw a track for a train near the ceiling but no train. When he asked about it, he learned that the train no longer worked. So, Devoe said he had a $500 toy train at home that he would send if someone at the restaurant paid for shipping. Restaurant employes are supposed to send Devoe pictures of the train when it is up and running.
Devoe said he likes to add new things to his display each year, admitting he has so much now that not everything will be on display.
"I like to try and change it as much as I can so people won't get bored with it, but hey, they've been coming for 26 years," he said.
Some keep coming for the tradition.
"I still have people from 25 years ago saying, 'What happened to the little bear eating popcorn?' I've got so much stuff."
Devoe's nephew, Rick Devoe, said he has enjoyed helping with the setup this year, his first year assisting. He said he remembers the early years of the show when the lights and decorations were limited to the front yard. "It was incredible," he said.
Every day for three weeks, Rick Devoe helped his uncle with tasks such as putting up lattices, hanging lights and installing new doors.
"The kids are what makes it. Kids relate to dolls, and the Disney castle - they know who they are. That's what I try to do," Tom Devoe said.
He has never charged people to come and see the lights and magic, even when he had a partner who was trying to collect donations. Devoe said he shut that down.
"No, I'm not charging people to come in and see what I love to do," he said.
But that does not mean it doesn't cost him a lot of money. He said he spends about $4,000 a year on average and had spent $2,000 by Nov. 13, including paying his nephews for helping. He asks participants to pay $1 for hot chocolate and a cookie from Mrs. Claus, $5 to get a picture taken with Santa and 25 cents to ride the train around the yard.
If he has money left over from the event, he said he donates it to charities, buys bikes for kids or tries to help out people in the community.
He has never had items from his wonderland stolen or vandalized in 26 years, he said.
On an average night, he said the property will attract between 500 and 1,000 people with more coming on the weekends.
Then there's the electricity. Devoe does not have a generator running for the display, but close to seven years ago, the yard's lights and animated figures caused a breaker to blow, requiring a new transformer and new wiring to be installed. He said he was told it can now hold anything he tries to plug in.
"I did it for the people. I didn't do it for myself, although I love it," he said.
His favorite piece was a seesaw he built from a broken Ralph Jones Display using a windshield wiper motor and a 12-volt battery, he said.
"It's fun," he said. "I love it. It's kind of my hobby. All year long, I'm looking for stuff, building stuff, every place I go."
Devoe said he has seven children, 23 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren, but most of them have never seen his winter wonderland because they live on the East Coast.
In fact, when his children moved east is when he started decorating his yard extravagantly, he said.
He said he has one grandson who would like to carry on his tradition, but when he dies, he expects the doors to his wonderland to shut. He said his wife will hang a wreath on the front door with a black ribbon and then hold a large yard sale with his collection.
"Once I'm gone, that will be it," he said. "I love doing it, and I can't imagine doing anything else."
His wife, Linda Devoe, said she works full time at the Excalibur's buffet, and though she enjoys meeting everybody during the monthlong event, she said always looks forward to when it's over.
"By the end of the month, I start to run a little ragged," she said. "This is his thing; I just help. If he's gone, I don't plan on continuing it."
Devoe used to decorate for Halloween, too, but canceled that tradition this year to focus on Christmas preparation.
Santa's wonderland is at 3016 Judson Ave. just north of Lake Mead Boulevard. The property is open from 5 to 9 p.m. during the week and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 25. Santa will be available for photographs from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Hot chocolate and the train ride will be available every night.
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Laura Phelps at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.