Vast tree still twinkles and shines in memory

By Ron Hayes O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum! We miss you, Tabloid Tannenbaum! Has it really been 20 years since all those lights went dark for the last time on The World’s Tallest Christmas Tree? Those 16,000 twinkling lights? Or was it 20,000 lights? Or 36,000? Quibble about the lights if you want. No one doubts that for 17 years, Generoso Pope Jr., owner of The National Enquirer, gave Lantana the world’s tallest tannenbaum. Why, thousands came each year to marvel at it! Or were there millions? What began in 1972 as a modest tree outside the newspaper’s headquarters at 600 S. East Coast Ave., peaked in 1985 at 126 feet, a towering Douglas fir topped by a 6-foot silver star, set amid a glittering Christmas village filled with toy trains and reindeer, parachuting elves and a baby Jesus. And then, on Aug. 29, 1989, the tabloid’s new owners made the sad but unsurprising announcement. The National Enquirer Christmas tree would rise above the railroad tracks no more. When Generoso Pope died on Oct. 2, 1988, the world’s tallest Christmas tree died with him. “We contacted all the big local companies and offered to pay 50 percent,” remembers Iain Calder, the Enquirer’s former chairman and CEO. “But we didn't get one response.” The only thing more dazzling than the tree itself was the story behind it. In 1971, Pope had moved the Enquirer’s office and staff from New York City — home of that pitiful little shrub, the Rockefeller Center tree — to Lantana. And Pope missed Christmas. “Even Generoso Pope couldn’t bring snowstorms to South Florida,” Calder explained. So he put up a little 60-foot tree on the Enquirer grounds, to give himself and his fellow transplants a touch of Christmas just like the ones they used to know. Or was it 86 feet? “All I know is, it was two feet shorter than the Rockefeller Center tree,” says Malcolm Balfour, a former reporter at the paper. Pope was upset until Balfour, thinking quickly, added: “But the Rockefeller Center tree is on a platform.” And Pope was assuaged. According to Balfour, Pope then ordered him to get Bing Crosby down to Lantana, to sing White Christmas at the lighting ceremony. Crosby was already booked, and Perry Como was in Ireland, filming a television special. They settled on the West Point Glee Club, all 40 members, flown to Florida and put up at Pope’s expense. The next year, he brought Burl Ives. Balfour says he’s the man Pope sent to buy lawn decorations. “How much did you spend?” he asked when the reporter returned with toy trains, elves, a baby Jesus, etc. “ ‘It was $46,000, Mr. Pope’ … He didn’t even blink an eye.” Other Enquirer insiders smile and say, “Yes, well, Malcolm tells a great story.” But on one point, they all agree: The world’s tallest Christmas tree was also the world’s most expensive. Pope spent about $1 million each year on the whole display. Two trees were chosen in Oregon, the branches numbered, sawed off, then brought by flatbed railcar to Lantana. Pope persuaded the FEC railroad to stop by his office so the tree could be unloaded — and slow down to keep from blowing the bulbs off once it was up.

Next, a dozen bikers were hired to bolt the branches back on. If the branches didn’t form a perfect cone, they were rearranged, or more added. “They put on more branches than God had in the first place,” Calder boasts. Kevin Long and his mother, Dorice, came up from Pompano Beach to spray the surrounding trees green, deck them with lights and set up the animated displays. “I’ve got memories of being there from early in the morning until late at night,” recalls Long, who is today the president of Christmas Designers Inc. “There must have been 300,000 or more mini light bulbs.” But the biggest expense was not the tree, or the lights, or the reindeer. It was security. “I remember Generoso Pope telling me once that we had more cops on duty at the tree each evening than West Palm Beach had to cover the whole city,” Calder says. Each night, Pope would choose a small child in the crowd to push the button and light the tree. The child would push the button while Pope, off to the side with a walkie-talkie, whispered, “Now” — and a grown-up flipped the real switch. And for the next eight weeks, the crowds came, and came, and came. Everyone gasped, everyone marveled, everyone was filled with delight. Well, almost everyone. “We had a big glass window in the office, and it was distracting, trying to work when you had 100,000 people in your garden,” remembers Balfour. A hundred thousand people! Really? “Oh, did I say a hundred thousand? I meant to say ten thousand. “Tabloid!” he chuckled. “Tabloid!”
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