Dennis Roberts delights in bringing seasonal joy to the Long Beach Peninsula.
The back space at his Hungry Harbor Grille offers a sparkling diorama that draws visitors every year, some from two states away.
It is a brightly lit Christmas village, featuring Peninsula businesses, lighthouses, boats and fairground-type models that fill more than a quarter of the space in his restaurant. Working electric model trains and a trolley provide constant movement to the static display.
“People are amazed,” said Roberts, who owns the business on Pacific Avenue, the main street through the center of town, with his wife, Lois.
A web of hidden electrical power strips linked up with a wall timer provides the illumination that makes the display so photogenic.
The miniature village is installed each year in time to be a centerpiece of the Long Beach Christmas At The Beach, a promotion which merchants and the city begin just before Thanksgiving to kick off the holidays.
Despite Christmas being over, the exhibit will stay open for people to enjoy through Thursday, Jan. 31.
Roberts knows customers who make annual trips from Idaho and Montana to enjoy and photograph his display. Some use its image as a background for their personalized family Christmas cards. One woman posted a video online that gained several hundred views.
A growing town
The scale was not planned.
“It started small and just grew and grew,” said Roberts, a former real estate broker. “I had four houses and a car in my waiting room. That was 1988. It just grew up from there. Every year it just got bigger.”
In the past 10 years, Roberts has made it a feature of his family restaurant.
He used to construct it personally; now he recruits help. “Different people do it every other year,” he said. “They have a different perspective. If I do it all the time, it always looks the same.”
He allows his designated designer latitude, “but you can’t just put things anywhere.” He does have one stipulation: “There’s always a church at the top; it’s always a focus,” he said.
Restaurant manager Brandy Meisner, who helped with much of the smaller parts of the display last year, was assigned the overall design and set-up duty this Christmas.
“It’s a labor of love,” she beamed, as she described the component parts. “It takes 80 hours to complete — it’s two solid weeks of commitment.”
Lighting is key
Buildings that feature in the Dickens Village Series by Department 56 and those made by the Lemax Co. provide the core exhibits; many pack back into their original padded boxes for safekeeping. “We have had a lot of gifts,” she said. “They match seamlessly nowadays.”
The base is sturdy enough for the designer to climb on to assemble the village. It features five sections, with residential and commercial predominating, using blue sheets and mirrors to create the effect of a “watery” base for the ferries and fishing boats.
The lighting is the key.
“We have it set on a timer that starts at 8:30 in the morning, then at night, people can enjoy it because we dim the other lights in the evenings,” she said.
Some years back, Roberts added trains — which enthusiasts will recognize as ON30 gauge on three HO tracks. They travel over 14 bridges and through six tunnels, providing noise and movement. There is also a trolley, which isn’t labeled but some say looks remarkably similar to Astoria’s Old 300.
The Hungry Harbor itself has its own building, and the neighboring Long Beach Tavern stands next to it, inevitably complete with a couple of appropriate scale model motorbikes parked outside. Oman and Sons, Cottage Bakery and the Dennis Company are among other familiar names.
Altogether, 32 businesses or local landmarks are labeled, including the Timberland Library, the Chinook Observer newspaper office and the Post Office. In all, there are 121 lighted buildings, 14 lighthouses and four carnival rides. “There are very few duplicates,” Meisner said.
To add to the novelty, the Hungry Harbor staff set diners on a treasure hunt, looking for all sorts of unusual items hidden in plain sight. These include a crab pot Christmas tree that is familiar to Ilwaco residents and Santa and eight reindeer going about their business. The only incongruous item is Doctor Who’s TARDIS time machine, which looks remarkably like a blue British police phone box from the 1960s, portrayed in identical scale to the rest of the village.
Once Jan. 31 signals the end of the season, Roberts and Meisner will take one last look at their handiwork. “It takes three days to break down,” Meisner said.
Roberts laughed when asked about where his collection lives the rest of the year. “It has its own storage unit! It sits there all year, except when it is out,” he said.
Future incarnations may be limited by the dimensions in the back of the restaurant.
“People give me stuff, so it is always changing,” Roberts said. “But I don’t know how much bigger I can make it.”