Bill Lee stands in his backyard and surveys the handiwork of a man whose goal for 33 years was to make Baker City children smile.
Lee himself grins often, despite the face-freezing wind blowing on this overcast late November afternoon, as he looks at the dozens of colorful Christmas decorations that Sam Bass created and that have delighted thousands of kids, and no small number of adults.
But Lee admits that there is also palpable pressure in following a legend.
Lee emphasizes that he’s not replacing Bass, who died Aug. 28, 2017, at age 75.
Lee said he hopes only to honor and to sustain the beloved holiday tradition that Bass and his wife, Nora, started at their home on 19th Street more than three decades ago.
This was no minor task.
It required, among much else, that Lee make five trips with his pickup truck and utility trailer loaded with the wooden decorations that Sam and Nora made over the years.
And bringing in an electrician to wire in two new 20-amp circuits to handle the kilowatt appetites of thousands of lightbulbs.
And turning the Lee property, which measures 90 feet by 180 feet, into a Christmas wonderland through which hundreds of people will stroll over the next month or so.
“It’s kind of hard to replace 33 years of decorating experience,” Lee, 51, said with a chuckle. “I’ve made some rookie mistakes.”
As an example he stoops to lift a plastic Christmas tree that wasn’t anchored sturdily enough and toppled to the grass.
Although Lee acknowledges that location likely played a role in this particular mishap. The wind blows with rather more force at the Lees’ home at 3645 Birch St., on the east side of town near Interstate 84, than in the more sheltered westside neighborhood where the Basses welcomed visitors starting in the 1980s.
Lee said his wife, Shandra, and 9-year-old son, Taylor, were enthusiastic about taking over Baker City’s biggest Christmas display. He said he offered to do so because he knows how many local residents have made the annual visit to the Bass home an integral part of their holiday schedule — the Lee family among them.
“We’ve always made the walkthrough at the Basses,” Lee said.
Lee also went to school with the Basses’ son, Jack Jr.
The display was set up for the final time at the Bass home during the 2017 Christmas season as a tribute to Sam.
That tribute also served a second purpose — a dry run of sorts for Lee, even if it wasn’t at his own home.
“Last year they showed me how to set up the display so I could move it this year to our house,” Lee said.
The decision wasn’t exactly a lark.
The Lees have for many years assembled one of Baker City’s more elaborate displays of decorations and lights at their Birch Street home.
“We’ve always liked decorating and putting up a lot of lights,” Lee said.
But taking on the Bass collection, which includes approximately 200 characters that Sam cut out and that he and Nora hand-painted, most of them featuring characters familiar from cartoons and films, is a considerably more ambitious undertaking.
“He put an enormous amount of time into this,” Lee said, gesturing to the decorations that stretch across his backyard.
Lee understands the extent of Sam’s commitment much better now that he’s more than a spectator who merely enjoyed the fruits of the Bass family’s labors.
After making the five trips to haul the decorations to his home, Lee said he started stringing lights over Labor Day weekend.
“I wanted to get an early start,” he said.
See more in the Nov. 28, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.