Glitter has always felt safe to Lonnie Hanzon. For the self-described maximalist behind the lauded Camp Christmas exhibits in Lakewood, the flashy flecks he learned to love at a young age are just one of the many tools he utilizes to create extravagant, interactive works during the holidays.
“Christmas for me was always a big deal as a kid because I was the effervescent kid from Pine, [Colorado], right? I was the hippie in school. I was the one that was facedown in the dirt, getting bullied. I was the odd one out,” he says. “For a gay kid that doesn’t know he’s gay until much later in life—Christmas was safe because everybody can use glitter during Christmas, right? You can use color, things can be pretty. Things can be extravagant.”
Hanzon has made music and art since he was four, using it as an escape. That unbridled whimsy and childlike joy never left him. Now, at 62, Hanzon has spent decades installing Christmas-inspired art across the world. Coloradans will be familiar with his holiday creations at Denver’s Parade of Lights, the adornments across 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square, and, more recently, his wildly popular Camp Christmas exhibitions, which began in 2019 as a partnership with Denver Center for the Performing Arts. That first year he put on a walking tour at the Hangar at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace that explored the history of the holiday in a kitschy extravaganza. The newest version of Camp Christmas opens on November 18 at the Lakewood Heritage Center and features an expanded six acres worth of Christmas cheer.
But Hanzon is not beholden to one holiday. Before immersive art was a buzzword, he was an early pioneer in what might’ve been called “magic,” “wizardry,” or “masterful storytelling”—each which have been literal titles in his resume at some point.
Immersive art, he says, allows people to be completely enveloped in the present. “It’s just like the suspension of disbelief when you’re watching theater,” he says. “You’re part of it. And we cast our audience.” It’s the key ingredient in his meticulous method for building worlds, all self-taught, and supported by 40 years worth of performing, painting, designing, and dozens of unconventional stops along the way.
In fact, Hanzon admits he barely graduated from Wheat Ridge High School. Instead, he continued to gravitate toward art, and still thanks one teacher, Lon Seymour, for going above and beyond to push his creative spirit. “[Seymour] would do these art trips to New York, and he would tell me that I won a scholarship. In reality, he was going to Kiwanis clubs and rotary clubs and raising money so that he could get me to New York,” he says, his voice choking with emotion. “He got me interviews with art schools, and I was offered a full ride to Pratt [Institute], but I couldn’t do it.”
Still, Seymour convinced him to continue pursuing art. So, in the late 1970s, Hanzon did a little bit of everything, from designing drag costumes and stage sets to delivering thousands of singing telegrams. It’s around that time he met his now husband and creative partner in crime for the past 40 years, Terry Koepsel Hanzon.
By the 1980s, the two were busy designing the castle-like exterior of Broadway’s Wizard’s Chest, decorations for Cherry Creek Village Christmas festivals, and an immersive holiday display at a retail store in Omaha, Nebraska, which they had to charge admission for to control the crowds. The duo also briefly created a high-fashion jewelry line that sold to New York department stores, tried their hand at retail concepts in California, and, at one point, Hanzon spent a two-year stint as a lead show producer for Lucasfilm. But after a taste of the corporate creative world, his inner child urged for a return to independent work.
Hanzon started working on more public art after returning to Colorado in the 1990s, like the “Evolution of the Ball” sculpture outside of Coors Field. In 1997, he was commissioned for an immersive display at Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall. By the early 2000s, thanks to his magical touch for décor, he was summoned to Neiman Marcus’s flagship store in Dallas to create massive, whimsically themed Christmas tree sculptures. Each year, they’d be made out of unconventional materials, like 2,000 pounds of sugar, salvaged parts of classic Cadillacs, hundreds of Eddison light bulbs, or $1 million in shredded, misprinted dollar bills. “The first year that we did the car tree, we had about 50 people show up,” Hanzon says. “Then, by the time we got to the money tree, 50,000 people would come into downtown Dallas. So, that became a thing.”
Some of those past pieces of work will be on display at this year’s Camp Christmas exhibit. This year’s Lakewood event will also include a carousel and nearly a dozen historic buildings teeming with similar creations to explore—a dazzling hodgepodge of classic, camp-y flair, riddles and badges to unlock, and a 16-track audio tour narrated by Hanzon.
“To me, Camp Christmas is literally walking into Lonnie’s brain,” says Shanda Plock, the daughter of Lonnie’s beloved art teacher, Lon Seymour, and now executive director of Lonnie and Terrie’s Hanzon Foundation. “When he’s done public art—and I think Camp Christmas is the same way—he says ‘that’s a gift for someone you’ve never met.’ ”
It’s why the foundation plans to slowly build an archive of thousands of pieces of his work—and hopefully an artist incubator and workspace—to preserve that philosophy. In the meantime, Hanzon isn’t done creating. Others in the creative world, he jokes, might consider his work to be “low art.” But he explains that the real payoff is seeing families interact with his creations; the window smudges kids leave when pressing their nose and fingers to the glass.
“When I do things, it’s not for six, super-rich people in a room, right? It’s thousands of people … It’s very tiring. It’s not very glamorous. But when you see a kid glow, you can just see the expression on their face, that they are enchanted and they’ve gone someplace else. They’re in a completely magical safe place,” he says. “Those [are] moments you remember; they were very real. They don’t feel fake at all.”
Camp Christmas runs from November 18–January 2, 2022, at Lakewood Heritage Belmar Park, 801 S. Yarrow St., Lakewood. Tickets start at $10, and masks are required in all indoor spaces for all attendees two years and older.