Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

Hollyrock Brings Tinseltown to 28th Street

By Olivia Boler

If you've ever strolled around the hills of Noe Valley, you may have run across a rather curious house on 28th Street between Diamond and Castro. Of course, there are many interesting homes in Noe Valley, but none are quite as unusual as Hollyrock, particularly around the holidays.

Every December for the past 19 years, Donnie Tinsley, who lives in the 500 block of 28th Street, has transformed his steeply hilled front yard into a winter wonderland. Santa Claus and a reindeer-powered sleigh grace the balcony. Lights of every color and shape run over the eaves, down the front staircase, and into the plants and trees. Elves peek out from behind the aloe vera. Giant candy canes grow out of the ground as if a child's sugarplum dreams had come true. Penguins inhabit an igloo near the base of the stairs gazing up at the ever-present white letters HOLLYROCK, which remind one of that Tinseltown icon in Los Angeles, HOLLYWOOD.

It all started in 1981, when Tinsley was asked to organize designer Vidal Sassoon's Christmas party. Tinsley had moved to San Francisco from Atlanta in 1978. In 1979, he found his dream house on 28th Street and moved in.

"I'd always thrown small parties at Christmas," Tinsley says. "Vidal Sassoon and I had mutual friends, and they couldn't find a venue for his party. So, I thought, why not have it here?"

Tinsley knew Sassoon had some friends who might get a little wild, so he made the party very formal. Renting glassware and a dance floor, which he put in the dining area, Tinsley made the theme of the party "Black and White." A tree flocked in black ribbons, blue glitter, white pearls, and clear glass balls dominated the living room. "People were dressed to the nines," says Tinsley. "They were on their best behavior."

From then on, Tinsley's Christmas party became the highlight of the holiday season. Each year, he sends invitations to his closest friends. One year, he sent out "time cards." Each guest was instructed to decorate his time card and then "punch in" on arrival. Tinsley has kept the cards in a timecard holder, some of them trimmed in sequins, others with decoupage.

Occasionally, Tinsley gets surprise visitors on party night.

"People see the bubbles--there are bubbles that float out into the street during the party--and they wander up the stairs out of curiosity. I tell them to come on back and grab a drink!"

Tinsley is notorious for jumping in the shower and leaving a friend in charge just when the party is about to start. One year he turned off the water to the sound of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus caroling in his living room.

Tinsley starts planning his Christmas decorations in the summer, because that is the best time to work outside. Over the years, through trial and error, he has figured out which decorations work and which should be retired for posterity. "It's a science," quips Tinsley.

He begins by cleaning the yard and sorting his tools and tool cabinet. He looks at photos of Hollyrock from Christmases past, trying to figure out what he wants to do differently. Then he pulls the decorations out of storage from under the house. He usually starts stringing the lights the last weekend of November, and Hollyrock is in full garland by Dec. 1.

"I've never had a major accident with the decorations, although one winter I had put these icicles painted on wood board on the eaves. That night there was a storm, and whole pieces--eight feet tall--were torn away. A few days later, my next-door neighbor who had been away on vacation found them--they had blown up to his balcony."

Tinsley has integrated many of the decorative elements into what one of his neighbors has dubbed Ice Mountain. Ice Mountain often harbors the penguins and the elf village.

Over the years, Hollyrock's neighbors have graciously let Tinsley use their front yards and electrical power. Tinsley's house does not have any outside outlets, but his neighbors' houses do. If they notice the increase in their December electric bills, they don't say anything to him, and have always turned down his offers of money.

In fact, complete strangers have offered Tinsley money for the delight Hollyrock has given them. One year, a woman left a card with a $20 check in his mailbox. Tinsley invited her to the Christmas party, and she's been attending ever since. He's received bottles of wine, along with thank-you notes for all the cheer Hollyrock has brought during the holidays.

Carolers often videotape their performances outside the house. Channel 2 News has used Hollyrock as a backdrop for its weather reports. One year a limo pulled up in front of the house, and a girl jumped out. "Are you Donnie?" she asked, and when Tinsley confirmed that he was, she brought him a glass of champagne from her car.

Surprisingly, the holidays depress Tinsley, which is why he likes to keep as busy as possible. His childhood in Tennessee influenced his zest for holiday decorating as well. Tinsley's parents decorated their house every year, often keeping their son busy by having him paint elves that his mother drew. One year, his mother cut over 500 five-point stars out of cardboard, covered them in foil, and hung them on the roof of their house. The next year, she cut holes in the center of the stars and added Christmas lights.

Tinsley's parents divorced when he was 10, and the holiday decorating ended. After his stepfather died, Tinsley went back to Tennessee and retrieved the family's Santa and reindeer. A friend helped him paint and shellac the original paper images on wood, and Tinsley has used them on Hollyrock ever since.

Tinsley used to host elf-painting parties. Many of the elves in his yard have special meaning, reminding him of particular friends while at the same time charming complete strangers.

"It's fun for me," Tinsley says as he kicks a small ball for his Schnauzer Astro to chase across the kitchen. "It's like being in a parade in reverse, seeing the parade of cars go by." Sometimes people venture up the stairs to take pictures, but Tinsley doesn't mind.

"Every year, I say this is the last year I will do a big party," says Tinsley with a sigh. "This year, the party happens to fall on my birthday, and it's the Millennium Party. So I think this is really the last year."

Tinsley reflects for a moment. "But as long as my health is good, I'll continue to do the decorations."