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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

Lights at NELA Park

A Cleveland Christmas Tradition

Written by Celeste Zirm

The holiday season means an uptick in gatherings with friends and family, filled with laughter and stories: some we’ve heard a million times and others we’ve never heard before. While visiting with my grandpa, Tom Zirm, shortly after his 80th birthday, he told me about the decade of his life that he worked at the National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) Park, designing and putting up the famed Christmas lights display. I had never heard this story before, but I knew that NELA Park’s Christmas Lights display is an iconic Cleveland tradition that’s been going on for nearly 100 years. So, I decided to take notes about his part in the city’s tradition.

"NELA Park’s Christmas Lights display is an iconic Cleveland tradition that’s been going on for nearly 100 years."

Tom Zirm started working for General Electric at NELA Park in 1964 and stayed until 1974. He had just received his engineering papers and was excited to work for GE because that was “where they made almost everything electrical for the entire world to use.” Zirm fondly remembers driving through the displays as a little kid and seeing all of the lights with his family, so he thought it was an honor to help create a tradition for other families in Cleveland to enjoy. About his time working there, Zirm reminisced that “it was a beautiful place that looked like a garden. There was no cement anywhere, the walkways were all red brick.” NELA Park was the first of its kind when it came to industrial parks. They maintained beautiful facilities, good cafeterias, a barber shop, a library, baseball fields and an auditorium, all for employees to enjoy. 

Perhaps the thing they are most known for now is their beautiful and expansive Christmas lights display. Since NELA Park manufactured lights, the Christmas lights display was a natural way for GE to promote their products. According to Zirm, all of the lights on display were made in-house and many were available for retail sale, so it was a great way for the company to advertise their product’s power and beauty, while also showing off the park grounds. 

Zirm said that he and the team would start planning the display in June every year. “We had to plan how we were getting power to all the displays. How are we getting the lights on the buildings? Where is everything going to go so that it makes sense from an electrical standpoint?” In between creating the Christmas display, Zirm also worked as an electrician in the plant doing anything and everything they needed him to do. If the power went out, he would go check all the different stations to see where the problem was and why they weren’t operating correctly, then figure out how to solve it. 

Every year, NELA Park created a new display for the public to enjoy. While this was a great opportunity for the lighting designers and engineers to flex their creative muscles and try new things, it also came along with plenty of challenges. Zirm recalled one year when it rained what felt like nonstop for six weeks while they put the lights up. Zirm said they went to turn the system on for the season and heard a horrible noise: the whole system had shut down. Working outside in the rain for that long had made them all sick too, so trying to troubleshoot how to get it all back up and running quickly was not a fun time. 

The electrical team did a lot of problem-solving regarding the lights display. One of Zirm’s favorite stories was the solution to fixing their light-up Mickey Mouse. The Mickey display had a mechanism to allow it to wave across the road to Minnie Mouse. Of course this was early animatronic technology, so it was pretty glitchy. The technology used to make his arm wave was actually a sewing machine motor, but being outside during Cleveland winters meant it had a lot of exposure to cold and wet weather. This ultimately wore the machine down to the point that it didn’t work, which was wholly unacceptable to Zirm and the team. They ended up using a rubber band to keep the mechanism in place, proving that they always found creative solutions to keep everything running and looking perfect for the public. 

Another year, someone had the idea to light up all of the buildings. This became a logistical issue because they had to figure out how to drape the sheets of lights over the buildings in a way that was structurally sound. Zirm said he recalls going up on scaffolding 40 feet in the air to attach the lights to the roof so they would hang down. Various parking lots were closed during the months they put everything up to become staging centers for all the lights and ladders to be arranged. 

This holiday season, you can check out the NELA Park lights for yourself in East Cleveland. Once upon a time, you could actually drive through the campus to see the lights, but the view from Noble Road is still exciting and will definitely put you in the Christmas spirit. 

I am so amazed at everything I learned while listening to my grandpa’s story. I encourage you to listen to your own grandparents and relatives stories this season, even if sometimes the delivery doesn’t  make sense or you’ve heard them so many times you could tell it verbatim. I had no idea my grandpa was a part of such a cool tradition, and who knows what else I don’t know about him and all my family members. This holiday season, I know I will spend more time talking with my relatives and asking them about their lives. You never know what they might have been a part of.


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