Recent Comments

    Tom & Jerry’s Magical Holiday Tree

    By Donna Sachet–

    High atop one of the steepest hills in San Francisco, a glittering holiday tree appears each year, quickly becoming a destination for people from all over the City and beyond. It is not a corporately sponsored or produced decoration, but the loving project of two of San Francisco’s best-known hosts, generous benefactors, and active members of the LGBTQ Community: Dr. Jerome Goldstein & Tom Taylor. Over 65 feet tall and covered with colorful decorations and lights, this tree has become a beacon of holiday joy and a symbol of the very best about this season.

    Tom & Jerry

    Historic photos courtesy of Jerome Goldstein

    But first, who are these gentlemen? Tom is a true San Franciscan, parting ways with most of his biological family in his youth as he came out, but finding a successful career in hairdressing. His proximity to prominent members of San Francisco society led him to various creative projects and a keen sense of the way things worked in this town. With an innately sharp sense of style, he quickly learned carpentry, electrical, and other construction skills that he applied to decorative contracts and later to property management.

    Jerome came from the East Coast, finding great success in the medical field and applying his knowledge and personal passion to the early AIDS epidemic. His work in clinical research has gained great respect and he travels internationally as a speaker and instructor.

    When the two of them got together and moved into their 1920s era cottage on 21st Street, it was the beginning of a magical time. What was once a rather humble cottage grew to become a multi-level home with some of the best views in the City, and they used their success to support organizations that were doing important work for the burgeoning LGBT Community.

    Together for 47 years, Tom & Jerry have surely seen great change in the City they love, but their commitment to their annual holiday tree remains constant. For me, sitting down with them to prepare this article was a revelation, even after knowing them for years. Like any couple, they spar and tease constantly, but their love of each other and genuine pride in this gift to San Francisco are immensely apparent and amazingly real.

    Now, About That Tree!

    Jerome purchased a 3-foot Norfolk Island pine indoor plant at Cost Plus for his apartment during the 1970s, and when the two of them moved in together, along came the tiny tree. Within a few years, it had grown too tall for the house. Without much thought, Tom planted it in front of their home. Like Jack’s beanstalk, it found the nutrients it needed (Tom & Jerry say from a sewer line) to begin its phenomenal growth.

    At first, Tom remembers throwing a few lights on the tree and eventually a decoration or two, but never anything too careful or obviously planned out. From the beginning, their goal was not to present some idealized holiday symbol, but to recreate the average tree found in many homes with a potpourri of mismatched decorations, multi-colored lights, and a homespun appearance.

    The first gifts strewn around the tree bore red ribbons, a nod to the recently created red ribbon campaign for AIDS awareness, and the boxes cleverly disguised missing lower limbs. As the conifer became more monumental, Tom’s sense of style really kicked in, requiring decorations that were scaled to the size of the tree. Early disposable red pie plates adorned with sparkles became basketballs covered in metallic wrap and eventually beachballs appropriately dressed up for the occasion.

    What was once a small star grew to the multi-dimensional, luminous mega-star now topping the towering tree. Lights have become more numerous and complicated, eventually transitioning from incandescent to LED. Today’s tree is also surrounded by movement, a suggestion of Jerome’s, including a miniature Ferris wheel, train set, animated toys, and even a live Santa who hands out candy canes to everyone.

    Neighborhood Landmark

    But what about the commotion such a frequently visited site must create on that street and in that neighborhood? Over the years, Tom & Jerry insist that, by and large, their neighbors have been most tolerant. Of course, signs are posted against honking horns and discouraging street parking. All appropriate City permits are obtained and visits from the Fire and Police Department come with the territory. One neighbor even contributes additional spotlights aimed at the tree from their house.
    Jerome recalls a particular neighbor right across the street who had a penchant for calling the police and otherwise complicating the tree’s presentation each year. His frequent complaints, however, disappeared one year when his family visited and they all fell in love with the display, especially the children. And that’s the magical thing about this very visible exhibit! Young and old alike are charmed, often returning year after year and sometimes several times within a season.

    In their travels all over the world, Tom & Jerry have lost count of the times that people have shared stories with them of their memory of the holiday tree. In an airport, on a cruise ship, on a beach, or in a convention hall, as soon as strangers hear that Tom & Jerry are from San Francisco and erect an outdoor holiday display each year, someone’s story about the tree will come spilling out with joy, laughter, and appreciation.

    The famous Tom and Jerry House appears at the end of the video at https://bit.ly/2qfM0cC

    On TV and Film

    Perhaps that is what led them to accept an invitation to appear on ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight in 2018. Tom & Jerry were not enthusiastic from the start, objecting to the implication of the name of the show as a ruthless competition. That has always been the furthest thing from their inspiration. Union Square has its Macy’s tree, Ghirardelli Square lights a tree each year, every major hotel has its ornate holiday décor, and even the Castro has an annual holiday tree to rally that neighborhood, but Tom & Jerry are not competing with them or even with Rockefeller Center in New York. Far from it! This is a very personal project, done exactly the way they want to do it, consciously devoid of religious symbolism and maintaining a homespun style of its own.

    Nevertheless, they agreed to participate one year, on their own terms, and without any intention or expectation of winning a competition. Interestingly, the network wanted them to assemble the tree in August for filming and they politely declined. When the episode was finally filmed, Tom & Jerry did everything they could to convey their purpose in mounting this lavish presentation each year, as a gift to the community they love. They were also determined to put no disguise on their relationship as a long-term married Gay couple, even sharing a warm kiss on national television.

    More appropriately, Tom & Jerry produced a film documentary with their friend Richard Gutierrez titled Making Christmas: The View from the Tom & Jerry Christmas Tree that was included in the 2011 Frameline Film Festival. We highly recommend this joyful film, readily available online, to see the true story behind the tree as told by the creators themselves. You’ll meet some of the members of the team who help to create this display each year.

    Weathering Challenges

    So, for over 30 years, the Tom & Jerry Christmas Tree has appeared. But has there ever been a time when Tom & Jerry were tempted to skip a year? They insist that every year has had its challenges, perhaps this year most seriously when both faced dire health issues, but miraculously bounced back. There also have been weather challenges, necessitating new water-resistant stuffing for the toys and protection for the mechanical machinery.

    Getting everything in and out of storage each year has presented problems, but careful labeling, cleaning, and refurbishing have streamlined the process. Yes, there was the year that the cherry picker on site to lift decorations and lights to the top branches slid out of gear and into a house two doors down, crashing through the roof and into a room where their neighbor was peacefully reading; but even that has become just an amusing anecdote since Tom & Jerry quickly made all necessary repairs and the neighbor proved quite cooperative.

    When a less than favorable mention of the tree appeared in the column of the legendary Herb Caen, Tom & Jerry found it mildly amusing and never missed a beat. Shortly after, even Herb came around to admire their gift to the City. And in those years when the mood of the country or the City has been less than positive—after the 9/11 tragedy, the Moscone and Milk assassinations, the recession, and the most recent presidential election—Tom & Jerry’s tree consistently appears in December, offering the same sparkling symbol of hope and joy and holiday spirit.

    A Gift to San Francisco

    When we think of the holiday season, we can think of no more perfect emblem of Christmas than the Tom & Jerry tree. It is a gift, paid for entirely out of their own pockets, and given freely to all who accept it. Children come by with mouths agape, speechless at the spectacle. Neighbors begin or end their own holiday parties with a visit to the tree. Adults who saw it as children now bring their own children, nieces, nephews, and even grandchildren to share the wonder of it all. And visitors from all over the globe discover this display by accident or are sent by friends and, in turn, take the story back home with them of the colorful and creative Gay couple in San Francisco who decorate a 65-foot Norfolk Pine with lavish ornaments and twinkling lights, surrounded by giant packages and animated displays, simply to put smiles on the faces of the people of San Francisco. And perhaps that spirit of generosity spreads wherever the stories are told.

    Thank you, Tom & Jerry, for allowing us to share your story with our readers, and thank you for taking on this Herculean task year after year to the great enjoyment of all those who visit it. We encourage you to see it for yourself and to share this special San Francisco tradition with those you love.

    Donna Sachet is a celebrated performer, fundraiser, activist and philanthropist who has dedicated over two decades to the LGBTQ Community in San Francisco. Contact her at empsachet@gmail.com

     


    What Visitors Say About Tom & Jerry’s Holiday Tree

    By Donna Sachet–

    Quotes from visitors capture the magic of the display and give proper credit to this generous couple.

    “They decorate in Philadelphia, but I never expected to see anything like this here!”

    “I come back every year to watch it change and grow.”

    “It’s really magical for the kids. (Looks at son.) He remembers last year coming and getting a candy cane from Santa and he’s been asking for weeks to come back.”

    “(It’s been there) in years when the economy was so bad and in the year 2001 when everybody just needed something to lift their heart again to let them know things are alright.”

    “We come by probably thirty times during the season, sometimes twice a day.”

    “It allows me to believe in Santa Claus again, to believe in every little fantasy that one has about Christmas.”

    “I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I come here every year.”

    “It’s the talk of the town: the Tom & Jerry Christmas tree!”

    Such holiday cheer and meaningful support from these and other visitors helps to keep Tom & Jerry’s holiday tree tradition going.

    Published on December 5, 2019