Tom Taylor, the creator of the Tom & Jerry House Christmas display with its enormous tree at 21st and Church Street passed away last week. The cause was reportedly prostate cancer.
At 77, Taylor had spent a significant amount of his life devoted to the gay community of the Castro, to LGBTQ activism, and to bringing joy to others come December with a display outside the home he shared with husband Jerry Goldstein that grew and grew over the years — a product both of Taylor's whims and engineering know-how.
As Taylor told SFist in 2015, the tree had started out as a houseplant purchased at Cost Plus Nursery in 1970. A few years later it was too big for the living room and Taylor transplanted it outside where it "grew and grew" to over 60 feet tall in more recent years.
"The roots found the sewer pipe and went crazy," he said. "People always ask 'where did you bring it in from?' and I say 'The North Pole, which is South of Market.'"
"It got so big that I couldn’t just throw lights on it anymore,” he said. “I wanted it to be like what you experience when you were a child, because the most important thing to you when you were a child was the presents, the toys and the stuff you’re going to get."
Taylor decorated the tree as one would a normal Christmas tree, but his design sense eventually led him to create outsize ornaments to better fit the scale of the tree as it grew. Then he had to make everything around it, including the wrapped presents, larger as well, eventually constructing an entire theater set around the tree each year, girded by steel framework underneath, that dwarfed the house itself.
As friend and fellow activist Cleve Jones tells the Chronicle, Taylor was well known in the community for his ingenuity and creative abilities. "It was like he was some sort of crazy gay engineer," Jones said. "He could do anything, really. He could fix your HVAC system or make you a ball gown."
Taylor also took it upon himself to repair and replace the huge rainbow flag that flies over Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro and Market, as needed when it became tattered — and as Jones recalls, he made sure to remind everyone it could never fly at half mast because it would get entangled with the overhead Muni lines.
Taylor was also one of the rare long-term survivors of HIV, having been diagnosed in 1983 when it was an all but certain death sentence — and he and Goldstein, like Jones, watched a legion of friends of die in the 1980s and 90s.
Jones, who wrote in his own memoir about the experience of surviving the AIDS crisis long enough to receive the drug cocktails that saved countless lives starting in the mid-1990s, tells the Chronicle, "Some people were very badly hurt by the experience [of AIDS]. And some of us just turned out to be tough as nails. Tom was tough as nails."
While he and Goldstein were also well known for their fundraising for various causes, Taylor will be best remembered by the public for that audacious, over-the-top tree. It's unclear whether plans have been made to keep the tradition going after his death.