Wally’s Christmas Wonderland

Hometown Heroes, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 17, 2000

It's pretty easy to spot Wallace Bronner when you walk through his store in Frankenmuth, Mich. He's the one wearing a red sport coat with a sprig of holly in his lapel and a pair of green shoes on his feet.

"I am in the salesroom most every day … and thankful for every guest," says Bronner, 73, who stops to greet some of the 2 million customers who pass through his Christmas Wonderland store each year.

The store at 225 Christmas Lane is alive with the sights and sounds of Christmas 361 days a year: carols, nativity scenes, thousands of twinkling lights, shimmering ornaments, and sparkling trees. It's closed New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Dec. 25.

A Frankenmuth native, Bronnerknown locally as Wallywent into business in 1943 as a 16-year-old sign painter. As business grew, Bronner began designing and painting Christmas store window panels for merchants in his and other towns. In time, what began as a small sign shop in his parents' basement grew into the world's largest year-round Christmas store.

"I started with a hobby, stuck with it, and never went to work," says Bonner, explaining the joys of having a job you love.

Inside the nearly five-acre alpine-design store are more than 50,000 gifts and decorations from around the world, including 6,000 styles of glass ornaments, 500 nativity scenes, nutcrackers of all shapes and sizes, dancing Santas, more than 800 whimsical animated figuresand 450 employees.

Bronner shares credit for the success of the business with his wife, Irene, who shares his office and works at the reception desk all day Monday and on Friday evenings. "The Lord has certainly blessed me with a special spouse," Bronner says. The couple's three children and their spouses also work in the store.

Frankenmuth, (pop. 4,400) a town in east-central Michigan with a Bavarian heritage, is a top tourist destination, and state tourism officials give Bronner much of the credit.

"He's absolutely brilliant, full of charm and good will, a person who makes others happy," says Al Sandner, former media relations director for the state tourism bureau. "He's also an astute businessman."

Keeping with the Christmas theme, the Bronner family in 1992 built the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, a replica of the chapel in Oberndorf, Austria, where Silent Night was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818. The chapel is adjacent to the store.

On the chapel grounds are a life-size nativity scene and plaques with the hymn Silent Night in more than 200 languages. The lighted structure, topped with a brilliant gold star, is an inspirational landmark at the south entrance to Frankenmuth.

Bronner's Christmas spirit extends beyond the holidays. Year-round he's an active member of the St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, as well as the town's beautification committee, the local Lions and Rotary clubs, and the Frankenmuth Chamber of Commerce. He also is a regular local speaker, delivering inspirational and entrepreneurial messages to community groups and organizations.

"Wally is a real asset; a tireless supporter of anything good for the community and takes great pride in the beauty of Frankenmuth," says former Mayor Richard Krafft, who was Bronner's neighbor for 38 years. "If he drives through town and notices a blemish, he makes a call or writes a note to see that the problem is corrected."

One problem Frankenmuth is not apt to have is a dearth of Christmas ornaments.