A Christmas career

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 23, 2012

If you look at Larry Fraga’s childhood photos, you’ll spot a few clues about his future. Well, you might not predict the modeling career, although he was surely a good-looking kid.
But consider this scenario captured in a snapshot: It’s the middle of summer, and Fraga is 5 or 6 years old, sitting on the lawn in front of his house. His sisters are behind him, in swimsuits. He has dragged out all of his family’s Christmas ornaments, which he has lovingly spread out in front of him on the front lawn.
Six months to wait for Christmas was probably an eternity for the little boy who loved nothing better than preparing for Christmas. He still loves it, although these days he gets some help putting up his decorations from a young friend (and “godsend,” Fraga says) named Kevin Pastor.
“My parents used to laugh at me,” says Fraga, who lives in Mocksville. Even when he was a boy, he’d go to thrift stores and buy Christmas ornaments whenever he could find them. He remembers his mother’s amusement when he brought home two huge bags of ornaments for 25 cents from a St. Vincent De Paul store.
Fraga was happily in charge of Christmas decorating at his home in Oakland, Calif. “There wasn’t one inch of that house that wasn’t decorated,” he says, with lights on every shrub, bush and tree. December was a big month for replacing blown fuses in his house, he remembers.
“Christmas was always such a happy time for me,” he says.
But decorating his own house wasn’t enough. Fraga would decorate churches and convalescent hospitals and the homes of the elderly folks in his neighborhood.
“If it involved Christmas, I was there,” he said.
And then he’d return after the holidays to take it all down and put it away until the following year. Sometimes, when neighbors passed away, he says, he would inherit their ornaments, given by family members who knew he’d appreciate them.
These days Fraga can buy whatever ornaments he likes, but he still haunts thrift stores and isn’t above dumpster diving to rescue ornaments, he says.
As we talk, he assures me that the ornaments he salvages don’t need to be fancy or particularly special, he says.
I am skeptical, until he opens up a closet and points to three boxes of ornaments he’s just purchased from Goodwill. They are marked 25 cents a box, but the original price — from Roses — is less than three dollars. They are those silky ornaments in solid colors that were popular for a while — maybe in the 1980s? He couldn’t pass them up and says eventually, he’ll find a tree they will grace. He just can’t bear to see ornaments discarded and homeless, he says.
He remembers the year after his parents got divorced when his mother only had enough money for two boxes of ornaments but not enough for hooks. He still has those ornaments — with the bread twister ties that he and his mother used to hang them.
He has 17 decorated Christmas trees in his home. When he’s finished, there will be 21. Most of the trees feature his own creations, including ornaments made just for him. Some of the hand-blown glass balls are huge — so large they stretch the lung capacity limits of the glass blowers who make them.
He estimates that he has 200,000-300,000 ornaments in his own collection.
That’s a tiny number, however, compared to the numbers of Larry Fraga-designed ornaments in collections around the world. He’s created 1,800 different designs, with some designs selling 200,000 units each. At least 40,000 ornaments are made for each design. I won’t attempt to do the math, but suffice it to say, there are millions of Fraga ornaments out there.
Fraga has been designing and selling ornaments since 1995, and he’s hugely successful.
Larry Fraga ornament designer wasn’t really on my radar, but people around here have spotted him as a Christmas celebrity. In one week, two people called to let me know that Larry Fraga — “THE Larry Fraga” — was living in Mocksville.
I did a little research and I could understand that yes, to Christmas ornament collectors, Fraga is kind of a rock star. And of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s a good-looking guy who used to be a model.
Fraga apparently gets pretty regular requests for interviews (Hallmark has been after him for a while now) but for the past several years he has politely declined them. I’m not sure why he accepted our request — and possibly Fraga isn’t quite sure himself — but it felt like a Christmas gift to be welcomed into his house. Maybe Fraga is simply filled with the generosity of the season.
If my house were full of the kind of Christmas magic Fraga’s is, I’d be dragging people from off the streets to come inside.
If you’re into high-end ornament collecting at all — not the mass-produced kind from Wal-Mart or Target —you likely have some of Fraga’s beautiful hand-blown, hand-painted creations, marketed through Larry Fraga Designs.
In his early days as a designer, Fraga used to paint and glitter the ornaments himself. These days, his designs are crafted in Germany, Poland, Italy, Czecholslovakia and Ukraine.
Before he became an ornament designer, Fraga was a model (for Calvin Klein, Speedo and Guess among others). He was on the cover of some magazines and also did some film work, including a movie called “Murder in the First” with Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater.
Fraga will tell you that was when he was young and good-looking.
He’s always kind of surprised to be recognized — either from his days as a model or as an ornament designer. As he was buying furniture once in Davie County, a clerk glanced at his credit card and said, “You’re the Christmas ornament designer, right?”
Fraga is a pretty low-key person, and on Tuesdays he volunteers at Storehouse for Jesus, a non-profit Christian ministry in Mocksville that helps those in need. Fraga cleans the bathrooms and does whatever else volunteers do. People there just know him as Larry, and he likes it that way.
It felt a little surreal to pull up to Fraga’s beautiful Davie County home and be treated to chocolate chip cookies he’d just baked himself and to walk around his personal holiday wonderland. He lives in Mocksville with his beloved dog Sugar, although he frequently hosts friends who want to visit. Fraga has family back in California, including three sons with whom he speaks almost daily, he says.
Incredibly, Fraga is apologetic that his home isn’t decked out like one of his ornament showrooms. I wondered how he could he possibly be apologizing for having only 17 beautifully decorated trees.
Fraga remembers the day he decided to become an ornament designer. It was Valentine’s Day, 1995, and while they watched TV he told a friend, “I think I’ll design ornaments.”
And two weeks later, he says, he was on a flight to Europe getting started. In Germany he met with some ornament manufacturers and selected antique molds he liked. One of the manufacturers gave him a room with paint and glitter, and he went to work. Eventually, he created his own designs and hired employees to do the painting and glittering.
Looking back, he says he’s not so sure he’d do it all over again. Why? The Christmas ornament industry is pretty cutthroat and vicious he says.
Who knew?
At the beginning, he had a hard time getting stores to even look at his designs, he says. He went to one business in San Francisco’s tony Union Square and asked if they’d like to order some of his ornaments. He received an icy stare and was told he couldn’t simply waltz in without an appointment — and that he couldn’t get one until the following year.
Almost ready to walk away, Fraga got his nerve back and said, “I’ll make an appointment next year, but why don’t you just have a look now so I know if there’s any chance you’ll be interested?”
As the guy began unwrapping the ornaments, Fraga saw him glancing at a co-worker. “Are the others like this?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Fraga, not sure what the question implied.
Fraga soon walked out of the store — with a $10,000 order. That was followed up with a feature article in a collector’s publication called “Marilyn’s Report.” Soon, he was finding opportunities everywhere.
“Orders came pouring in,” Fraga said, which led him to move his studio out of his basement and into his garage.
Fraga feels that what helped him stand out in those early days, when his business was called Dresden Dove, was his color palette. He didn’t confine himself to traditional Christmas colors — red, green and gold. He used hot pinks and other non-Christmasy colors, and he took risks with his designs.
“As a collector myself, I don’t want what anybody else has,” Fraga says, explaining why his designs are so unusual.
The next year, 1996, was “huge,” Fraga says. He was receiving orders in the six figures. His star was on the rise, and he was soon in demand for ornament signings and was making ornaments to sell through Disney.
He quickly established himself as a man of the people in a business known for diva-like behavior. While other designers would sign only one ornament per person, Fraga would sign as many as a collector brought in. He’d sometimes be signing from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., he says, because he never wanted to disappoint anyone standing in line.
“It’s important that everybody has a special experience,” he says.
If you go to Fraga’s website, you’ll see lots of traditional Christmas designs — Santa and snowmen and the like — but you’ll also find a variety of whimsical designs for lovers of the unique — grasshoppers and centipedes, dolphins, helicopters, pianos, crabs, parrots, strawberries, ducks and even a yellow pepper.
Fraga is also popular among those who collect Halloween ornaments. He prefers designing the cute ones — whimsical Jack o’lanterns and such — but he realized early on that many Halloween collectors wanted “scary” instead of cute. He listened to feedback and added more grisly and macabre designs. He’s a businessman, after all.
Fraga first visited Mocksville seven years ago to help out a few friends — and ended up falling in love with the place. Soon, he was on the lookout for a home, and within a few weeks, he was exchanging California craziness for the country life in Davie County, where he keeps a horse and some chickens. (I’m assuming those were fresh eggs in the chocolate chip cookies.)
He loves it here.
“I can’t get over how nice the people are and how beautiful it is here,” he said. “It does something to you. To come here and just enjoy life is so incredible.”
People could not understand why he wanted to move to North Carolina, he says. But as his Beverly Hills friends made the cross-country trip to spend time with him in Mocksville, they began to understand what enticed him there. They began to ask him if they could extend the length of their visits.
And yes, if you’re thinking, “Ooh, Beverly Hills, Larry must have some famous friends,” you’d be right. If you press him, he’ll drop a tidbit here and there about buddies Marie Osmond and Ricky Martin. Elizabeth Taylor collected Fraga’s ornaments and once told Larry he had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen on a man — which he considers the greatest compliment he’s ever gotten. He met Stephanie Powers, whose chimpanzee took an intense liking to him and would not let go of him at a party; Shirley Jones (of “Partridge Family” fame) threw his 40th birthday party.
Celebrity friends notwithstanding, Fraga doesn’t take himself too seriously. For example, he talks about meeting actress Diahann Carroll at a restaurant one night — she handed him her mink coat, thinking he was the maitre d’. (That will teach him to wear black pants and a white shirt to a restaurant, he says.)
Ever the gentleman, he politely returned her coat.

To check out Fraga’s line of ornaments, go to www.larryfraga.com.