Some know him simply as “Mr. Christmas” due to his exuberant display of lights and sound that fill his front lawn each December. Others call him a comedian for his quick wit and one-liners that could leave even the surliest of people in stitches.
Easily recognized by his signature mustache and overalls, Harrison resident Roy Aletti is a man of many interests. A lifelong resident of Parsons Street, a painter, a volunteer member of the Harrison Fire Department, a musician, a veteran of a foreign war, a bachelor, a small business owner and a gardener. But perhaps most interesting of all, Aletti is a collector.
Aletti’s childhood chum, Vito L. Faga, Jr. said the display isn’t just made from some items picked up at the local shopping center, either.
“Everything you see is an antique,” Faga said. “He drives all over the country for them.” Aletti said his display includes pieces he has picked up from as far away as Nebraska.
From the 1950s style mailbox addressed to the town of Santa Claus, Ind., to the statuesque toy soldiers that he loans to Rye Playland after the holidays, nearly every item in “Roy’s Christmas Land,” has its own backstory.
“I like to do everything to the extreme, in case you can’t tell,” Aletti said.
Despite the spiked cost to his electrical bill, the self-proclaimed “biggest kid on the block” sets up an overwhelming display, spanning three full yards along Parsons Street to the corner of Oakland Avenue. If that weren’t enough, he also plans on dressing in full Santa attire, complete with his own fluffy red suit and custom ordered leather boots.
Aletti started his Christmas collecting at about 17 years old and has been doing it every year since. But nowadays, Aletti doesn’t limit his display to just one holiday. On Halloween, the lawn is full of fake tombstones, skeletons and a pumpkin so big, one can only call it “king.” His attraction to competitive pumpkin growing started eight years ago when he began to do it himself. “The trick to it is in the seeds,” Aletti said, “It’s genetics.” Since then he has The Collector gone to Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as Canada.
While looking to expand upon his display for Independence Day, Aletti has laid out a lifesize bust of founding father George Washington, a model of Mount Rushmore, Lady Liberty and of course “Old Glory.”
But Aletti’s collection doesn’t stop on the front lawn.
According to Aletti, his family has owned the property on Parsons Street since 1910–the same year his father opened a business as a painting contractor. Aletti, now 55, was the youngest of five kids, with three older sisters and one older brother.
“We’re one of the last of the old families left in town,” Aletti said.
In 1946, Roy’s father, Urbano Aletti, opened the Harrison Paint Supply at 59 Purdy St. to purchase the paint at cost for his contracting business. A true nostalgic, Aletti said he still holds onto an old certificate signed by his father for “phone connections” in what is now his office. He explained that before the invention of the slightly more modern rotary telephone, anyone who had a phone would have to speak with an operator to connect him or her to another member of the community.
When I walked through the hallways of Aletti’s abode during a recent visit, it was like walking through a miniature museum: each room a different exhibit, and by the end of the tour you feel like you still didn’t get to see all of it.
Behind one door, a pair of shadows sat in darkness playing what looked like a rabblerouser of a poker game. Shedding some light on the situation, Roy revealed the argumentative duo as full-scale wax replicas of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
“They’re the ultimate comedians,” Aletti said. “Eighty-five years later and they still have a fan club.”
Much like something you’d see in Madam Tussauds wax museum, these collectables were simply extraordinary. Every detail, down to the hair on their heads, was on point. Apart from Laurel and Hardy, Aletti has collected a handful of wax statues, including three of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and legendary crooner Bing Crosby.
In the garage, Aletti showed what he calls “the circus collection.” A member of the Circus model builders, Aletti has row on top of row of 19th century model bandwagons. The one he treasures most, the Dual Hemisphere bandwagon, takes up the entire shelf at the far end of the room, with 40 Clydesdales lined in pairs pulling the cart. Four years ago, in 2009, Aletti took the trip out to Milwaukee for what would be the last Great Circus parade through the city.
“It was like a step back in time,” Aletti said about watching the horse-drawn wagons stroll through the city. “It was my favorite vacation…to see the 40-horse hitch, just like they did it 100 years ago.”
Aletti said he watched, awestruck, as the bandwagons came in by steam-engine from their home at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc.
As a high school senior set to graduate, Aletti’s passion for the circus began to take shape in a whole new way. In 1976, Aletti applied for Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College, but was surprised to learn they only took two people from each state. After practicing pratfalls with his high school pals, Aletti auditioned at Madison Square Garden along with hundreds of other applicants and was listed in the top 10 of the bunch.
“Who knows what would’ve became of me had I been picked,” Aletti said. “Living on a train, going place to place, it really is a labor of love.” But perhaps had Aletti been picked for clown college, he wouldn’t have found his most unique collection of all.
Walking up the narrow stairway in his two-family home is where you will find the inner sanctum, where Aletti keeps his most treasured collections. Over the past 30 years, Aletti has built up a collection of about 250 or so Black Forest Clocks, which he keeps under lock and key.
“At first I thought, that’s just cuckoo clocks,” Aletti said jokingly. “But there are so many different types.”
For Aletti, his collection is not merely antique clocks, but a meticulous form of handcrafted artwork carved from the bark of the German forest. He even travels to Germany once every year to try and expand on his collection while talking shop with some of the artists and fellow collectors. “The best part about collecting anything are the people you meet,” Aletti said.
At the cornerstone of Aletti’s clock collection, is a piece of American history that had even managed to find its way into the writings of Thomas Jefferson.
Built in 1817, the clock that had once stood in Pennsylvania’s famed Red Lion Inn might appear like a relic, but ‘under the hood’ the mechanics of this timepiece were ahead of the curve. The clock still ticks under Aletti’s watch.
On the other end of the hall, Aletti opened yet another doorway that one would imagine resembled the FAO Schwarz toy store in the 1950s and 1960s.
“As a kid, I liked a lot of old stuff,” he said, “stuff that was even before my time.”
Aletti kept several of his battery operated playthings in working condition. And when something breaks from the wear and tear over the years, Aletti does what he can to fix it.
On the tour of his collection, Aletti saved the best for last, finishing the tour with his “man cave.” In an instant, the source of Aletti’s sarcastic sense of humor and witty one-liners became clear. Anyone with two eyes could recognize the images hanging from the wall, each one signed and framed by the most legendary comedians like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and the Three Stooges, to name a few. Behind the bar at the other end of the room, a life-size wax figure of cross-eyed actor Ben Turpin is polishing off a drinking glass just as Aletti flips a switch and turns on some Dixieland Jazz.