Over the years, various people have read various meanings into the oversized and ornately lit martini glass that beams down over Portland each holiday season.
To some, the West Hills fixture is a familiar symbol of Christmas cheer. To others, it’s an homage to Portland’s anti-establishment ethos. To a few, it’s unfortunate encouragement to party too hard this time of year.
Monty Meadows was in high school when he got the bright idea to replicate a smaller display he’d seen in the neighborhood. He swiped two-by-fours from a few nearby construction sites and borrowed some Christmas lights. He was not, as at least one Oregon trivia book states, trying to alert buddies that his parents were out of town.
“I don’t even know where that idea came from, although I have heard it from several people over the years,” he says. “It was the 1970s. Cocktail parties were cool.”
Two days after he erected his ramshackle sign on the side of the family’s Southwest Buckingham Court home, wintry winds knocked it down. Meadows put up a stronger version, but Mother Nature struck again. Finally his father, onetime Portland car dealer Merritt “Bud” Meadows, offered to help.
The sign, built in either 1976 or 1977 depending on whom you ask, became a family project. Each year, Meadows and his dad would add more lights and stronger aluminum piping. Sometimes one of his siblings helped out. Sometimes Meadows’ high school sweetheart joined them.
Since taking over, Dr. Gary Cooke has made the sign taller and more noticeable from a distance. He’s bunched the lights closer together and more consistently, giving it a more professional look. He’s added fog lights to help define the olive.
Under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, he built a big red slash that appears over the glass toward closing time.
Up close, the display seems surprisingly fragile: The martini glass is just a thin piece of tubing dotted with white bulbs. Four bigger bulbs –three green, one white –create the olive. The whole display stretches maybe 20 feet from top to bottom, nearly the same height as the unassuming –at least for this neighborhood –house it hangs on.
Although Meadows and his family haven’t lived with the sign for 25 years, they still take pride in their original handiwork.
“Nothing about those lights encouraged drunk driving,” he says. “Some people take everything too seriously.”
But the added hint of warning doesn’t bother Monty Meadows. He’s been sober for 11 years and appreciates the gesture.
“I was just a dumb kid when I put it up,” he says. “This maybe makes people think a little bit more. There isn’t really any deep meaning when you’re 16.”
Still, the martini glass carries good memories in its glow: time spent with his father. His parents were separated when Meadows, now 46, made the first version. The youngest of eight kids, he was among the last left at home to watch their marriage fall apart and one of the few to live in that big house after their father moved out.
Bud Meadows was a busy guy, between his car dealerships, his social life and his civic work on behalf of such causes as OMSI, Jesuit High School and the Multnomah County Youth Commission. His children say they didn’t get much quality time with him during the last years of their parents’ marriage.
Building and maintaining the display was something he did with his kids on weekend and evening visits, stealing moments together to search out stronger aluminum poles, find the brightest possible bulbs and hustle down the hill to check their work after every adjustment. Bud Meadows died in 1999.
These days, Monty Meadows is a carpenter who lives in Newberg. Two years ago, he married his high school sweetheart after 20 years apart. During this holiday season, he drives beneath his family’s former home on Interstate 405 every morning.
He likes to point out the martini glass to his co-workers, steering their attention to the lights on the hillside and saying, “You see that? I made that.”
They rarely believe him, but he doesn’t seem to care.
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