Del Lacey’s artwork is found throughout Benicia, although many people don’t realize he created the logos and characters they see.
His talent is behind the logos for several agencies, including the Benicia Historical Museum and the City. “You see it on your water bill,” Del says. “Just don’t blame me for the bill itself.” He also created the smiling frog that is the mascot of the library’s Trivia Bee, and he’s working on his 20th adaptation of that character for the 2011 fundraiser.
And each December, hundreds of people visit the characters displayed on the lawns of Sorrell Court, better known as the Disney Court.
Del is quick to point out that the seven families created their own figures – he just put some finishing touches on them. He insists he’s not the creator of the beloved Benicia holiday tradition.
“This is all my neighbor Wendy’s fault,” he says, his trademark grin spreading across his face. “I can’t take much credit. I have my hands on every piece, but I’m the victim here. I went into this kicking and screaming.”
Neighbor Wendy Portolos doesn’t remember it that way, just as Del predicted.
“He’s the culprit, but we all did it together,” she says, although she admits other neighbors also hold her responsible as they set up the display each year.
“Hey, just look at the artwork and put blame where it belongs,” she says, also laughing.
Del, 57, grew up in Benicia, playing in its fields and along its shore. “I used to go to Boy Scout meetings at the Harvey’s house – the mansion on West K,” he says. “We played pool on a slate pool table with a moose head hanging on the wall.”
He is the oldest of five children who were nurtured by their creative mother and other imaginative relatives. He graduated from Benicia High in 1971 and attended Solano Community College until he joined the city’s Planning Department in 1973. He retired after 35 years and now works part time as an artist for Trader Joe’s in Concord. He loves his 1965 Mustang and old cars in general, his many friends and especially his family. He lives in Benicia with his wife, Katie.
Have you always drawn?
I was your typical nerdy kid – I drew all the time, built model airplanes. I’ve got drawings that I did back in kindergarten. My mother saved them and gave them to me 5 or 10 years ago. One of them is a fire truck; another is my grandfather in his 1950 Plymouth.
Did you think you’d grow up to be an artist?
I grew up thinking I would be a pirate. We moved in with my grandparents on West K Street when I was very young. … Across the street was the bay with no houses there, just mud, rocks, clams, and dead fish. So I’d watch Popeye and think I’d be a pirate.
Did you take art classes?
In my senior year, four of my classes were art classes. Our art teacher was Rebecca Calpe. She was probably 25 to 30 years old, and she got us. You couldn’t fool her. She was a wonderful teacher – she was a hippie art teacher. … I know she was disappointed when I went to work for the city. She thought art was everything.
How did you become a city employee?
Lee Syracuse, who was working in the Planning Department as a contractor then, asked my friend Jeff Dennis … if he knew anyone who could draw, and Jeff thought of me. …
I had all this long hair and holes in my jeans and I looked like Arlo Guthrie, and Lee looked at me and said, “Son, can you draw these old buildings so we can show landlords what they could look like?” and I said, “Sure.” One thing about Lee, he saw the potential of downtown Benicia early on. …
My interview with the city manager consisted of him asking me if I’d ever been arrested. I told him no, and I was hired.
What all did you do during your 35 years with the Planning Department?
My job title was planning assistant, then graphic illustrator. Over the years, people learned to do their own graphics on the computer, and by then I’d learned the zoning code. So I started working the counter. I wanted to help people who weren’t sure what to do. …
I spent 35 years in the same building. My desk ended up in the same place where I started – well, within 5 feet of where my first desk was. I worked at five different locations in the building and, off and on, I worked with more than 100 different people.
What do you do at Trader Joe’s?
The fun thing about Trader Joe’s is that I get to do what I like. I’m there two or three days a week. The first year … I was doing production stuff – making point-of-purchase signs, those tiny signs for every product. Each one is done individually. …
Now I’m working the register half of the time, and I get to do larger projects. I built the airplane and the guy climbing the cliff for the Clif Bars.
When did the Disney display start?
It started around 1987 or ’88. The first year we didn’t realize how much it was going to cost and we had the lights on as soon as the sun went down, all during December. … We won a $300 prize that first year and we donated it to CAC. Then, a couple of weeks later, we got our PG&E bills.
We do it now for about two weeks. People start worrying because it’s not up – but that’s because it costs about $100 per house for those two weeks. …
In the early years, each family might add a figure every year or so. That first 10 years, I’d spend all Thanksgiving weekend in a cold, damp garage with eggnog and brandy and my paintbrush.
How did you choose the characters to go in your front yard?
My daughter chose a couple of her favorites – Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty. I picked Geppetto because I wanted something big to go in the driveway to hide this big, stupid garage door.
Sleeping Beauty has a whole 60s art style, very architectural, angular and hip in a Mad Men kind of way. But Pinocchio is very warm, rounded and soft. They both reflect the time they were made. I think those Disney illustrators were the hip guys of their time.
Are any changes likely in the future?
I’d like to spiff them up a little bit, restore them. But that would take a couple hundred hours and I’m not sure when I can do it.
How do you spend your extra time now that you’re retired?
I’m not sure I have any extra time (laughing).
I do spend more time with my wife. I have folding chairs, an ice chest and blankets in my trunk all the time, and on a whim, we go to Santa Cruz and watch the waves all afternoon. Katie is my foundation. Every artist needs a firm foundation, and she is mine.
The Disney display on Sorrell Court will be a bright spot on dark winter nights this year with the absence of the high-wattage Adobe display.
Adobe’s decision to skip decorating this year is a sign of the economic times, Adobe director Pat Purvis says.
“We’re going to do it next year,” he promises. “It’s gotten to be a very costly event for us and with the economy down, we just aren’t able to do it this year.” He estimates the display costs about $15,000 a year for replacement bulbs and other supplies, the electric bill and ceremony expenses.
“Also, we’re not able to do jobs through the season because we have to start working on this on Sept. 1. It takes about 900 man hours to put everything up, start to finish,” Pat says.
Another Benicia standard, the Winter Wonderland yard decorating contest, ended in 2008 after more than 10 years. The Coldwell Banker Solano Pacific competition started in the mid-1990s, a couple of years after Southampton discontinued its similar Home for the Holidays contest, says Rod Herman. Herman handled public relations for Southampton when it launched the decorating contest, and suggested Coldwell Banker resume the competition when he joined the brokerage. The real estate company produced a map each year so people could drive to see the elaborate displays.
As the number of entries declined, the real estate agency decided to discontinue the contest, explained Richard Bortolazzo, co-owner of Coldwell Banker. “It’s kind of sad that it petered out,” he says. “My general impression is that many of them still do it, but just stopped entering in part because you couldn’t be a repeat winner.”
The original contest spurred the homeowners on Sorrell Court to start the Disney display in the late 1980s. The seven homeowners selected characters for their individual yards, cut the plywood and did the initial painting on each of the pieces. Del Lacey did the final highlighting, shading and inking to finish each character.
Neighbors put up the figures from Beauty and the Beast, 101 Dalmations, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Pinocchio and other Disney classics for about two weeks each December. Look for the characters to reappear about a week before Christmas, says neighbor Wendy Portolos.