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Greg Hill’s legacy: Magic Christmas in Lights

Greg Hill, May 2020.

By Sally Pearsall Ericson
Director of Marketing and Public Relations

From routine maintenance chores to major repairs, Greg Hill’s work was almost always behind the scenes at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. But his main legacy is Bellingrath’s most well-known and popular season: Magic Christmas in Lights.

Hill, who worked at Bellingrath for 28 years, was one of the show’s creators from the very beginning. In 1995, when Bellingrath’s staff decided to set out a holiday light show unique to the Gardens, Hill was tasked with building the metal frames to hold the lights in place. He had trained as a welder, so he knew what was required. Year by year and piece by piece, Hill built it all, constructing more than 1,100 pieces in total.

Greg Hill and family
Greg Hill with his family (from left): son, Greg Jr.; daughter, Skye; and wife, Susan.

Hill died at age 52, on November 6, 2020, of cancer. At the time of his death, he had recently completed work on a new, 38-piece scene to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Magic Christmas in Lights. The theme was Mardi Gras, in honor of Mobile’s status as “the Mother of Mystics,” the city where Carnival was first held in the United States. The figures included a marching band, a horseback rider, a street barricade and a large replica of a Mardi Gras float, complete with maskers.

Hill started working on the new scene in May 2020. He designed and welded the pieces in the metal workshop near the greenhouses at Bellingrath. He usually had only a basic drawing to start with, and he used very simple tools. His coworkers marveled at how he could take a small sketch and scale it to a much larger version, often using chalk rubbings on the cement floor of the workshop.

“I always like to think of him as MacGyver,” said Melissa Wells, the Magic Christmas in Lights Manager and Showrunner. “You could hand him anything and he could make it work. … He was so talented, but he didn’t like to boast about his talents.”

Greg Hill used very simple tools to bend and manipulate the metal pieces in the Magic Christmas in Lights scenes.

“After 25 years of welding, he’d really perfected that skill,” said Ralph Drury, Bellingrath’s Maintenance Manager. “If there was one thing that he took a lot of pride in, it was the pieces he created. You could really see the joy he got out of the pieces he created. He wasn’t an egotistic type, but when he talked about them, you could really see that pride – pride that other people enjoyed them.”

“We could hand him a sketch and he could fabricate it in no time,” Wells said. “He had hand-made tools that he used to make it work.”

“Once he started something, he finished it,” said Joey Lulue, another coworker and close friend. “He enjoyed what he did, and he was good at what he did. He had his own way of handling things. He could fix anything – there’s nothing he couldn’t do. … He was the go-to guy here.”

“I pride myself on being a trouble-shooter, and he was a good trouble-shooter too,” said Drury, remembering the huge job that faced the maintenance crew after Hurricane Sally damaged the Under the Sea scenes, one of the most popular sections of Magic Christmas in Lights.  “There was so much destruction there, but once we started working on it, we were determined to get it done.”

Greg Hill works on a portion of the Underwater Garden in Magic Christmas in Lights.

In a 2020 interview for the Bellingrath employee newsletter, Hill reflected on the early days of making Magic Christmas in Lights. “We would try to make it bigger each year – we tried to outdo ourselves,” he said. “It was a challenge, trying to figure it out.”

His son, Greg Jr., a radio personality in Austin, Texas, said that some of his earliest memories were related to his dad’s work on the light display. “He would show me how he would just bend the metal any way and all of a sudden just make it into whatever they had planned,” he said. “I just remember every year going there and seeing that my dad did this, you know. I would tell everybody, ‘My dad does that.’ When I started on the radio I would tell people that my dad made all the displays. It was just really fun to brag on him over all the years.”

Hill’s survivors include his wife, Susan, Bellingrath’s Display Horticulture Manager; his daughter, Skye; his son, Greg Jr.; his stepchildren, Aaron, Andrew and Adam Brannon; his mother, Carolyn; and his brothers, Tye and Craig.

To casual acquaintances, Hill was a man of few words. But his colleagues at Bellingrath remember him as a relentless practical joker who loved nothing better than a good stunt, preferably at someone else’s expense.

“He was a real prankster,” Drury said, recalling an incident when Hill decided to hide a dollop of grease on the underside of Drury’s car door handle. “He knew exactly where I was going to put my hand!” (Drury, of course, retaliated as soon as possible.)

“He was always pranking us,” Wells said, smiling at the memory. “If you did something to him, he repaid it.”

“He was quiet to a lot of people, but he could really crack up, laugh, tell jokes,” Lulue said. “A lot of people didn’t see that. … He was very reserved, but if you went out with him after work, he was a cutup.”

“I just remember his dry sense of humor,” said Paula Moore, a tour guide in the Bellingrath Home. “He never seemed angry or upset about anything. He was always in a good mood and cutting up with the guides. … He had a dry humor, dry wit, which was always hilarious to me, because I like a dry wit.”

The Mardi Gras float was one of the last pieces Greg Hill created for the 25th anniversary of Magic Christmas in Lights.

During his off hours, Hill was an avid outdoorsman. He lived in south Mobile County, not far from the Gardens. Sometimes after work, he would return to Bellingrath to relax and fish in Fowl River, just as Walter Bellingrath himself  had done, more than 80 years ago.

“He had a real passion for hunting. He enjoyed the outdoors and being in the woods,” Drury said. “We shared a lot of tales about growing up and hunting with our fathers.”

Hill’s art found a new audience during Mardi Gras 2021, when 16 of the anniversary pieces were set up in Mardi Gras Park in downtown Mobile for the public to enjoy. The city did not hold parades during the pandemic because of concerns for public health, but Hill’s colorful creations were a bright spot during the season.

Because of Hill’s private nature, many of his friends and colleagues weren’t aware of the seriousness of his illness. But Magic Christmas in Lights will always be a reminder of his life’s work and creative vision.

“I don’t think people realized the pain he was in,” Lulue said. “He was still coming to work every day.

“Greg did his job. He didn’t seek praise.”

On February 3, 2021, selected pieces from the Mardi Gras scene were temporarily installed in Mardi Gras Park in downtown Mobile in honor of Carnival season.