Bridgeport’s 1982 Christmas Village Miracle

Crowds wait in line to enter the PAL Christmas Village, in Bridgeport, Conn. in December, 1982. The Christmas Village reopened just days after being damaged by a fire on Dec. 7th.


BRIDGEPORT, Conn., Dec. 12, 1982 — The Mayor called it a ”miracle.” Santa Claus himself proclaimed it ”the best Christmas ever.” Grown men cried.

Just five days after an arsonist destroyed Christmas Village – a chalet-style building in Beardsley Park where children have come for 26 years to see animated Christmas scenes, receive a toy from Santa Claus and ask of him their fondest desires – Mr. Claus regained his throne.

It was done through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers working almost around the clock, often in subfreezing temperatures, and through donations of toys, money, materials and food for the workers. Exhibits and Toys Destroyed

Mike Marella sifts through debris following a fire at the PAL Christmas Village. (Click photo to enlarge.)

An early-morning fire last Tuesday, which the Fire Department said was arson, leveled more than half the 140-foot-long building, with extensive smoke and water damage in what remained. It destroyed several of the exhibits, the costumes for Santa and his helpers and about $14,000 in toys that were to be given away by the Police Athletic League, which operates Christmas Village. The building’s contents were not insured.

At dawn Tuesday, Frank Parlatore, a 65-year-old retired factory worker who has been Santa Claus at Christmas Village for 25 years, sat near the smoking ruins, crying.

Karen Bergquist said her 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was among many children who believed that Santa had died in the fire. ”Everyone was devastated,” said Mayor Leonard S. Paoletta, who called a meeting Wednesday with representatives of local construction companies and building trades unions to see if there was any way the building could be reopened by Christmas.

”Many of them thought I was crazy, and some said so,” recalled the Mayor, who conceded that he had had almost no knowledge of the construction field before challenging them to rebuild Christmas Village by the weekend for the children.

”If I had any idea what I was asking,” he said, watching volunteers working feverishly hours before the reopening, ”I never would have gotten the words out.” At the reopening ceremony, some workers cited ”Christmas spirit,” others ”temporary insanity,” but for whatever reasons, they had accepted the challenge. The site was cleared of debris, and by 1 P.M. Wednesday the first nail was driven.

Mayor Leonard Paoletta helps during the reconstruction. (Click photo to enlarge.)

The Mayor put some city workers on the job. The first volunteers were police officers and firefighters, then came electricians, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, painters, decorators, carpet layers, unemployed people, retired people, Boy Scouts, children after school and people who took time off from their jobs for a few days. ‘Like a Banzai Attack’

”They started coming over the hill like a banzai attack,” said Nick Zerella, one of the construction supervisors on loan from a local company, ”and had to be mobilized.”

A contractor in Groton, some 65 miles to the east, shut down a job and brought his crew to Bridgeport to work on the project. A carpenter from Monroe, about 10 miles to the north, rode his bicycle over.

Jeremy Horner, 7, who lives nearby, was toting some impossibly large boards with his father this weekend. Jeremy said that he had volunteered, but that he believed Santa would take note of his efforts.

Michael Robertson, 19, a carpenter, was one of several unemployed building trades workers who volunteered, so impressing one construction official with their skills and dedication that he said he would try to find them jobs. ”This is the greatest,” said Mr. Robertson. ”You could not get people to work like this for pay. And it’s quality work. There’s a lot of pride in it.”

By Saturday, less than 24 hours before the scheduled reopening at 1 P.M. today, work had reached a furious pace. The site was a muddy mess of extension cords and lumber, teeming with nearly 100 workers who filled the Christmas Village section of the city park with echoes of hammering and sawing, punctuated by the warning beeps of heavy machinery backing up. Changes and Shaking Heads

The building and grounds changed appearance dramatically from hour to hour. An electrician wired a room with the insulation man hot on his heels, the sheet-rock man behind him, the carpenters and painters closing in fast.

It was a scene that caused onlookers, one after another, to shake their heads in disbelief. The work force was fueled standing up, at a table of sawhorses and sheets of plywood laden with hamburgers, chicken, Italian sausage, pizza and other fare donated by local restaurants and residents. One restaurant owner, Thomas Caco, cooked meals at the site. Women continually appeared from between the dozens of trucks and cars with baked goods. One of the workers, Peter Freer, spoke of a ”phoenix rising from ashes” and worried about his weight.

Children showed up with coffee cans full of money collected in their neighborhoods. When a worker was taken to the hospital for a few stitches after a minor accident, the emergency room staff sent him back with $63 in donations. A fireman dropped off a $5 bill given him by someone. A bank gave $2,000.

Several department stores each gave as much as $1,000 worth of toys, and some toy companies from as far away as Long Island and New Jersey sent truckloads of them, as did a Christmas Village in Torrington. One department store had Mr. Parlatore spend most of Saturday roaming its aisles with shopping carts. A ‘Tricky’ Procurement Technique

Sandy Mirsky seemed to take charge of procurement, telephoning for donations of materials as the workers told her what they needed. Lifting her foot so the floor could be laid, she said her technique was to call local merchants, order what she needed and then break it to them that she had no way to pay. ”Tricky,” she said between calls for locks, carpeting and red flocked wallpaper, ”but it has usually worked.”

Dolly Goldstone, who is playing Mrs. Santa Claus this year, watched as the work progressed and said it reminded her of the spirit she saw in England during the bombing in World War II.

Ten minutes before reopening, the tree was trimmed and a vacuum cleaner brought in. ”Stop vacuuming!” yelled Marilyn Goldstone. ”Camp David is calling.”

Mayor Leonard Paoletta sits on Santa’s lap. (Click photo to enlarge.)

President Reagan called to congratulate the workers, describing what happened in Beardsley Park as ”one of the most inspiring Christmas stories I have heard in years and years and years.”

Michael Marella, president of the Police Athletic League, said the President’s call was ”wonderful, but the real thanks is in the faces of the children,” hundreds of whom came to see the papier-mache elves hammer and saw once again and Santa arrive in a white, donated limousine.

Snow fell on the chalet and the surrounding pines. Grown men cried.

By WILLIAM E. GEIST, Special to the New York Times , Published: December 13, 1982

Photos: CT Post File Photos