What exemplifies the joy of the holiday season more than seeing all the twinkling lights? How about a magical light display made of handmade neon animated figures? This is what you will see when you visit the home of Jon and Tina Vanderjagt on 78th Street in Westport Heights. What began 13 years ago with an animated neon “Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas” sign has evolved into a beautiful celebration of the most wonderful time of the year, all designed, built and displayed by Jon.
Jon Vanderjagt grew up in Westchester, in the home that he lives in today. His parents bought the house in 1950 when his Navy dad returned from the war and bought a tract home in this new suburb of Los Angeles: Westchester! Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
“Before the 405 freeway was built, down by Hughes Aircraft was bean fields and canals,” said Jon. “It was a regular Tom Sawyer paradise!”
His father became a teacher with LAUSD and Jon attended all the local Westchester schools–Westport Heights, Airport Junior High (no longer in existence) and then Westchester High School. When he moved away to start his family and career, his parents continued to live in the house on 78th St. In 2005, when his mother became ill, he moved home with his wife, Tina, to help care for his mother. After she passed, they inherited the house and Jon’s Westchester life came full circle. They both speak with great reverence for their Westport Heights neighborhood.
”We have 35 neighbors on our street, and we are friendly with every one of them,” said Tina. “We have neighborhood parties, progressive dinners, and we really take care of each other. We are a close-knit group. We love our neighborhood!”
When Jon and Tina married, it was a second marriage for both, and their blended family became a real-life Brady Bunch; Tina has three daughters and Jon has three sons. They now have four grandchildren and are living a happy retired life that allows the dynamic duo to pursue their passions and volunteer opportunities. Since retiring from nursing two years ago, Tina has enjoyed being active with the Emerson Avenue Community Garden and supporting the Westchester Mental Health Guild. Jon retired years ago from his job as a quality manager for a company that manufactures photodiodes—a semiconductor device that converts light into an electrical current. Retirement has not slowed him down: he has his contractor’s license in electrical science, he does solar power sales and even some property management. He also enjoys car shows with his restored 1923 Model-T Bucket Roadster, and he is a neon artist!
Working with neon is, as Jon puts it, “A hobby that got out of control.”
When he displayed his first neon Christmas sign, he received such a warm response from the neighborhood, that he continued to build a new neon figure every year for display in his yard. His garage has become his neon workshop, and it is there that his figures come to life. Building a new neon piece is an involved process, and Jon is in charge of creating every aspect. The first steps involve deciding what he wants to build, drawing it out and fabricating the neon. Then he must bend the glass, mount the neon, put in the transformer, build the electronics for the animation and mount it. He must also make sure it’s not only weatherproof but plug-and-play as well. Lastly, there’s the tricky job to decide where to add the new piece, which may include mounting it on the roof. The whole process takes about 40 hours, and then the neon masterpiece is ready for its debut! This year’s creation is a five-foot-tall angel blowing a golden trumpet with animated blue notes flowing out of the instrument.
Making their home sparkle for a full month could be a costly endeavor, but thankfully, their house is run on solar energy. During the year, their solar panels make more electricity than they can use so they save their solar credit and use it all in December to run the light display—giving them an end of the year zero-dollar balance on their electrical bill.
The feeling of holiday magic that the light display brings to the neighborhood is clear to the Vanderjagts. Year after year, families stop by and admire the lights and sometimes leave thank you notes in their mailbox. It’s not uncommon to hear “oohs” and “awws” from not only children, but adults as well, who are wowed by the decorations; the Grinch is always a standout favorite with kids of all ages.
“He enjoys the process of making things,” said Tina. “He is living in the dream of how it makes people feel. It gives a lot of joy to the neighborhood.”
Jon says that they also have made the intentional decision to maintain a secular display with a mixture of holiday favorites that include a juggling elf, candy canes and Rudolph, so that they can “let everybody in.” They want their display to be universal and inclusive.
“We want bright lights and fun, in a world of discord,” said Tina.
They liken their display to the old department store windows that were always transformed for the holiday season. A type of magic and wonder that you can stop, view and appreciate.
Last year, their display reached an even wider audience when they participated in the Westchester Mental Health Guild’s Holiday Light Tour & Contest. Unable to hold their traditional Holiday Home Tour fundraiser, which raises money for AMCS by selling tickets to view the inside of highly decorated homes, the Guild pivoted to a COVID-friendly version of the event where participants can view the outside of fantastically lit up homes from the comfort of their own vehicles. The Vanderjagt’s dazzling display earned them one of the top three prizes in the inaugural event and furthered their reputation as having one of the most wondrously decorated homes in Westchester.
Their home is back on the tour this year, and Tina has even been recruited to find other area residents that are interested in signing up to show their holiday spirit.
“The fact that our lights can do some good for the community through the donations to the Mental Health Guild brings us so much happiness,” said Tina.
In addition to being one of the winners in the Holiday Light Tour & Contest last year, the Vanderjagts have also been featured on Channel 11’s 10 o’clock news for the past three years. The nightly news features one decorated home per night throughout December. But for the Vanderjagts, the display is not about the well-deserved accolades. For the Westchester couple, it’s all about the love of the holiday season, their neighborhood and bringing joy to others.
The event takes place Dec. 12 through 26 from 5 to 9 p.m. For a minimum donation of $10 per car, participants will receive a map of the homes on the tour, a voting ballot to show support for who should be the 2021 Community Fan Favorite and a chance to win a New Year’s Eve Celebration gift basket. This year, there are more than 20 decorated homes participating.
Visit 2021guildholidaylights.eventbrite.com for more info!
By Lydia Smith. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.
Posted December 2021.