Al Copeland must be looking down with an indulgent smile.
Sure, whenever Christmas approaches, Steve and Mikhael Morris work hard to establish themselves as the neighbors from hell. But, in life, Copeland yielded to nobody when it came to ostentatious excess, and, almost a decade after his death, Christmas light displays, however gaudy and disruptive, always pale by comparison to the ones that used to attract the hordes to his Metairie mansion.
The Morrises certainly give it their best shot, with yuletide illuminations at their home near Slidell that require some 102,000 bulbs. But Copeland set the standard with 250,000 at a cost, in the early 1980s, of about $50,000.
The price tag alone is enough to deter most of us from trying to emulate Copeland, but he, having taken the precaution of inventing Popeyes Fried Chicken, was able to stick it to his company.
More than 100,000 individual lights, 7.2 miles of cable and synchronization to Christmas music on a radio station — that’s what goes into the …
The Morrises' light bill must be pretty considerable, too, and off-duty deputies must also be hired to police the gawking masses as 400 vehicles an hour pile into the neighborhood. The popularity of the display is such that the Chamale neighborhood at this time of the year can be a fun place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.
These huge agglomerations of lights have enough meretricious appeal to be regarded as a service to the transient many at the expense of the resident few. Proponents will thus say, and may even believe, that they are erected with a philanthropic motive. They may also claim a religious purpose and argue, as Copeland did when he got sued, that the right to light up a neighborhood nightly from the beginning of Advent until Twelfth Night is enshrined in the First Amendment.
This is all more or less hogwash. Even if the Morrises are infused with the Christmas spirit as they spend three months rigging up their display, it evidently does not extend to the neighbors who must contend with hours of din, snarled or errant traffic and strangers urinating in their yards. “We have a couple battles,” Steve Morris says, and some neighbors “just fight.” But they “get shut down every year,” his wife triumphantly adds. She finds it odd that the complaints began this year even before the lights were turned on, whereas anyone with a clue would conclude the neighbors must really be fed up.
This is not the most obvious way to usher in the season of good will to all men, far less for Christians to hail the birth of Jesus. Sooner or later we will have to find out to what extent the secular authorities will give their blessing to the mega Christmas light show; lawsuits have been threatened and one will surely be filed if the standoff continues.
Fortunately, Copeland has left us with a road map through the legal issues in the form of the state Supreme Court ruling against him in 1985. In siding with the complaining neighbors, the court affirmed the principle that the owner can do as he wishes with a property even when if it causes others “inconvenience,” but the intrusion must not inflict “real damage.”
Copeland's neighbors, whose complaints were unnervingly similar to the current tale of woe on the north shore, had suffered not only “real damage,” but “irreparable injury,” the court ruled in granting them an injunction. As for the First Amendment, Copeland could display his “Star of Bethlehem, nativity scene, religious tapestry and oversized lighted angels,” the court decided, but he had to quit “operating his display in a manner which attracts bumper to bumper to bumper traffic and extremely large numbers of visitors.”
The Copeland display then spent a few Christmases outside the Popeye corporate headquarters, but returned to the residential neighborhood in a scaled-down version in 1994. The neighbors were so jake with that that Burton Klein, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Copeland, threw the switch that turned on the lights.
So it was, in the end, a heartwarming Christmas story. There is hope for the Chamale neighborhood yet.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.