When a 90-foot Christmas tree at Fashion Island lights up for the first time Friday night, it will mark just one mega-tree in a series sparkling to life for the holidays in shopping centers throughout Southern California.
Fashion Island's white fir, which soars above many of the surrounding stores, cost roughly $1,000 per foot of height, a price that covered transportation, set-up and decoration. But even with such a hefty price tag, the tree still falls 25 feet short of being the tallest in the area, and perhaps the country.
To have the biggest tree comes at a premium since only one company in the state, Laguna Niguel-based Victor's Custom Christmas Trees, seems to provide them at such massive heights.
The 96-foot white fir near South Coast Plaza? Victor's Custom Christmas Trees installed it. The 100-footers standing at The Grove in Los Angeles and at the Americana at Brand in Glendale? Also the work of the company.
With so many deep-pocketed malls looking for big trees, owner Victor Serrao discovered an area of opportunity: Companies would pay an even higher price to secure the title of the tallest tree in Southern California, perhaps also earning them the title of tallest in the country or the world.
This year Steven Craig, founder, president and chief executive of Craig Realty Group, paid what he estimated to be about $25,000 extra for what the company calls "twin trees" standing 115 feet when decorated in the Outlets at Anthem in Phoenix and the Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles.
"A lot of people want to have that little mantra," Craig said. "It's worth something."
The payment comes as part of an ongoing contract with Serrao, which Craig first signed in 2010. The agreement, which can go on for as long as Craig wishes, ensures that Serrao will supply the tallest trees only to malls owned by Craig, by a margin of 15 feet.
Orange County shopping centers prefer to downplay the competition. In Newport Beach, Fashion Island's tree used to measure in as the tallest Serrao provided. It was protected under a contract similar to the one now held with Craig beginning in 2004. The tree stood at 115 feet for several years, at least since 2005, but shrunk to 40 feet in 2009 because of construction in front of Bloomingdale's — the tree's usual spot.
When the construction finished, Fashion Island dropped the contract and selected a 90-foot tree instead, a size "just right for that spot," which had been reconfigured and was surrounded by towering palm trees, Stacie Ellis, director of marketing for Irvine Co. Retail Properties, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the South Coast Plaza tree height has always been chosen according to the height of the surrounding poplars in Town Center Park, where the holiday addition has been installed annually for the past 32 years, said Debra Gunn Downing, the shopping center's executive director of marketing.
The tree has stood at 96 feet for at least the past 20 years, Serrao estimated, framed by the park's now full-grown poplar trees, rather than towering near or inside the mall.
"It was never a commercial event," Gunn Downing said.
A Christmas tree serves as an important centerpiece for a community, beginning with the tree-lighting ceremonies, Craig agreed.
Politicians at the city and state levels generally attend the events. Musicians just starting out — as he said a young Taylor Swift did — have a chance to perform for a large audience. The lighting also serves as an opportunity for a company Christmas party, and, once the trees are lit, the photo taking by shoppers and passerby is a constant.
"This is something that really strikes a chord with a community. It provides them a really strong sense of place, no matter what religion," said Craig, adding that the height of the tree enhances the sense of community pride.
Developer Rick Caruso said the trees at his Grove and Americana properties similarly draw on his childhood memories of a well-decorated Los Angeles during Christmastime. A model of Santa in his sleigh that hangs at the Grove even directly mimics a model he remembers hanging near the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards.
For Caruso, all serves as a way to help the community celebrate Christmas.
"I think the trees are big enough," he said, noting that they are both in keeping with the surrounding property and high enough to be powerful and unique. "It just feels right and feels like the holidays. It's a holiday, celebrate it!"
They come in smaller sizes
Victor's Custom Christmas Trees hasn't always provided trees of such enormous stature. The company began as a Christmas tree lot, started by Victor's parents and uncle in 1959, Serrao said.
They catered to specific requests, such as trimming branches from part of the trunk so the tree would fit flush against a living room wall, or finding a way to color a tree pink to match a woman's pink poodle.
Filling odd needs for homeowners quickly developed into meeting customized requests for businesses. Finding success with the pink tree, the company then colored a tree for a bank in 1965.
"From there on, it just grew," Serrao said, noting that his dad went on to solicit different shopping malls, hotels and even Disneyland, before gaining even further attention from a large holiday tree the company erected in Ireland.
Serrao's company is slated to provide 14 trees this year, the smallest of which will be 35 feet. The process for getting them to their destinations began in August, when he traveled to Northern California with his son, just as he once traveled with his father, to start tagging potential trees on timber company land with the help of locals.
Such massive trees can't simply be transported in the bed of a pickup truck or installed in a stand from Home Depot, said Rick Dungey, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Assn., a trade group that represents the live Christmas tree business.
Instead, the work requires specific machinery and a particular spot for installation. Malls must hide roughly 10-foot deep, cylinderical holes under landscaping during most of the year. Guide wires are used to stabilize the tree.
"It's a very, very tiny niche business," Dungey said. "You can't fit an 80-foot tree inside most homes. Where is the home that can take an 80-footer?"
Still, Serrao's trees fall short of what the Guinness World Records holds to be the tallest cut Christmas tree: a 221-foot Douglas fir erected in 1950 at Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle. The tree cost $19,000, Life Magazine reported at the time, roughly the equivalent of $185,000 today, as calculated using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index inflation calculator.
The title is a contentious one. John Egan, of New York-based Egan Acres Tree Farm, believes that a tree his company set up — a 135-footer that stood in 2007 at a Six Flags in Vallejo — is in fact the largest ever erected. The famed Northgate tree was constructed from three put together, he says.
While Serrao has thought about beating the 221-foot record himself, by finding a tall tree and placing it in the town nearby, he decided against the idea because it seemed egotistical.
"We could do it. Anybody could do it," he said. "If you had enough money, anybody could do it."
His trees nonetheless reign supreme today. The Northgate Mall does not have a live tree this year. And the largest tree that Egan's New York-based company plans to install, in Boston's Faneuil Hall, measures just 83 feet. Any other contenders remain to be seen.
"They don't want to spend the money," Egan said of the overall market and shrinking tree heights.
Serrao's customers, it seems, still do. Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza have been arranging for the tree installations for decades, he said. The Grove and Americana trees, purchased by Caruso for the newer properties, have also returned year after year.
For any of them to beat the record, they'd just need to talk Craig out of that contract first.
If You Go:
What: Fashion Island tree lighting
When: 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; through Jan. 5, the tree will be lit nightly at 5 accompanied by Disney holiday music
Where: Neiman Marcus/Bloomingdale's Courtyard at Fashion Island, 401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
A NBA basketball court is 94 feet in length.
Splash Mountain at Disneyland in California is 87 feet high, with a 52 foot drop at its end.
The iconic Hollywood sign letters in California are 45 feet high.
* Some information provided by Craig Realty Group.