Reporter’s note: Back in 2014 when I was working for the Squamish Chief we were tasked with writing a column discussing holiday memories or traditions. I wrote about my family’s journey with Sparkle the Christmas Light (which my sister broke), that column can be viewed here.
In the years that followed, the story became the top Google search for the popular product from the late-’80s and ‘90s. A number of people over the years reached out to myself and representatives at The Chief to offer me a new Sparkle and to talk more about the beloved product.
I then received a Facebook message this November from a woman stating that her step-father was the creator of Sparkle and he would love to talk more to me about the product. After about an hour of conversation earlier this month, the mysterious origin of Sparkle the Christmas Light was finally revealed.
Deep in western Mississippi, right on the border with Louisiana, is the man behind one of the biggest (albeit brief) holiday retail successes in Canadian history - Sparkle the Christmas Light.
Donald Shupe, 83, who lives today in Natchez, Miss., was involved in music from an early age. He performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville back in 1956, but eventually realized that superstardom as a performer wasn’t in the cards.
He soon learned that his skills lied in writing music, and the entire concept for Sparkle began to form with the creation of a song he completed in 1971.
“Start off with a song that will come back every year,” he said, of early advice he received from songwriters. “You got to pick out a season. So I said you have Easter and Thanksgiving, but I need a song where everybody’s involved - Christmas.”
The brainstorming continued until Shupe narrowed down his vision.
“I got to thinking what in the world can you write about,” he said. “Everybody’s written about everything, but then I realized I’d never heard a song about a Christmas light. I chose Sparkle as a character because I envisioned this red light, along with all the other lights, but he was the brightest and I made a character about it.”
After writing the song he began shopping it to several producers, who suggested he expand the idea to include an actual light and other products for people to get more connected to the character. Shupe then traveled to Taiwan in 1984 to begin production on the Sparkle materials. He made a number of trips there over the year, working on developing and fine tuning Sparkle and all its related products. It was actually the factory in Taiwan that suggested putting the crown on Sparkle.
“The way I wrote it I called it the king of all lights,” he said, of some of those early production meetings in Taiwan. “And they put the crown on it for me, and said ‘how do you like this’ - I loved it.”
Shupe then acquired patents for the design of the light and copyrights to the Sparkle character. He went on to write a book to go along with the character and hired Nashville singer Darlene Austin to sing the Sparkle song that is included on a cassette tape he also produced. That song is the one that was sold with many versions of the light in Canada.
The Canadian deal was struck in 1985 with a company called Alderbrook Industries, which was based out of Pickering, Ont. Shupe said the company owner became enamoured with Sparkle.
“He fell in love with it because it was something fresh and new,” he said. “They’ve had Rudolph and Frosty and all them and nothing new - it’s the same old songs still being sung.”
Alderbrook, founded in 1963, were at one time Canada’s biggest Christmas decoration company. They believed that Sparkle would be a big holiday hit and even managed to get an inflatable balloon version of Sparkle to appear in The Toronto Santa Claus Parade in 1985. Shupe said he believes that appearance helped spark sales throughout Canada. He said negotiations with Alderbrook were easy.
“They were so eager to get it,” he said. “And they gave me a good contract - I think I ended up with eight per cent of the gross. That is before the net, so I was tickled to death with it and I made good money, I was thrilled.”
Shupe said his first cheque from Alderbrook was for over $85,000. He received another cheque from the company, but he believes they still owe him about $14,000 from additional sales. The light was packaged with a cassette tape, a book and sheet music. Alderbrook distributed the product to stores all across Canada.
Unfortunately the man that Shupe originally dealt with died after that first year and despite what he perceived as its success, the company did not remain in contact with him. Alderbrook filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Shupe said he’s unsure what happened with the deal.
“It was just one year,” he said. “That’s what amazes me about the popularity of Sparkle. I knew I had a winner here, but I was just a poor boy in the south there was no way I could continue doing it. So I just let it be.”
Shupe said he had an opportunity to launch the product in the United States, but miscommunication at a big meeting in New York led to a potential deal not being completed. The company Shupe negotiated with wanted him to match the $5 million they were putting up and it was something he was unable to do. He didn’t receive many other serious offers. He also didn’t decide to sell the item outside of North America. He still has some stock, with about 48 of the original Sparkles still in the package and 300 of a larger version of the light.
He still owns all the trademarks and copyrights related to Sparkle.
Following the ending of the partnership with Alderbrook, Shupe moved on to other things. He ran and went on to sell three different automobile dealerships, he still owns several businesses and runs a number of properties in his area.
He said he’s thrilled to see Sparkle live on in the social media age. A YouTube video with the song has close to 15,000 views and people post online about the item on a regular basis. The light is now considered a vintage or rare product on selling sites such as Amazon or eBay. Shupe said he’s seen the light be sold for hundreds of dollars or more.
He still believes that the light could make a major comeback, and if marketed correctly, could be a huge holiday hit.
“Think of how many Christmas trees are up right now,” he said. “And they all got the same kinds of lights. If you sold Sparkle to just a quarter of them, think of how many Sparkles that would be and how much money that would produce. It should have been the next big thing, but it just didn’t get into the right hands. I think about it all the time, someone could pick it up and run with it. But I still love it and enjoy it.”
Shupe said despite all his success in business and music, in his hometown he is always recognized as the man that created Sparkle. He said he is open to talking to anyone interested in relaunching the brand.
“I’d love to see it take off again,” he said. “It’s so fresh and nobody knows about it over here [USA].”
Despite the potential lost, Shupe said he would not have done anything differently.
“Maybe I should have kept trying to sell it, but God has blessed me so well and maybe I wouldn’t have succeeded in other ways,” he said. “I wished I had pursued it a bit more because I do think it would have brought joy to a lot of people. I hope someday someone will be able to take it and run with it. I don’t see anyone in my family doing that, so it may leave when I leave, ya know?”
Those interested in talking business with Shupe can reach out by contacting him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the original column that sparked this conversation, visit squamishchief.com/opinion/columnists/remembering-sparkle-the-greatest-christmas-light-1.1695780.