When it comes to designer Christmas trees, the folks at Baltimore's Fandango Productions know no bounds, which is why the creations they donate to the annual Festival of Trees are usually show-stoppers.
But for the 2009 festival, set for this weekend at the state fairgrounds in Timonium, the creative minds at Fandango surprised everyone. They went traditional, tastefully placing an assortment of red and gold ornaments on a tree that would be right at home in even the most conservative household. They call their tree "Fandango Goes Traditional (For a Change)."
"Yeah, that was my idea," says Alan Randall, who has spearheaded the company's tree-design team for 10 years now. "We had never done that before, so I figured, you know, let's do it."
Not to worry, however. Fandango hasn't gone all staid and decorous all of a sudden. Its five-tree "grove" at the festival also includes "Snoopy Goes Christmas," featuring a wooden doghouse and a scraggly Norfolk Island pine tree, from which a single red ball hangs; "Do You Believe In Elves?" a tribute to those cookie-baking Keebler elves, complete with a tray of chocolate-chip cookies; and the tumultuously colorful "We Wish You an Abstract Christmas," a tree mounted on a backboard splotched with paint, as though it has just gone a couple of rounds with Jackson Pollock.
Those and 153 other 7-foot-tall artificial trees, all decorated stump-to-crown by some of Baltimore's most creative minds, will be on display inside the fairgrounds' Cow Palace from Friday through Sunday. All are for sale, at prices ranging from $125 to $500, with proceeds benefiting Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute. Smaller 2-foot-high decorated trees will also be for sale, as well as wreaths and gingerbread houses - more than 500 individually designed pieces in all.
"If I spent my whole life trying, I couldn't come up with some of the designs these people do," says Lainy LeBow-Sachs, executive vice president of external affairs at Kennedy Krieger. "Even if you don't buy one - which we, of course, want you to do - it's fun to just look at them."
Last year, 36,000 people visited the festival. In the 20 years Kennedy Krieger has been organizing the annual event, more than $16 million has been raised.
"We do this totally for the families," says LeBow-Sachs. "That's why we do this, why we don't do galas. It's always about the families."
The trees are a varied lot, ranging from the tastefully sublime to the proudly outrageous. Cardboard cutouts of the entire "Peanuts" gang surround one tree, while another is decorated with all things Baltimore, including balls depicting the ubiquitous Mr. Boh and crab shells painted in Orioles and Ravens colors - even one proudly displaying the Berger cookies logo. There's a "Wizard of Oz" tree, complete with the wizard's balloon and Dorothy's wind-blown house (beneath which the unfortunate Wicked Witch of the East's feet stick out, encased in fuzzy ruby-red socks). There's a tree decorated by the crew of the Pride of Baltimore II, called "Have a Boom Boom Christmas," that's being shot out of a toy cannon.
Even the Marine Auxiliary decorated a tree, festooned in pictures and slogans that would be right at home in the nearest recruitment office.
Not all the trees are so outrageous, of course. Plenty are simply traditional Christmas trees, decorated using tried-and-true holiday themes with less idiosyncratic appeal.
"We try to stay within a theme that we would put in our home," says Susan Dumler, who for the past 12 years has been decorating trees with her mom and two sisters. "We actually don't go out on a limb, we don't go that far out of the box. The pretty aspect is kind of what draws us into our creations."
Their tree this year, "The Holly and the Ivy," uses carefully placed sprigs of artificial holly and ivy to create an outdoors atmosphere. The tree, Dumler notes, has been decorated in honor of her sister, Holly Smith, who died in 2006.
"We're just a family that likes to get involved," says Dumler, who estimates she and her fellow decorators - mom Anita Kemp and sisters Cheri Guariglia and Wendy Engelhaupt - spent about $500 getting materials for their tree.
"For what is put into these trees," she says, "people are getting a great deal."
Despite its name, however, the Festival of Trees isn't all about trees. Rather, it's about Christmas in all sorts of forms. Kids can ride on reindeer (actually ponies, but the kids don't have to know), take a spin on a carousel or watch a model train garden. Adults can go gift shopping among the festival's 100 vendors. If celebrities are more your style, Cal Ripken Jr. will be making an appearance at 5 p.m. Saturday to relate his favorite holiday story. And Santa, of course, will be there all weekend.
Deborah Novotny of Timonium says she volunteers to help set up just so she can get an advance look at everything. For her, the annual festival, as well as the gingerbread house she and her daughter, Maddi Macechko, design every year, has become a most welcome family tradition. "We've been coming here since my daughter was 3, and she's 13 now," Novotny says. "She actually begs me to do this every year."
If you go
The 20th annual Festival of Trees takes place at the state fairgrounds in Timonium, 2200 York Road, in the Cow Palace. Hours are Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and children 5-12; children under 5 are free. Call 443-923-7300 or go to festivaloftrees.kennedykrieger.org.