The 24 families living on Columbia’s lovely and winding Portobello Road once prided themselves on the tastefully understated decorations with which they adorned their elegant homes every Christmas season. For most of the 35 years that Marshall and Henry Foster have lived on the street, they’ve been no exception, hanging beautiful evergreen wreaths on their front door and putting candles in their windows when December rolled around. But after a while, the mundane seasonal displays began to bore Henry. “I grew up in Wilmington, Del.,” Henry says. “The houses there were lit up like the ones in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Here, it was all prissy white lights.”
So one winter a few years ago, Henry, a retired businessman with lots of energy and a wicked sense of humor, decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of demurely draping white lights on wrought iron railings, Henry installed a sprawling display of blinking lights across his front bushes that flashed the words, “Ho Ho Ho,” into the otherwise serene atmosphere on his sleepy dead-end street. “Everyone said it was tacky,” Henry says. “I said, alright, ‘I’m going to show them tacky!’” And that’s when he came up with the idea for the Portobello Inflatables Display Project.
Oversized inflatable outdoor decorations “became a full-blown fixture in the pantheon of holiday traditions” in 2006, according to an article published in The New York Times in December of that year. Henry Foster’s vision of making his street the talk of the town was on the cutting edge; he launched his project in the early months of 2007 by publishing and distributing a 16-page Participant’s Manual to his Portobello Road neighbors, with tongue-in-cheek instructions on when and how to festoon their yards with Christmas inflatables. Henry followed up by tethering an eight-foot inflatable Santa front and center onto his own front lawn.
The neighbors on Portobello Road are of a wide variety of ages, and everybody knows each other. Some of them good-naturedly call Henry “The Mayor” because of his self-conferred role of community organizer. As accustomed as they were to Henry’s penchant for stirring the pot, however, his newest project took some of them aback. “When Henry gave us the Participant’s Manual, we didn’t know if he was serious, and we just laughed. But when he put his up on the day after Thanksgiving, we knew he was serious, and we all ran out and got one,” says Portobello resident Julie McCue. And sure enough, all day long the air-blown behemoths were, as Henry puts it, “popping up like mushrooms on a summer morning.”
Of course there is always much discussion within each family about just what kind of inflatable they will choose. Julie says that she wanted a Santa Claus with a palm tree that first year, but her two children wanted a Santa in an airplane, so an airplane it was. Later, her husband Joey surprised her by bringing home the palm tree as well, and now they, like most of the other Portobello families, have three or four of the blow-up decorations in their front yard every Christmas.
Julianne Reynolds and her family live on the sharp curve of the street, giving them twice the frontage that most of their neighbors have. Julianne laughingly says, “We felt a huge responsibility to get it right!” The Reynoldses met their responsibility by finding an inflatable band that lit up and played music activated by a sensor when anyone passed by. “The neighbors got so sick of it!” Julianne says. But not Henry Foster; he notes with approval that one time the first year, he looked out and saw 20 people standing in the Reynoldses yard enjoying the lights and music.
At first the huge, colorful inflatable displays weren’t for everyone, and there were some holdouts. One Portobello resident, Susan Shuler, admits, “If you had told me that I would ever have an inflatable in my yard, I would’ve told you that you were crazy!” But now the Shulers have completely bought into the craze, and Susan finds herself combing the internet every season to find the newest in air-blown yard decor.
According to Henry, one neighbor told him early on that she didn’t like the inflatables idea, calling it undignified. Henry responded, “Perhaps you would like to participate in the project by being on the Hospitality Committee.” But when Marshall, Henry’s wife, confided that Henry’s vision for members of the Hospitality Committee was to have port-a-johns in their yards to accommodate anticipated admirers, the naysayers quickly joined in. In a last ditch effort to avoid tackiness, they put an inflatable on their roof, instead of setting it back five feet from the pavement in front of the house as recommended in the Participant’s Manual. Henry jokes, “They did win the prize that year for ‘best non-conforming display,’ though!” Henry proudly reports that all residents of the Portobello Empire (as he has dubbed the street) now display inflatables every year, even an elderly gentleman who receives help from Henry and his occasional assistant, a 12-year-old neighbor.
Now the neighbors compete to see who can come up with the most innovative display each Christmas season. There are definitely favorites that come out every year, and many lawns have themes that reflects the owners’ personalities. The Reynoldses, for example, have three daughters, so they have “kid-oriented” inflatables like a see-saw with three elves, a penguin, a polar bear and a snowman. The Shulers have an owl to honor Susan’s Chi Omega affiliation and Santa on a John Deere tractor because Jack, her husband, grew up on a farm. Some Clemson fans on the street have a Tigger, one family has a Nascar blow-up, and a neighbor who runs a church preschool displays a manger scene, complete with an inflatable Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Lines of cars come down the street each year to take in the glory and splendor of the inflatable displays, and church youth groups have even bussed in just to get a look.
Unfortunately, there has been a downside to the street’s newfound fame; the Portobello inflatables were badly damaged by vandals who slashed them a few Christmases ago. “We came outside that morning, and they were lying on the ground,” says Julie. “They got every one of them.” Some people tried to repair the damage with duct tape, but it wasn’t enough. “It looked so sad,” says Julie, “I brought mine in and sewed them up with a sewing machine.” She then thought she’d do her next-door neighbors a favor, so she hauled their inflatables inside and sewed them up too. “But after five or six of them, it got kind of hard to lug them into the house,” she says. Her husband finally pointed out that everyone had a power cord to keep air running through the inflatables, and he suggested that she take her sewing machine outside to each display. So she did just that, going from house to house, repairing each inflatable one by one. The result was a dazzling blow-up Christmas display that was good as new.
What Henry Foster started as just some good-natured fun has taught the Portobello Road residents something about themselves. “I love my street,” says Henry. “The people watch out for each other.” Says Julianne of the now enormously popular Portobello Inflatables Display Project, “It’s just really brought our street together.” Regardless of one’s feelings on what constitutes appropriate and tasteful Christmas lawn décor, all can agree that this kind of neighborly closeness is never tacky.