Detail is important to Jeff Norton. The 44-year-old works in the classic car industry. He’s spent most of his professional life tracking down not just the right part but the part. “I sell car parts to help people upgrade their classic vehicles to meet modern specifications,” he said. Doing so means having a near encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles.
Norton’s expertise with cars extends to his favorite film, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “I’ve probably seen the movie a thousand times,” said Norton. This statement would seem like an exaggeration coming from someone else, but with Norton, it could very well be true.
Norton is a California native. He currently lives in La Mirada, a city of 48,000 people about 20 miles Southeast of Los Angeles. Norton is divorced and has two kids, a 16-year-old son and a 15 year-old daughter. When he’s not working with cars cars, he’s painting lawns. La Mirada averages less than 15 inches of precipitation per year with prolonged dry spells that run from late spring to early fall. “People will hire me to touch up their lawn when they’re getting ready to sell it,” said Norton.
Norton grew up in a working-class family that he jokingly refers to as “white trash.” He remembers seeing Vacation for the first time when he was 15. “I thought it was funny, but I’ve come to appreciate it more and more over time,” he said. Each year at Thanksgiving, Norton and his family — dad, mom, sister — would gather around the television and watch the movie. “I remember telling my dad that when I grew up, I was going to decorate my home like Clark Griswold,” said Norton.
The vision that would become Norton’s magnum opus came to him about 15 years ago. “I could see it in my head, but at the time I was married and had a small child,” he said. Norton shelved the idea but never fully pushed it out of his mind. He spent the intervening decade and a half fine-tuning his plan.
Norton is an affable guy. Indeed, a quote on his Facebook profile says, “I like almost everyone.” Norton keeps his brown hair cropped close. He has a voice made of gravel and mirth. Norton is never far from a laugh, and when he does, it comes out as a hoarse wheeze. Another line in his Facebook profile reads, “I say what I am thinking and I really mean what I say.” Norton is direct but his frankness is also self-aware. His social media contains multiple images of him lifting weights in the gym. “That was four years ago,” he said. I drink beer and enjoy life now.”
In September of 2017, Norton decided he’d waited long enough. Norton isn’t sure why he chose that moment to launch his long-envisioned project, but he has a theory. “I told my sister I was trying to find the RV cousin Eddie drove in the movie,” he said. “She laughed and said I was ‘fucking nuts.’” Norton’s sister died unexpectedly not long after. Norton stops short of saying he built the display to honor his sister but he acknowledges the two were close. “She was kind of the cousin Eddie of our family,” he said.
Norton put the word out on Ford message boards but didn’t get any leads. “A couple of months later, I got this weird text that said, ‘I have something you want.’” Norton called the number. “This guy tells me he as an original ’72 Condor that he’s willing to sell me,” he said. Norton traveled 120 miles to a salvage yard just north of the US-Mexico border. “It was all set to be demolished.”
The Condor didn’t run. Norton fixed it up well enough to get it to his home, an 1,100-square-foot, single story house on a cul-de-sac. Norton parked it on the lawn. “My neighbors were not happy,” he said. The police were called on at least two occasions. “It’s against the law in La Mirada to put a car on the lawn,” said Norton. “I got two citations before the police understood what I was up to.”
Norton didn’t stop there. He tracked down the model chainsaw used in the movie — a 1986 McCulloch. Norton purchased a Santa display — Clark Griswold destroys the decoration in a moment of rage — from the original manufacturer. Norton created likenesses of Clark and cousin Eddie, the former donning a hockey mask and carrying a chainsaw, the latter holding the “shitter hose.” “People just started coming by the house,” said Norton. “I had a couple thousand lights on the house and immediately went out and bought more.”
Norton estimates 10,000 people came to see his display last year. One woman gave him jelly — a reference to the movie. The preserves came with a note that said, “to the man who created this masterpiece.”
A masterpiece implies that Norton was finished. For this year’s display, he tracked down a 1989 Ford Escort Wagon. “I’m a little bummed because this is a clone, not an original,” he said. Norton has adorned his house with, “15,000 C9 LED lights.” In the film, Clark Griswold has, “25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights” on his home. “I’m out of room,” said Norton. Griswold’s house has the benefit of an extra story, a problem Norton has contemplated addressing. “I built a faux chimney and thought about building a fake second floor, but then I’d run into more problems with the city,” he said.
It doesn’t snow much in Southern California. Norton has solved this problem by renting six snow machines that pump artificial fluff onto his yard. “I use this mix, and it costs me $25 a gallon, and a gallon only lasts about an hour,” he said. This time around, Norton is also showing the film. A 65-inch television is set up outside, and passersby can tune to a local station to hear the broadcast.
Norton’s attention to detail is something you might find in a museum. He purchased a sand cast of Snot, cousin Eddie’s dog. Snot is aptly named because in the movie he suffers from a sinus infection and is covered in a layer of mucus. “I used Heinz gravy to recreate the look,” said Norton. “People think I’m nuts, and maybe I am, but I think my attention to detail really makes people happy,” said Norton.
There’s an iconic scene in Vacation when Clark and his family go in search of the perfect Christmas tree. They traipse through knee-high snow for what seems like miles until Clark finally finds the one. There’s just one small problem — Clark forgot the chainsaw. The next scene shows the Ford wagon driving down the road with a massive tree on top, roots still attached.
A friend of a friend owned some property nearby and made Norton a deal. “I paid this guy 300 bucks and with that I got the tree and delivery,” he said. Of course, the tree needed to be 18 feet tall — like in the movie — and the roots also had to be attached. “The guy pulled it out of the ground with his tow truck,” said Norton.
Getting the tree on top of the wagon was another matter. The police were called after the tow truck’s fog lights blasted into a neighbor’s window — something Norton immediately apologized for. “The cop could hardly keep a straight face,” said Norton. The 700 pound tree was slowly lowered into place and landed with a soft crunch. “It’s a big son of a bitch, and I thought for sure it was going to crush the car,” said Norton.
Norton isn’t sure but says he wouldn’t be surprised if he had $50,000 invested in the project. He had to take a week off work to get everything done. Some friends came by to help, but Norton did most of the setup himself. “I have this all mapped out and know where everything needs to go,” he said. “It’s been a process of testing and reconfiguring to make sure I don’t blow something up or burn the house down.”
Norton has invested a lot of time, money and thought into this project. Yet, he can’t quite nail down why — why Vacation and why go to these lengths. “Family can be a pain in the ass but this guy [Clark Griswold] just wants to make them happy,” said Norton. “I saw a lot of my family in that movie, and I think a lot of others do too.”
About 500 people came on Friday, December 1 to see Norton turn on his display. Coincidentally, Vacation came out on December 1, 1989. “I actually didn’t plan it that way,” said Norton. Among the group who drove or walked by was a man having relationship troubles. “He told me that he’d seen the display on a blog and thought it would put him in a good mood,” said Norton. “The moment he saw it, he started laughing hysterically.”