By Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter Published Nov 28, 2012 at 9:02 AM

These days, the world can sometimes seem pretty cynical about Christmas. Rampant commercialization, the bitter "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" debate and the tangled web of ideology behind it – the list of humbugs goes on and on.

But, the spirit of Christmas cheer and holiday giving is alive and well in a small, close-knit neighborhood in West Allis, known for a month out of each year as Candy Cane Lane.

Now in its 27th year, Candy Cane Lane was born when a local resident, Jeremy Kline, was diagnosed at a young age with brain cancer. His neighbors rallied behind him to collect donations for the MACC Fund from passers-by coming to see the Christmas decorations.

"The next year they started talking to the neighbors, saying, ‘Let’s decorate. Let’s start inviting people,’" said MACC Fund Development Officer Colleen Moran.

Now almost 30 years and $1.6 million later, Candy Cane Lane is a Milwaukee-area holiday tradition that features almost 300 decked-out homes. Running east and west from 92nd to 96th Streets and north and south from Oklahoma Avenue to Montana Street, the neighborhood raises around $100,000 annually for the MACC Fund at the official collection point on the corner of 95th and Manitoba Streets.

Local resident Ken Perkl is especially proud of the $103,000 raised last year. As a member of the seven-person committee who took over the running of Candy Cane Lane a few years ago from longtime coordinator Ron Ziolecki, Perkl puts in countless hours every Christmas season manning the collection point and handing out candy to spectators.

He is assisted by his fellow committee members, including volunteer coordinator Joy Geyer, local resident Dan Mass and Mass’ grandmother, Pat Wolfe, at whose house the committee meets and who has lived in the neighborhood since the first days of Candy Cane Lane.

In addition to the hours spent standing in the cold collecting money and spreading Christmas cheer, Perkl says he spends anywhere from six to seven hours on his elaborate decorations, which include a tableau of reindeer taking flight and a railroad crossing.

So what’s the payoff for all this hard work? When asked, Perkl put a hand to his heart.

"In the heart," he said. "Yeah, you know. We take a lot of pride in the neighborhood. It’s like, ‘Wow, look at all this joy we’re bringing to people from everywhere.’ People come from all over the Midwest to hear about Candy Cane Lane. I take pride in that, that we can do this for a good cause."

Because for this surprisingly well-organized (if small) local organization, raising money for a good cause is the goal. But, a bonus is that for them, it has become an important holiday tradition.

"I just love doing it," Perkl said. "I look forward to it. I love the whole 11 months (before) waiting for this month to come. I think most of the neighbors do."

Candy Cane Lane typically opens the day after Thanksgiving, and this year it runs from Friday, Nov. 23 to Wednesday, Dec. 26. Hours of operation are Monday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m.; Friday, 6-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10 p.m. and Sunday, 5-9 p.m.

But if one of the residents sees a steady stream of onlookers’ cars lining up in the streets, they don’t care if it’s "business hours" or not.

"If we see a line start forming at 5 o'clock on a Friday, one of us will quick run down there with a bucket and some candy," said Geyer. "It’s like, ‘Hey, get out there, we could be losing this revenue for the program.’"

For Geyer, the realization that she had bought a home in Milwaukee’s most festive neighborhood came as a pleasant surprise when she moved in 13 years ago.

"I had forgotten about it over the years," she said. "I brought my little ones – who are now 23 and 26 – but then kind of forgot about it 'til we moved into the neighborhood."

Now Geyer marshals an army of volunteers and mans the collection point just about every night during the season.

Mass has been volunteering in his grandmother’s neighborhood for years, and last year bought his own house in the area. Moran said that there are many people in the neighborhood who buy homes there out of a desire to be a part of Candy Cane Lane, although Mass says real estate agents are not obligated to disclose the area's history of holiday cheer to potential buyers.

"It’s been a positive selling point," said Moran. "There’s a lot of people who moved into the neighborhood specifically because it was Candy Cane Lane."

"What you’re getting now is more the younger people with families and I think that’s great for them, with the kids and everything," Geyer said. "The older people that are leaving, they just can’t take care of the home. They’re not leaving because of Candy Cane Lane."

It might seem that it would be a deterrent for some buyers to purchase a home in the neighborhood – the Christmas cynic, one would think, would dread the pressure to deck the halls for a good cause as well as battle traffic every night. But the committee says it’s a non-issue, and that any concerns voiced by residents are heard and dealt with.

"You’re not obligated to decorate at all," said Geyer. "(The residents) all get letters about two months ahead, end of September, to let them know what the dates are. I don’t think anybody opts out in particular because of this. You wouldn’t raise $1.6 million over 26 years if people didn’t enjoy the program."

And as far as dealing with the traffic that often winds all the way onto Oklahoma Avenue?

"We’ve been in the neighborhood long enough to know we do a lot of alley-surfing," said Geyer. "Or you wait till 9 or 10 o’clock at night. You get to know (how to deal with it). And people are very courteous."

"We work it out," Perkl agreed.

Many might feel intimidated to have what seems like the whole world come tour their neighborhood. Others might consider it an opportunity to make a political or religious statement to a captive audience. The committee says that though some residents do hand out religious literature, they do not see many complaints and no one should confuse any private resident's beliefs with what Candy Cane Lane stands for.

"For the most part, you know, you might get one (complaint) through the whole month event," said Geyer. "Let them hand (the literature) out. It’s up to the people whether they want to take them or not. We’re just concerned to tell people this is the corner for the MACC fund."

The committee wants to keep the focus on what Candy Cane Lane has always been about: fundraising for kids like Jeremy Kline, who still comes out to his old neighborhood every year to see the decorations.

Although the committee does solicit and accept donations from local businesses, the majority of the money is raised by contributions from those who bring the family down to the area to look at the lights.

"And it’s great publicity for the city of West Allis," said Moran. "People wait all year to see Ken’s reindeer!"

The group has a new fundraising goal of $105,000 this year – along with a new website, – where supporters can donate money even if they are not able to make it to West Allis. 

Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter

Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.