THE JOYS OF THIS SOUTH SHORE CHRISTMAS DISPLAY ARE MANY…AND PERSONAL
BY JENNIFER VIKSE • PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
Joe DiMartino could have completely given up after his last phone call with his wife, Debra Ann, on September 11, 2001; she was a trader working on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower that morning when tragedy struck.
“I was on the phone with her when the plane hit,” DiMartino recalled. “I told her, ‘Please get out.’” But somehow he knew she wouldn’t make it.
The months that followed were unlike any other DiMartino had ever experienced. He was suddenly a widower, with two little girls to raise. Fortunately, he had a supportive mother in law and family at his side to help care for the girls and keep him going. But, he said, “I was like a zombie.”
He described Debra Ann as a great mom and wife, a sweet, kind, thoughtful person who was very close to her mother. “If she had something on her mind, she’d let you know. There was nothing phony about her,” he said. “She was beautiful.”
That first Christmas after his wife’s death, DiMartino retreated to her sister’s home in Florida—abandoning a family tradition of creating an outdoor Christmas display, and leaving his Charleston home, on Staten Island’s South Shore, dark.
“I ran away to Florida, but that was wrong,” DiMartino recalled. “I made a promise to myself then that I wouldn’t run away from this…that I can’t let terrorists win. I swore that I would light it up bigger and better every year in her memory.”
DiMartino, who hails from Brooklyn, said a large outdoor light display was a memorable part of his and his parents’ lives. His father, a long shore man, and his uncle would put together a striking display each year.
A graduate of William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, DiMartino got on board as a young man.
“I just took a liking to it. We had the molds that lit up. Then I decided to put a little bit of animation into it. I went to Disney, to “It’s a Small World,” and fell in love with animatronics.”
While those pieces were hard to find in the 1970s, DiMartino managed to amass a collection of animatronic pieces over the years.
After that lost Christmas of 2001, he decided to make his display bigger and better than ever, but he wanted to do more than just put smiles on the faces of visitors; he ventured to discover how his passion could benefit the community more broadly.
At the time, his sister, Marie, was working as a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital. Together they decided that a wonderful way to give back would be to collect donations at the display and then give the money to the hospital’s Nalitt Institute Outpatient Children’s Cancer Unit.
It turned out to be a huge success. Since its inception, the display has brought in $231,000 (not including proceeds from 2017, which haven’t yet been tallied). Additionally, according to DiMartino, a local business, Island Auto Group, matches the first $2,500 raised each year.
“The amount raised is a surprise for the hospital,” noted DiMartino, who has since remarried and makes both the Christmas display and the check presentation with his wife, Marisa.
DiMartino considers himself extremely lucky.
“I was blessed to have found two wonderful women,” he said of Debra Ann and Marisa, who has enthusiastically taken on the role of stepmother to DiMartino’s two daughters Danielle, now 27, and Samantha, 21—and has stepped up to celebrate Debra Ann with the Christmas display.
“The way she honors her,” DiMartino said. “If that’s not a special person, I don’t know who is.” When asked what would Debra Ann think about all of this done in her memory, DiMartino paused for a moment, and smiled.
“She’d be ecstatic about the donations to the hospital,” he said with a smile. “As far as making people walk in our backyard, she would not be happy with that.”
The display has now grown to include DiMartino’s front yard on Sharrotts Road, the side yard, and the backyard (including a room that’s constructed every year over the pool). Now it’s taken over his neighbor’s front yard as well. Each year, thousands flock to the display, which runs from the day after Thanksgiving through the first week of January, to enjoy and catch up on what’s new.
The display begins with a Victorian theme on the driveway, complete with a toy shop and mansion. Then there’s a hoe down barn with dancing dolls, and even a carousel, which DiMartino is particularly proud of. “It’s big, with dolls and horses of different themes,” he said. “It’s the hardest piece to put up, but it’s my favorite.”
The backyard, meanwhile, is transformed into a winter wonderland, with elves working in a candy cane factory. The scene also boasts a Ferris wheel and a toy shop, where gifts go in unwrapped and come out wrapped. There’s a mechanical train chugging back and forth. The display extends inside the house, to the den, where elves try, in vain, to wake a sleeping Santa Claus.
Putting all of this together is hardly a short term task. DiMartino gets started just after Labor Day about a week earlier than he used to.
“It takes three months to put up. I used to wait until after
“This is what I love to do,” said DiMartino. “I love giving. It’s a win win situation; I keep Debbie’s name alive, help the children, and make people happy.”
And how does the neighborhood feel about the flood of visitors?
“On each side, I have great neighbors. I just took over the front lawn [of one of them]. They are the greatest. We bought the houses together 23 years ago. We sort of grew up together, our kids grew up together, so we’re like family,” DiMartino said.
While it can get overwhelming, with lines of visitors stretching down the block, these neighbors understand that the event honors Debra Ann and raises much needed funds for the hospital, so there are no complaints. And each night, DiMartino cleans up the candy cane wrappers and hot cocoa cups and any other trash left behind by the crowds.
“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I love giving. It’s a win win situation; I keep Debbie’s name alive, help the children, and make people happy.
“After that horrible day, people came out of the woodwork to help me,” he added. “I don’t want people to forget. This is why I do it. I’m touching a lot of people, which is great, and I’m keeping my late wife’s name alive. While I’m here, I need to do what I can.”