Jennings Osborne, multimillionaire known for extravagant Christmas displays, dies at 67

Jennings Osborne, 67, a wealthy Arkansas philanthropist whose fascination with Christmas displays — and love for his only daughter — led him to transform his suburban home into a 3.2-million-light yuletide extravaganza and inspired similar celebrations at Walt Disney World and Graceland, died July 27 at a hospital in Little Rock. He had complications from heart surgery that took place April.

Mr. Osborne, who resembled Santa Claus in heft and largess, was a self-made multimillionaire who gave away much of his fortune to charity.

A microbiologist by training, he opened a prescription drug testing laboratory in 1968 that grew to become one of the premier human-trial research facilities in the industry.

Yet it was his Christmas spectacle — garish to some, festive to many and blinding to all — that brought him nationwide popularity.

He began his annual display in 1986 at the request of his daughter, who was born after his wife’s fifth miscarriage.

Initially, he strung up modest decorations on a wall that bordered his two-acre property in Little Rock. Each year, however, his display grew exponentially.

At its peak, it included a huge glowing globe, a flashing Santa sleigh and a flickering 70-foot Christmas tree that the self-titled “king of white trash” had erected on top of his 22,000-square-foot home.

The nightly show reportedly burned so bright that pilots could see Mr. Osborne’s house from 80 miles away.

An Arkansas Power and Light spokesman told The Washington Post in 1993 that Mr. Osborne’s display in December used as much electricity as the average Little Rock home consumes in an entire year.

In 1991, Mr. Osborne flipped on his display and blew out a transformer, darkening part of his neighborhood a la Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” After that, the power company assigned his home its own transformer.

Every December, Mr. Osborne’s decorations attracted as many as 30,000 visitors, including past Arkansas governors Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee.

One couple got married in Mr. Osborne’s yard, basking in the ruby glow of his Christmas lights.

“A lot of people in Little Rock and surrounding areas will never get to go to Disney World,” Mr. Osborne said. “I sort of brought Disney World to them.”

But not every Little Rock resident was warmed by Mr. Osborne’s extravagant Christmas spirit. The cars that parked along Mr. Osborne’s street at night tangled traffic around his house for miles. Gathering crowds trampled flower beds and abused the sovereignty of his neighbors’ lawns. (Mr. Osborne purchased both houses next to his estate to expand his display and calm the neighbors’ frustration.)

In 1993, a group of neighbors filed a lawsuit, calling his display a public nuisance. Mr. Osborne lost the case and had to take down most of his decorations. He appealed the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court, to no avail. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case.

Not long afterward, Mr. Osborne was contacted by Disney executives who wanted to continue his tradition. The company sent four 18-wheelers, and Mickey Mouse, to his home to pick up more than 2 million lights.

Many of his decorations still shine every Christmas season in Orlando as part of the “Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.”

Until his death, Mr. Osborne sponsored Christmas displays in more than two dozen towns across the country. He also decorated the Plains, Ga., home of former president Jimmy Carter and helped pay for a lights display at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis.

Mr. Osborne apparently couldn’t resist placing a 12-foot dancing Elvis on top of a Christmas tree.

“I can’t do anything in moderation,” Mr. Osborne explained.

William Jennings Bryan Osborne Jr. was born Sept. 21, 1943, in Fort Smith, Ark.

He was a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he studied medical technology and microbiology. He sold his research company in 2004 for $24 million.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Mitzi Udouj Osborne, and his daughter, Allison Brianne “Breezy” Osborne-Wingfield, both of Little Rock; and a sister.

Mr. Osborne’s magnanimity was well known beyond the holiday season. He sponsored fireworks shows every Fourth of July and hosted barbecue charity benefits in his back yard. He often covered funeral costs on behalf of poor local families and crime victims.

He collected knives, bullwhips and ventriloquist dolls.

“I don’t belong to the country club. I don’t go to high-profile parties,” Mr. Osborne once said. “I am content cracking my bullwhips or throwing my knives or talking with my ventriloquist dolls.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.