Neighbors Get Violent Over Light Display

Claremont, California – Every night in December, Richard Viselli’s Christmas-light display transformed his normally quiet, north Claremont neighborhood into a light-show spectacular.  

The 55-year-old Whittier Avenue resident put up more than 58,000 multicolored lights and synchronized the blinking light display to a musical score that he broadcast from a low-watt radio transmitter.

At its peak, in the week before Christmas, the show attracted thousands of nightly visitors who would park in front of the home, turn up their radios and marvel at the 15-minute light show.

But for many of Viselli’s neighbors, the spectacle surrounding the “Christmas House,” as it came to be known, was a nightmare.  

The blinking lights, loud music and nightly traffic drove one of Viselli’s neighbors to near-madness, leading to a violent Christmas Eve confrontation and a subsequent lawsuit.

A group of 11 neighborhood families have petitioned the city to enact Christmas-light regulations to prevent a repeat performance by Viselli. The City Council will consider the issue at its meeting tonight.

The neighborhood push to shut down the display is being led by the Swartz family, whose corner-lot home on Syracuse Drive is right across the street from Viselli’s home.

In early December, the light show – which ran four hours a night from 6 to 10 – was bearable because the crowds it attracted were at first small, said Barbara Swartz, 44.

But after local newspapers and TV news programs began covering the impressive light display, the crowds grew. Soon there was nightly gridlock traffic, parked cars that blocked residents’ driveways, and littering and public urination, Swartz said.

“It was just insanity,” she said. “They were standing in the front yard clapping and cheering. It was like a carnival.”

Viselli refused to tone down the display. Calls to police and city code enforcement went nowhere, as Viselli wasn’t breaking any laws. The Swartz family was resigned to living with the nightly spectacle.

“Most people, you try to work with your neighbors,” Swartz said. “And if you know you’re doing something to upset them, you stop it. But not this guy.”

Viselli, a Christmas nut who says he wishes the season lasted 365 days a year, has been putting up Christmas lights since he was 12 years old.

In December, the display he set up was the most ambitious of his life.

He spent all year putting up lights and programming the synchronized light and music show. For less than $500, the salesman for a wholesale electrical company purchased a low-watt FM transmitter and a license that allowed him to broadcast copyrighted music.

“I do this for the people … I love to see people smile and laugh and feel good,” he said.

On Christmas Eve, the neighborhood dispute between the Swartzes and Viselli reached its climax.

The number of visitors to the neighborhood was the highest of the season. The music blasting from cars was louder than it had ever been.

Inside the Swartz family dining room, Christmas Eve dinner was disrupted by noise, by light and by hundreds of visiting strangers they say were peering through their dining room window.

Barbara Swartz’s patience ran out. With her husband at her back, she walked across the street to Viselli’s home, and with an audience of hundreds of light-show watchers, knocked on his door.

When Viselli opened the door, Barbara Swartz ran into the home, screamed at Viselli to turn down his music, and told him he “completely ruined Christmas.”

Viselli says he then tried to push her out of the house – Swartz says he slammed the door on her – and at the point of contact Swartz lunged at Viselli and attempted to strangle him.

Robert Swartz pulled his wife off Viselli, and as she stormed away from the home, Barbara Swartz grabbed a string of Christmas lights and yanked them off the house. The vandalism caused expensive damage to Viselli’s complex electrical system, he claims.

Police arrived to the scene, but did not arrest Swartz because Viselli declined to press charges. Viselli said that despite Swartz’s misdeed, she shouldn’t have to spend Christmas Eve in jail.

In February, Viselli won a $423 small-claims court decision against Barbara Swartz for the damage to his light display.

Tension in the neighborhood remains high. The Visellis and Swartzes do not communicate, and most neighbors have taken sides in the dispute.

Neil Goodwin, who has lived in the house next door to the Swartzes for 22 years, says that in his time, no other episode has similarly divided the neighborhood.

“We’ve never had anything like this before,” he said.

Viselli said Monday he is willing to work with his neighbors to resolve some of the issues with this year’s light show, which he has already begun planning.

“The show’s not gonna stop,” he said. “Unless the city shuts me down, the show will go on.”

Barbara Swartz says her husband and several other neighbors plan to attend tonight’s City Council meeting. But for her, the topic is so emotional she’s not sure she can attend.

“I’ll probably be reduced to tears,” she said. “I feel like I have no recourse. This guy is allowed to do this with impunity, and this is our house. We live here; we have no place to go.”

2 thoughts on “Neighbors Get Violent Over Light Display

  • May 21, 2007 at 8:13 am

    That’s a hard one… On one hand you have this guy who just wants to spread a little Christmas spirit, and on the other you have a family who is being inconvinced by it. I want to say that it’s only 4 hours a night, let him do his thing… but then I think to myself, what if MY neighbors were attracting thousands of visitors a night to our little street? I’m a TOTAL Christmas junkie, but the thought of all those people in my yard, and the traffic… it gives me a headache. But it seems had the local news not made such a big deal the crowds might have stayed smaller. I do know that confronting him with such violence was not the answer. While this is a free country, I think you should still be considerate of your neighbors. I hope these folks can find some kind of compromise this Christmas.

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