A very Copeland Christmas: Remembering Al Copeland’s Christmas lights
Al Copeland grew up in poverty, but he certainly made up for lost time. Just before Christmas 1974, two years after opening his first Popeyes restaurant, Copeland decorated his Metairie manse with a 15-foot Rudolph and an 18-foot snowman, all illuminated by thousands of baby lights. The displays grew over the years into outlandish hodgepodges of lights, music and other trappings of holiday joy, to the delight of thousands of visiting motorists — and to the consternation of his neighbors who had to put up with the traffic that clogged the streets nightly.
Copeland died of cancer on Easter 2008. His family mounted the last light display for that year’s holiday season. In 2010, his dream house on 5001 Folse Drive was torn down, and its doors, fixtures, appliances and other materials were donated to Habitat for Humanity. His son and namesake, Al Copeland Jr., has built a house on the site, said Kit Wohl, the elder Copeland’s longtime spokeswoman.
- Copeland, who grew up in public housing, had a role model for his Christmas décor: the house of Sam and Myra Centanni at 4506 Canal St., which attracted hordes of admirers who made a drive past the Centanni house a local Christmas tradition.
- Sam Centanni, whose given name was Salvador, owned Gold Seal Creamery with his father, Antonio. Myra Centanni started decorating the house and yard in 1946 with a manger scene, and she kept adding items year by year as her fancy dictated. For instance, when the space program was expanding, she put Santa Claus in a moonscape. The ritual continued until her death on Jan. 1, 1967, Lacey Cunningham wrote for neworleanshistorical.org.
- The Centannis’ display inspired the young Copeland, who said he would do something just that grand if he had the money, Wohl said.
- Copeland’s displays grew exponentially, featuring a neon Star of Bethlehem and 10-foot-tall toy soldiers from “The Nutcracker” flanking the front door. Santa and his elves were there, along with angels with blue robes, flowing golden hair and white wings. Orange camels sported red and purple blankets. A snow machine and disco lights were added. One neon banner proclaimed “Peace on Earth,” while another declared, “Merry Christmas, Y’all!”
- Visitors to the Copeland lights, who were directed through the neighborhood by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies, got free popcorn and candy canes, and Christmas music poured out of speakers in front of the house.
- Everything was illuminated except the baby Jesus, said Wohl, explaining that Copeland was exercising the discretion of his Catholic upbringing. However, she said, the holy infant did have a gold-neon halo.
- In addition to Yuletide decorations, Copeland parked some of his toys in front of the house, including a racing boat, a fancy car and the Popeyes helicopter, which was known as the Chicken Chopper.
- Copeland’s Christmas displays attracted attention beyond the New Orleans area. The Washington Post pointed out that Copeland’s 1985 display had about 400,000 lights and cost about $50,000. The National Christmas Tree that year had only 1,200 lights, the newspaper reported.
- Irate neighbors filed lawsuits. Burton Klein, a neighbor and plaintiff, told The Washington Post that Copeland’s display “makes us captives in our own homes,” adding that it was “the right thing in the wrong place.”
- Facing neighborhood opposition and the Legislature’s refusal to protect Copeland from litigation, he eventually moved his display to his corporate headquarters on South Clearview Parkway.
- The lights returned to Folse Drive in 1994. Burton Klein threw the switch to turn them on.
- When Sam Centanni died in 1995, one funeral bouquet stood out because it was a Christmas wreath with twinkling lights. The card read: “To Mr. Sam, the true King of Christmas. From Al Copeland.”
New Orleans loves its characters, and Al Copeland, with his outsize personality, certainly lived up to the expectations of that role. He was, at heart, an overgrown child who had finally earned enough money to let him live out his fantasies, which included speedboat racing, tooling around in a Lamborghini and establishing a Secret Santa program throughout the New Orleans area to ensure that poor children would get gifts on Christmas. His holiday decorations, which grew bigger and more flamboyant by the year, represented an expression of his joy in Christmas and his ability to afford something that would live up to the dreams he had when he saw the Centannis’ displays. New Orleans loved it – and him. Peter Ricchiuti, a Tulane University finance professor, recalled once hearing two men discussing Copeland. While one dismissed his flamboyant ways as clear evidence of new money, the other man said, “If I had money, that’s what I’d do.”