Remembering the rebuild of Bridgeport’s Christmas Village

December 24, 2017

BRIDGEPORT — It’s been 35 years since an arsonist burned Beardsley Park’s Christmas Village to the ground, with some children fearing Santa Claus had been killed in the fire.

The memories of what took place and the legacies of those involved have been captured in the pages of a recently published book — The Miracle of Christmas Village.

Christmas Village is a place where city residents can bring children to see animated elves and reindeer and surround themselves with the holiday’s sights and sounds.

Children are able to visit with Santa Claus and receive gifts from him. The village opens each year in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Back in Dec. 1982, the village was housed in a building in Beardsley Park and was scheduled to open on Dec. 12. But in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1982, Christmas Village burned to the ground — with only one wall left standing.

The culprit was never found.

The city’s mayor at the time, Leonard Paoletta, heard the news of what happened while he was talking to a classroom of children. He said he cut the meeting short and headed back to his office.

“On the way back to the office, I stopped at Beardsley Park and saw the result of the fire,” Paoletta said last week. “It was three walls and the roof that were gone.”

Though initial talks were to rebuild Christmas Village for the following year, Paoletta wanted it done for the 1982 Christmas season, he said.

Paoletta said he got the call about the fire around 8 a.m. that day.

“By 11 o’clock I had an office full of people. I told them what I’d like to see done. And, very nicely, they did suggest I have my head examined,” Paoletta said with a laugh.

But still, Paoletta said, everyone decided to go forward with his plan.

Volunteers started pouring in; hundreds of people were showing up to help rebuild Christmas Village every day. Paoletta said he remembered one man from Newtown who would ride in on his bicycle each day.

The village was burned down on a Tuesday. By that Sunday, it was standing tall again on its Beardsley Park footprint.

“The kids got to see Santa Claus and got their toys,” Paoletta said.

In the days before social media, the story of what happened spread by newspapers, television broadcasts and word of mouth.

“The ripple got wider and wider,” said Mike Daly, who was a reporter at the Bridgeport Post when the village was burned down.

Word of what happened reached then-President Ronald Reagan. He called the city on Dec. 12, complimenting the work that was done to get the village operational so quickly. He went on to mention the immense effort on national television three times, Paoletta recalled.

Reagan even took the time to call Paoletta at one point to commend him and the city on the job well done.

Paoletta, decades later, keeps a box of letters from people across the nation who wanted to help. That box of letters is what sparked Daly’s interest to write a book about the fire and the rejuvenation of Christmas Village.

“For a lot of impoverished kids, this was Christmas,” Daly said of the village. “For some reason, what went on in Bridgeport ... it touched something in human beings.”

Today, a granite monument stands at the site in Beardsley Park. It reads: “Miracle at Christmas Village from the concerned people of America, 1982.” It was donated by a Joe Mason, the owner of Stratford Insulation.

Christmas Village became a tradition when it started in 1950. That tradition continues to this day, at the village’s new home at 2 Quarry Road in Trumbull.

To immortalize the efforts of Paoletta and everyone else involved in the rebuilding in 1982, Daly said he decided to write a book — which he self-published through Amazon — about what took place and to allow Paoletta to have a written account of his legacy as the city’s mayor.

Over the past four years, between editing the Connecticut Post’s editorial page, writing columns and practicing and performing with the newsroom band The Bad Slugs, Daly conducted interviews, read material on the topic and wrote the story.

A book signing is scheduled for Jan. 11 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Barnum Museum, Daly said. He said he hopes the book can become a seasonal classic for the city that becomes available for purchase each year around Christmas.