The first Christmas newlyweds Alice Faye and Robert Symons spent in their two-story Colonial home in Los Altos, she hung some evergreen garlands and decorated a tree – nothing out of the ordinary.
Today, a half-century later, Alice Faye still festoons the house with garlands; however, now she decorates 12 Christmas trees that are anything but ordinary.
This Southerner from North Carolina, fondly known as Grandma Sugar, is a collector. Each tree boasts a theme based on things she loves. The majority of the Christmas ornaments are gifts from family and friends – and she remembers who gave her each one.
“This Christopher Radko clown was given to me by my Julia and got me started on collecting Radko ornaments,” said Alice Faye of her daughter, Julia McLean of Palo Alto. The Symonses also have a son, Robert Jr., of San Diego, and four grandchildren.
Alice Faye and longtime friend Bev Wilson of Los Altos Hills began exchanging Radko ornaments at Christmas. Her favorite from Bev is Santa hanging from a hot air balloon, which “hangs around for the holidays” from the crystal chandelier in the living room.
More than 100 of the European blown-glass ornaments, which take seven days to produce, decorate the “Radko Tree” in the living room. The 800 lights that illuminate the tree are Robert’s responsibility.
He takes care of “engineering problems” – and rightfully so. He worked at Varian Associates for 32 years, then for Litton Industries Inc. in the Electron Devices Division for 18 years, retiring in 2001 after serving as chief technical officer. In 2010, Robert won an Emmy Award for inventing an amplifier that doubles the efficiency of high-power HDTV broadcast transmitters.
Two dolls in Polly Flinders dresses once worn by Julia are seated in front of the tree – one in a vintage cane chair, the other in a chair made by famed architect Julia Morgan, Robert’s godmother.
In front of the living room fireplace is Robert Jr.’s rocking horse, and on the mantel is a Hummel Nativity scene the Symonses purchased in Germany. Robert crafted the wooden stable.
A “Santa Tree” sits on a library table that belonged to Robert’s mother. It came from Vickery, Atkins & Torrey, a San Francisco firm that designed interiors for mansions, clubs and universities and sold furniture, decorative objects and jewelry.
Alice Faye has filled the adjoining study with dolls.
“This is the first year I’ve brought out all of my daughter’s dolls,” she said.
Storybook and cornhusk dolls that Alice Faye had as a child adorn the “Doll Tree.” Madame Alexander dolls perch on an inlaid-wood upright piano that came around Cape Horn.
The two trees in the foyer complement one another. One is a “Shoe Tree” and the other a “Purse Tree.”
“If you have shoes, you need purses,” she said. “The purse tree started when a traveling companion gave me a replica of a Princess Di purse from an exhibit at Kensington Palace.”
Now Alice Faye showcases several dozen purses, including her grandmother’s petit-point purse, her daughter’s miniature “Hello, Dolly!” purse and a Judith Leiber evening bag purchased at a Peninsula Volunteers charity event. She has belonged to the Peninsula Volunteers since 1978.
“Because I love shoes, friends started giving me shoe ornaments,” she said, pointing out the Metropolitan Museum of Art reproductions of famous shoe designs that started her collection.
Alice Faye joked that she has as many shoes on the tree – something like 200 – as she has in her closet.
Teddy bears line the stairs leading from the foyer to the second floor, and a tree populated with well-loved stuffed animals sits on the landing.
A “Children’s Tree” trimmed with unbreakable ornaments highlights the family room. When Alice Faye’s children and grandchildren were growing up, they spent hours redoing the tree.
“It was all theirs – as long as they didn’t touch the other trees,” she said.
A “Patriotic Tree,” with the American flag as a backdrop, occupies a special corner in the family room. She created it at the start of the Iraq War. On it are White House ornaments, American symbols and a Radko ornament of the Twin Towers. Beneath it are political campaign buttons, including some collected by Alice Faye, the “requested stewardess” on the GOP-chartered United Airlines DC-6 that transported Eisenhower and Nixon around the country.
The Symonses met aboard a United flight from Burbank to San Francisco. Robert was among the 44 passengers and she was the sole stewardess.
“A doctor was in seat A and I was in seat B, and we both wanted to drive her home when we landed,” he said.
Robert won and they celebrated their 52nd anniversary Dec. 21.
It was just one of many special occasions this month. Alice Faye has entertained Clipped Wings members, Red Hat Society ladies, Peninsula Volunteers and others – all welcomed to view the trees and share the season.
Alice Faye Symons' holiday tree collection - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier