Of all the many Ahwatukee homes sporting stunning holiday decorations this year, one stood out in the mind of some HGTV producers.
This time of year, Frank and Dianne Polimene’s Club West house fits the goals of a network devoted to real-estate and home-improvement reality programming.
The Polimenes’ home at 541 E. Mountain Sky Avenue, is a dazzling DIY holiday display that has evolved at Frank’s hand over 41 years, 29 in Ahwatukee.
The couple’s “Santa Train” display is featured today, Thanksgiving Day, in a HGTV special titled “Outrageous Holiday Houses.” In Arizona, that debut is midnight but the show will be repeated through December.
By the time it airs, the Polimenes will already have thrown the switch on the 2019 version of Santa Train.
Every night until 11 p.m. through Jan. 1, you can drive to their home and marvel at what Frank, a self-described “big tool guy,” built and tweaked since 1979, when he lived in Baltimore.
His story began a year earlier in Baltimore.
He ordered a plastic train big enough for his two young sons to ride in it, from Tyco, a California company. His son’s were fascinated with it for a few hours, that is until they decided the box it came in was a more exciting toy to explore.
The following year, Frank took the toy out of storage with the thought of making it into a Christmas display but wanted more than the eight feet of track it came with.
When he called Tyco, a man named Bob told him the model was discontinued but that he would check the warehouse. So, he took Frank’s name, phone and address and said he’d get back to him.
As Frank tells the story on his website:
“Obviously I didn’t hold out much hope, but two weeks before Thanksgiving, a truck pulled up to the house and unloaded four boxes of track. On the packing slip was a note that said ‘No charge - Merry Christmas, from Bob and the gang.’”
That’s all it took for Frank to be hooked – not just with the notion of coming up with something new every year for his Christmas display – but finding a way to use it as a way of doing good.
“It was nice they did something special,” he said. “So yes, it really inspired me to keep it going.”
The retired electronics engineer and company executive invents new features for the display and perfects or upgrades others all year long; he uses the display to raise money for charitable causes and hands out candy canes to kids stopping to gaze in wonder at his handiwork.
He estimates over $20,000 was collected thus far for charities to help needy kids. He positions a donation box next to a button that makes the train roll along and fires up all the other electronic gizmos he’s built into the display.
This year his selected beneficiary is the Miracle League of Arizona, a nonprofit that teaches special needs kids and adults how to play baseball, then organizes games at a Scottsdale stadium that has a wheelchair-accessible field.
He handed out close to 140,000 candy canes – a task made easier with a candy cane loader he invented in 2005.
He even clocked the number of round trips his Santa Train has made all these years: 138,000 for a total 4,200 miles.
This year he is giving out candy canes until 9 p.m. every night and making snow every half hour until 10 p.m.
Small wonder HGTV show host Bass included the Polimenes in his show, which looks at “some of the most outrageous displays you’ve ever seen.”
“We’re going to meet the most dedicated and obsessed Christmas fans around,” Bass added.
Frank said he was surprised when HGTV contacted him back in mid-January to include the Santa Train in a show that visits a Texas home decked out like a Christmas Candyland, a 300-acre Pennsylvania dairy farm with a sprawling exhibit built around a chicken coop/post office that handles hundreds of letters to Santa and a Canadian home redesigned as an elf’s playground in Canada.
After he got permission from the Club West Community Association to keep the display running past the HOA’s deadline for Christmas displays, he had the crew come over. “They were here almost eight hours,” he recalled.
“They interviewed my wife and I for probably almost an hour and a half, two hours. And then the rest of the time they had drones here. They were taking pictures, aerial pictures. They were taking a lot of photography and we had to do a lot of staging,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the crew was out at his home for so long that “I felt obligated to feed the crew, so we had a little barbecue out there.”
He initially told the producers he didn’t consider his display outrageous.
“They said, ‘no no no, we’re looking for unique things and the do-it-yourself themes.’ Being that they were focusing on that, it was a little better fit for me.”
Frank carefully catalogues his DIY Christmas projects on a website, santatrain.com, that’s as detailed and elaborate as his overall Christmas display.
Those projects were really made possible by moving out of snowy Baltimore and into Ahwatukee 30 years ago.
“I had the train and then I had basically an outline of my house at that time,” he recalled.
“But it was now nowhere near what it is today. It really didn’t get huge until I moved to Arizona. In Baltimore we used to get snow every year and I’d have to shovel the track, so it wasn’t near as elaborate.”
Some of the cut-out characters like Rudolph pulling up Santa on the roof with a rope and pulley date back to those days in Baltimore, but most stuff was created here.
Those inventions include a crossing gate lowers as train passes, a volcano that changes color and erupts with smoke as train passes under it, sequential lighting activated as the train, a Santa that dances to music as train approaches the station.
There’s a candy cane striping machine that activates when the train stops, a hitchhiking reindeer, rotating Christmas tree, a teeter-totter and Ferris wheel, a carousel swing, a Teddy bear that recites “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a pop-up holiday band and Mickey Mouse waving in hot air balloon.
Along with a display around the house that is lit by 25,000 LED lights, the hillside near his cul de sac brings holiday cheer via a 16-foot tree with a computerized light show and 20 holiday songs and 14 lighted snowflakes of various sizes. His website gives detailed instructions for making those “mountain snowflakes.”
“It kind of turned into an elaborate hobby,” Frank said of his all-DIY display.
“Everything, even the computer I have to run it is custom,” he said. “It’s a custom design computer that I did just for this train. I made my own circuit boards and everything.”
“What I do is I get an idea, and then I’ll expand on the idea and then I’ll actually make it,” he said, adding that he also devotes some time to maintenance issues that he lists in a notebook while the display is up and running.
All this he keeps in five sheds in his backyard until he starts pulling it all out right after Halloween to prepare for dazzling the world.
To see it all in action, you may have a better experience if you swing by the Polimenes’ house weeknights: “Friday and Saturday are crowded,” with tour buses, limos and a lot of cars.
He hopes parents will keep an eye on their kids when they do come because “some of them get pretty wild” and he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.
“If one child ever got hurt, that would end it,” added Frank, who has built in a number of safety devices just in case and posts “train etiquette” reminders near the display.
As for donations, he said, “I never wanted it to be about money. People shouldn’t feel like they’re obligated to pay for something like this. But people would do it anyhow. Before I had the donation box, I’d find money all over the train. After a while I said, ‘You know, people are going to do this. We might as well make it a little bit easier for them.’”
And don’t be surprised if you end up meeting Frank and Dianne if you go there.
“I try to intermingle with people outside and a lot of them like to talk to me,” he said. “I enjoy the people. I enjoy watching the kids.”