Sixty-five years ago, Anthony Dal Bello started selling Christmas trees from his home on the corner of Milpas and Yanonali streets in Santa Barbara.
He was just 15 years old at the time, and during that first Christmas season, he sold about “30 or 40” wild Douglas firs, and made $70.
It was a simpler time.
“There was no internet, none of this,” he said, looking at his printer and smart phone inside his trailer office at Anthony’s Christmas Trees at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
This season, Dal Bello hopes to sell 4,000 Christmas trees, at prices ranging from $90 to more than $500.
The technology has changed, the prices have gone up, and the trees are now farmed instead of wild, but at least one thing remains the same:
“The people are always happy at Christmas time,” Dal Bello said.
Dal Bello, 80, will walk away from Anthony’s Christmas Trees on Dec. 25.
He has sold, cut, decorated and delivered Christmas trees to multiple generations, always with a grin on his face and a note of cheer in his voice.
“I come here for the hospitality,” said customer Jim Perry. “Someone who looks you right in the eye and says Merry Christmas, and you know that he means it.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Dal Bello, said it’s a good time to walk away so he can finally enjoy the month of December like everyone else.
He’s always worked, even when the stand was on Mason Street. For decades he has risen at 4 a.m. to start the day, and then worked until 8 p.m. when the stand closes.
He keeps granola bars, oranges, a microwave and a fresh pot of coffee all day in his office.
“Everyone thinks this is a one-month job, but’s it’s not,” Dal Bello said.
He starts in August, when he makes a trip to Oregon to meet with his suppliers. This year, he said, there”s a shortage of farmed noble firs because many of the farms went out of business after the 2008 recession. It takes about 10 years for a tree to grow to harvest-able size, he said.
“Right now, the young people are not going into farming Christmas trees,” he said.
Dal Bello isn’t Santa Claus, but he is possibly even more affable and pleasant.
His phone rang several times during a recent interview — to the ringtone of the holiday classic “Oh, Christmas Tree.”
He wears a green shirt and a red apron, and sings boldy to the Christmas songs playing through the speakers, from a CD he created.
When the local tune “It’s Christmas Once Again in Santa Barbara” plays, Dal Bello proudly smiles and tells a reporter, “He’s one of my clients,” of the singer, Barry DeVorzon.
His Christmas stand features a T-Rex-sized giant Santa, and a large jumper for the kids.
In addition to the trees, he sells wreaths and garlands, decorated by his wife, Maria.
The two married in 1970, and she has spent as many days and nights working at the stand as Anthony over the years.
“I am going to miss the customers,” she said. “I won’t miss the long hours.”
The Dal Bellos are leaving the business on an upbeat note. Last year was marred by the Thomas Fire and the smoke that kept people indoors for weeks, and the ash that blanketed the trees.
“I don’t even want to think about that,” Dal Bello said.
This year has been much better. Mostly good weather, “and not too cold,” Dal Bello said.
Anthony’s won’t go away, however, The name and business will live on, but Anthony won’t be getting up at 4 a.m. or making the long interstate trips to meet with growers.
He has sold the business to his longtime general manager, Ed Miller.
Miller answered an ad in the newspaper 27 years ago, and Anthony hired him.
“Anthony is like my West Coast father,” said Miller, who moved here from Pittsburgh. He wants everyone to know that the familiar Christmas tree stand will live on.
“Anthony is retiring, but Anthony’s Christmas Trees is going to continue the family tradition,” Miller said. “Even Anthony is going to help out.”
Of course he is.
Dal Bello is looking forward to retirement, but one thing will bring him back to help out.
“People are always smiling at Christmas,” he said. “They are always happy. That’s a joy.”