SCHENECTADY – One early afternoon last week, Samantha and Dion Bagnato sat in the living room of their Victorian cottage at 2532 Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady and talked about why they were going to so much trouble.
— Why they spend a few days a month — every month, every 12, without fail — tearing down the decorations for one party (or theme) and moving on to another, lighting up the front of their house for the pleasure of motorists and pedestrians.
— Why they’ve been doing it for over 40 years and still enjoying it.
“And, as Dion explains, why it tends to get bigger every year.
If you pass by their home over the next few weeks, you’ll see their colorful Easter display, with large plastic eggs hanging from branches and, at night, purple lights illuminating the yard and house.
What’s so endearing is that it’s not about high-tech decorations stopping you in your tracks. They are traditional displays, crafted from Samantha’s ingenious design sense and Dion’s experience in design, landscaping and electrical.
They are created from materials often purchased out of season or just after the holidays are over when prices are low or on clearance.
So why then?
“We are proud of Schenectady,” Dion said. “We are proud to live in Schenectady. We are proud of our neighborhood and we are proud that people appreciate it. The “why” is relatively simple. We believe in Schenectady.
“We grew up here,” Samantha said.
And they did more than that.
Samantha taught fashion design and merchandising for many years at Mount Pleasant High School and Linton High School and later at the Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) in Colonie. She began her teaching career in 1971 and retired in 2001. She also ran Samantha’s sewing room on Van Vranken Avenue from 1985 to 1992 as a second job, working on wedding dresses , touch-ups and more.
Dion taught science and math in the Shenendehowa Central School District from 1970 to 2015 in middle and elementary schools. And for over 30 years he ran Spring Fever Landscaping in Schenectady during the summers.
“Every summer he was miserable; he didn’t have enough to do,” Samantha said. “He went to the library and got some books on landscaping and he said, ‘I’m going to do it, but I can’t do it now because I have to have a tiller and a decent lawn mower and we can’t afford that now.’
“So all winter I did touch-ups and put the money in an envelope,” she says.
Months later, she handed him the envelope with money for the equipment, bringing tears to his eyes. He promised to get the money back and make a profit.
And the name of the company?
“I told him you always say you have spring fever, so you might as well call it that, and he did,” Samantha recalled.
Decorating also started decades ago.
“The first year we made the porch with pillars with plastic tape to look like candy canes and we had a wreath and an artificial tree,” Samantha said. “It has been added year after year.
“We would find something that was on sale during the summer which was Christmas, and we would buy it and put it away until Christmas.”
Samantha had also collected an abundance of items for her classes from thrift stores, flea markets, and other sources that they could use to decorate. Many of them adorn the 3ft x 7ft shrub covers in front of the house.
Dion tells the stories of the big Easter eggs and the huge sugar pine cones.
“At the end of each season there is display material available which you can acquire for a nominal cost,” he said.
They noticed one year that the Glenville Price Chopper had “huge sugar pine cones” for sale as part of arrangements. “None of them were sold,” he said, noting that they may have been due for disposal on Boxing Day.
“On the 26th we showed up at 7am and bought them all for $2 each. We ended up with 24 of them,” he said with a smile.
Another year, they noticed that craft store Michaels was selling huge plastic Easter eggs, with two smaller eggs inside each large egg. “They were marked at $34 for the set,” Dion said. “We bought 14 the day after Easter for $2 each.
“We thought if it works and they bring joy to someone, we can pass it on.”
The 12 screens
Their holiday displays change at the end of each month and stay on throughout the month. Here are the monthly themes:
— January: Money and snowflakes
— February: Valentine’s Day, with red lighting
— March: St. Patrick’s Day, all in green
— April: Easter. Dion discovered that if you stream red and blue spotlights together, you get purple
— May: lily of the valley flowers
— June: Roses
—JJuly : The 4th of July and patriotism, all in red, white and blue
— August: Sunflowers
— September: Apples and back to school
— October: Halloween, with pumpkins and ornamental kale (from Schoharie) lining the aisle
— November: Thanksgiving, corn stalks, large pumpkins, large gourds, scarecrow
— December: Christmas
Change of seasons
After Easter, annuals and perennials share the limelight along the sidewalk, front foundation and in the “snow guard,” the area between the sidewalk and the road.
In the snow guard, Dion digs holes for three large pots that serve as “sleeves” to insert smaller pots of decorations. Before the big snowstorms, he removes the pots with the decorations, then after the storm, digs the holes and puts them back.
In the summer, they grow begonias (six different colors), lily of the valley, tall red canas, impatiens, petunias, hydrangeas (“Endless Summer” variety) and more. They have two crimson maples and one Japanese maple.
A few odds and ends on their decorations:
“Theft or loss wasn’t a problem, unless you count the little reindeer that blew over Christmas and was never found. Bright lights and security system are deterrent to mischief.
— Dion uses 100-watt LED floodlights on the yard and house, 22 in all, controlled by photocell timers. The Bagnatos moved into the house in 1976 (it was built in 1903). They have since upgraded the electrical system.
– Everything is firmly fixed. “It was a lesson in learning and growing,” Dion said. “We learned over time that everything had to be secure, everything had to be checked.” Things are fixed with erosion staples. Many light fixtures are mounted on rebar.
– How long does it take? “A posting like this takes a day and a half,” Dion said.
— Storage is a whole other matter. “We have to maintain [the decorations], store them and keep them dry,” Dion said. They have dozens of 3-foot-long storage boxes with lids labeled according to season.
In addition to their pride in Schenectady, the Bagnatos, now both in their seventies, say they love the tradition of decoration.
Dion says that as teachers, “we both learned that it was important to lead by example. It took time to make things presentable, and we were encouraged by people who appreciated that.
“There were people complimenting us on the work and that inspired us to do it,” Samantha said. “It started when people would drive by, honk their horns and give a thumbs up in the car, and then people would stop and say, ‘Your house looks so nice.’ ”
“We had occasions when people visited us on the porch,” Dion said. “An elderly lady who comes from Clifton Park to go to the doctor came, rang, gave us sweets and thanked us for the presentation.
“And we received an anonymous letter expressing the joy we bring to passers-by.”
They also hang a banner on the porch thanking essential workers.
“About two months ago a woman parked across the street and took pictures,” Dion said. “She said she was a nurse at Ellis Hospital and liked our banner.”
Because of COVID, Dion said the past two years have been the hardest because they couldn’t entertain themselves at home and things were more subdued.
But that didn’t stop them.
“It’s for fun and enjoyment,” Samantha said.
“It’s tradition,” added Dion. “The idea that people have traditions and can share them with other people.”
And as Samantha was quick to note, “As long as we can make it happen, we’ll always do something.”
Note: The Bagnatos house is located at the northeast end of Van Vranken Avenue, just before it becomes Aqueduct Road in Niskayuna.
More: Life & Arts | All Schenectady
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Life and Arts, Schenectady