What Your Holiday Needs: Eccentric Southerners Obsessed with Elvis + Pretty Lights
My older brother Jim once summed up the holiday season thusly: "Christmas is overrated, but the lights sure are pretty." I couldn't agree more, and however any of us feel about the Christmastime -- I'm not a big fan, personally -- odds are we enjoy looking at the lights. In more recent years, we've all seen the YouTube videos of houses with elaborate lights timed to a song. Didja know there's one that's timed to "Gangnam Style?" Of course there is.
George King's 1991 documentary Ten Thousand Points of Light, shot on glorious VHS in 1989-1990 and recently released on DVD, looks at extravagant Christmas lights of yore -- specifically, those belonging to the Townsend family of Stone Mountain, Georgia. And while the Christmas decorations are seasonal, the house is an Elvis shrine year round.
There are actually far more than 10,000 lights in and outside of the house. Granddaughter Gloria Stevens loosely estimates it at the mid-five digit range, but in 1991 George H. W. Bush's "thousand points of light" was still in the national consciousness, hence the title.
What made the Townsend house special was that they gave free tours of the inside. Here, Gloria explains how she became a tour guide because of all the opportunities to flirt with guys. It's the late '80s in Georgia, so there are plenty of mullets on display.
Family patriarch Raymond Townsend lays down the ground rules for entering his home: No touching, no unattended children, no drinking (smoking is perfectly okay, of course), and most importantly, no smart remarks. Raymond hates those.
Visitors keep asking the same questions over and over, so Raymond and Grandmother Margaret had Gloria create a sign that answers those questions the guests will stop asking. Every time I watch this clip, I want to shout, "Say 'frequently!' Call them 'Frequently Asked Questions' already!" But they never do.
Only five visitors are let in at a time, so the line outside gets pretty long. Worse, they're forced to sing. The constant exhortations of "Louder!" remind me quite a lot of the "Faster, faster!" scene from Reefer Madness.
Though Raymond (quite reasonably) gets cranky when someone opens a jewelry box, tour groups are largely respectful of the house. Here, with Elvis looking on (as The King does for much of the movie), Raymond speaks gleefully of making a group of smart-remarkers disperse by threatening them with his gun. Did I mention that he hates smart remarks?
I'm a fan of identifying movie subgenres -- why not read my Exhibitionist articles on The Gong Show Movie and The Wizard of Speed and Time to see which one those two movies occupy? -- and Ten Thousand Points of Light joins Dancing Outlaw in the subgenre of "Documentaries About Eccentric Southerners Whose Elvis Obsession Isn't The Least Eccentric Thing About Them." (I'm sure there's a third one, but I haven't found it yet.) Just as Dancing Outlaw's Jesco White would be interesting even if one of his alternate personalities wasn't Elvis, Ten Thousand Points of Light would still make for an entertaining documentary even if Margaret wasn't so deeply enraptured with Elvis.
But she is, and it all comes to a fore in her bedroom. It's also known as The Fantasy Room, because it's where Margaret comes to ... um ... be with Elvis, in her fantasies. The look on Margaret's face at 0:41 when she's asked why it's called The Fantasy Room is priceless, and I also adore the woman with the Mary Tyler Moore bob. She knows the score.
This bit isn't directly related to Christmas or Elvis, but it's fascinating nonetheless. Y'know how you hear a lot of kvetching about how people are always distracted and not interacting with each other because of our mobile devices and Facebook and whatnot? I've never toed that particular party line, mostly because it suggests that humans were largely well-adjusted and focused and productive before the Internet came along and ruined everything. I remember what it was like back then, and quite frankly, nothing has really changed.
Here, in '89 or '90, Raymond explains how all his family needs to not get anything done is a television set. He doesn't specify, bit I'm guessing they don't even have cable.
Ten Thousand Points of Light is available on DVD brimming with extras from Dust to Digital, and probably makes a great Christmas gift.