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On These Trees, Only the Kitsch Is Evergreen

Associated Press
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page C12

BREVARD, N.C. -- The guest book was blank on a recent December morning at the world's only museum for aluminum Christmas trees.

What was impossible to tell was if no one was visiting -- or they were simply too ashamed to admit having visited a shrine to holiday tackiness.

Elvis lives, at the aluminum Christ- mas tree museum in North Carolina. (Alan Marler -- AP)

What began as a joke in 1991, with a single shiny tree retrieved from the trash, has become an obsession for curator Stephen Paul Jackson. The affable 48-year-old home designer confesses to fond feelings for his collection of eversilver trees.

"I really like the retro look of the 1950s," Jackson said as he led a lone visitor on a tour of the museum, which fills part of the lobby of a college music hall in this town in North Carolina's western mountains. "As a designer, I like their simplicity. They don't try to compete with a real tree."

When Jackson started his collection 13 years ago, raising his lone voice in defense of the fake Christmas tree, he unwittingly started a movement.

"I have a group of volunteers and fans who expect to see this every year," he said. "I can't let them down."

If it is schlock they want, Jackson is only too happy to oblige -- often dressed in a vintage maroon-and-gold paisley sport coat that would be right at home on the set of the latest "Austin Powers" movie.

Jackson struggles to keep a straight face as he recites the full name of his museum: the Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center, or ATOM for short.

This year's collection consists of 30 trees. Jackson even put the ATOM satellite museum on tour by shipping 25 more trees to a friend who is displaying them in Nashville.

In the foyer of Brevard College's Porter Center for the Performing Arts, vintage Christmas music floats through Jackson's treasure grove of silver, green and blue trees.

The "Elvis Tree" has photos of the King hanging from its branches. The "Toilet Tree" has copper-colored floats for ornaments and is adorned with strands of pink, yellow and blue shower curtain connectors. The tree skirt is a toilet seat cover, and there's a matching knitted cover for a spare role of TP.

The "Election Bush" has a political theme, and was particularly popular four years ago, during the Florida recount, Jackson said. "We decorated it with swinging chads."

The peak of holiday season tackiness may be Jackson's "Tammy Faye Tree," complete with the onetime televangelist's signature false eyelashes, a pair of pink high heels and ornaments from Heritage USA, the Christian theme park near Charlotte that she and former husband Jim Bakker operated in the late 1980s.

"Someone gave me a whole box of these a few years back," Jackson said, showing off the golden balls that depict Jim and Tammy Faye. "I gave them away as presents until I figured out they were valuable."

For some reason, people like to give stuff to Jackson. Most of his fake trees were gifts from neighbors, friends and even total strangers.

"The first tree I got came from a friend who found it in a neighbor's trash," he said. "I thought it was funny, so I had a tacky-ornament tree-trimming party. . . . When I moved here in 1993, I brought the tradition with me."

The party soon outgrew Jackson's living room, so he relocated the display, first to the American Legion hall and then other locations in Brevard. This year Jackson accepted an offer from the college to put his trees in the music hall lobby.

Despite the absence of names in the guest book, Jackson said the museum averages about 100 visitors per day, many of them attending concerts or other events.

The museum, open Tuesday through Saturday through the holiday season, even has the requisite gift shop. Visitors can purchase packets of aluminum tree "seeds" and "seedlings."

"It shows just how long it takes for these trees to grow," Jackson joked. "There are some people who look at these, and they don't get it. That kind of worries me."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company