Written by John Williams
Photography by Jamie Cobel
“It’s the best advertising I’ve ever done,” smiles the villa’s owner, Roscoe Thorby. “… especially at Christmas. I always sell whatever’s hanging in the window.”
That’s because, every December, thousands of people flock to this tree-lined Ponsonby icon to take in the largest public display of Christmas lights in the country. And without Roscoe, it would never have happened.
It happened by accident
“It all started right here,” he explains, pointing to his dining room table. “I was having a Christmas dinner party with some friends and I’d put some lights up on the front of the house. I suggested we all traipse outside, glass of wine in hand, and turn on the lights.”
“The next year, I thought, ‘well that went well last year, I’ll do it again’. So I did, and invited a few more neighbours.”
Among Roscoe’s guests that night in 1993 was Dame Cath Tizzard. “I said, ‘here you go Cath, you do it’, and that’s where it all started,” smiles, Roscoe, through his bushy moustache.
What started as a whim, one Christmas, is now an Auckland institution, regularly involving over one hundred households along the whole length of Franklin Road.
Over the next few years, more and more neighbours started decorating their houses in Christmas lights and Roscoe’s parties got bigger. “Instead of being a dinner party for eight or ten, it was now a full-on party for fifty or more,” he says. “That’s when I decided to give it back to the street.”
“It’s amateur, and that’s its charm,” says, Roscoe. “It’s one of the few truly altruistic events in Auckland.”
Roscoe says the reason why it works is because there are no rules. There are no guidelines and, despite rumours to the contrary, there is no committee.
So that’s the story of Roscoe and the Franklin Road Christmas lights. How do the chandeliers fit into the story?
“I used to be a stockbroker in Australia, so you can see the natural progression,” he laughs. “It all started when my partner and I went through an open home in Sydney, and I noticed that chandeliers were filthy. I said to the lady, ‘have you not thought about getting the chandeliers cleaned?’ She said that there was no one she knew that cleaned chandeliers so I offered to clean them for her. I knew what to do because I used to clean my mother’s when I was a kid.”
Turning a niche into a profession
And everything grew from there. He helped out friends, and friends of friends, then friends of their friends. That was in Australia, and when he came back to New Zealand in 1990, he thought he’d give it a go over here. “It was meant to be a retirement job, but it’s turned into something more full-time.”
And the scope of what he does has expanded, too. Roscoe now offers a bespoke design service, restoration, and redressing. “People come to me to commission chandeliers, or have one built – and that’s the really interesting part of the job.”
“There’s been a real resurgence in interest in chandeliers, certainly over the past 10yrs. When I first started, I used to pick chandeliers out of skip bins. Some of the developers were shockers,” he adds. “They’d go into those big homes in Remuera, rip out all the chandeliers and chuck them into the bins. I’d pull them out, tidy them up, then on-sell them. It was easy money in those days. They’ve wised up – they don’t do that any more.”
The one chandelier that Roscoe will never part with hangs anonymously in his front room, along with the other lights. What’s so special about this one? “Many years ago, the Baron de Rothschild’s had a farm down in the Waikato and I got a call to come down and take a look at the chandeliers that were there,” remembers, Roscoe. “So I went down there and ended up buying a few. One in particular caught my eye. It was an early chandelier, from the 1700’s, in ormalu – a technique where gold is laid onto bronze. I just love it,” smiles Roscoe.
“They fit into any environment – modern or traditional.”
“I did a house in Takapuna a few years ago. It was an amazing, concrete, glass and steel design, right on the beachfront, with blue sea on one side, a blue swimming pool on the other and a dining room in the middle. I built this giant Swarovski crystal chandelier for the room. It was a huge thing, completely covered in crystal. It was the only bit of glitz in the whole house and it looked magnificent!
“I love Ponsonby Central. All credit to Andy Davies, he’s done amazing job there,” says, Roscoe. “Over the past few years, Ponsonby has tended to become a bit Newmarket or Parnell, but Ponsonby Central has kept things interesting. It’s not like a shopping centre, though, it’s more of a community,” he adds.
“There are so many different little businesses in there – grocers, a fish shop, butchers, plus all those great eateries. My favourite there is Foxtrot. At the weekend they do the most amazing cakes. My partner and I go there every Saturday for their cakes – no one in Auckland does cakes like them.”
And to burn that cake off, Roscoe’s favourite walk is just a short distance from the foot of Franklin Rd – Westhaven Marina and around Wynyard Quarter.
This article is part of a series brought to you by Angela Saunders featuring some of the characters and personalities that live and work in our neighbourhood.