Hamming it up with a beach scene in the kitchen of their Port Washington home, Ken and Janis Schmalz got in the mood for this year’s edition of their dependably funny Christmas cards. Ken’s T-shirt says, “Six pack coming soon.”
There are few Christmas cards more anticipated by recipients than those created by Janis and Ken Schmalz, who have sent “schmalzy” cards for more than 20 years.
The Port Washington couple are probably tired of that pun, but agree most of their cards fit that description.
This year’s card with a wacky theme is a juxtaposition of Janis lounging in a swimsuit sipping a tropical drink while on a Caribbean cruise and her husband slaving away at home in the kitchen, with both hamming it up for the camera.
Janis got her inspiration for this year’s card when she joined a friend from Florida and 28 of her acquaintance’s girlfriends on a seven-day cruise the first week of December.
“I didn’t know anyone else, but now I have a lot of new friends. They all said, ‘You’re so much fun. If you ever need a place to stay, call us,’” Janis said.
That’s not surprising for the woman who with her distinctive white hair and quirky sense of humor likes to make people laugh. When she enters a room, the party starts, and her laughter is often heard above everyone else.
“There are times I’m kind of loud and I do laugh easily,” she said. “I don’t care. Life is too short not to laugh.”
On the cruise, when she found a man’s sleeveless T-shirt in a Jamaican shop that read “Six Pack Coming Soon,” her card idea started forming.
“I knew I wanted to use that shirt,” she said.
Last week, she took pictures of her husband wearing the shirt as he worked in the kitchen. Janis e-mailed the photos she wanted for the card to their daughter Wendi Brue, who is a graphic artist. Wendi edits and enhances their card, adds the greeting and e-mails it back to her parents.
“They’re always a surprise,” Janis said. “I can tell her what I want, but that isn’t always what I get.”
It’s not unusual for a piece of clothing to serve as Janis’ inspiration.
When she found a long red nightshirt with the picture of a moose with Christmas tree lights strung on its horns and the word “mooseltoe,” she knew she had the theme for last year’s card.
What made the picture were the big, bright red wax lips she, Ken and a toy moose wore.
Janis is the mastermind behind the cards, sometimes working for weeks to build sets and make costumes. Other times, the cards are a picture of the two of them on vacation, but it’s never a typical vacation photo.
The 2004 card shows the couple in Florida wearing swimsuits and sunglasses and holding pool toys. Ken is sitting like a Buddha with his suntanned belly hanging out, wearing a red Santa cap with black fur trim.
Although he’s often the butt of a joke, Ken rarely balks at what his wife asks him to do. He’s the one who addresses and seals 100 envelopes and mails the cards.
“She works very hard on them. The least I can do is help her,” he said.
Their 2006 card looks like they’re on a warm, sunny beach, but was actually taken on a cold November day at Port Washington’s north beach. They scooped the wet, cold sand into body shapes and stuck their boots and gloves in the sand.
Their daughter added their heads, both wearing Santa hats, and the words, “May your holidays be filled with sun, fun and friends.”
A “Chillin’ Good Times” card sent in 2012 reveals only their eyes as they stand behind huge penguin cut-outs Janis made. Their face masks have bright orange beaks and they’re wearing holiday hats.
In contrast, all they did in 2010 while in Florida was poke their heads through holes in a wooden prop to display perfect suntanned bodies in skimpy bikinis.
For their millennium card, Ken was the 2000 New Year’s baby wearing a diaper and sucking on a pacifier while Janis was old man 1999 with a white beard, finishing the champagne.
Janis usually takes the pictures with her digital camera, setting the timer after she focuses it so she can get into the scene.
Sometimes a location is needed, such as a friend’s hot tub on a snow-covered deck for one of their early cards.
“When I get an idea, I often drive around the city to find the right location, and I’ll haul the stuff with me,” Janis said.
When she decided they would decorate one of the immensely tall pine trees in Upper Lake Park, they hauled the decorations and a tall ladder to the tree, so Ken could stand on it as he fruitlessly tried to hang a large star at the top.
“People were driving through the park and stopping to see what we were doing,” Janis said.
The couple started making family photo Christmas cards when Wendi and their son Corey were young. The cards were fairly traditional with the family gathered around the Christmas tree or in other festive settings, but one in which Ken was dressed in eye-catching red-polka-dot pajama bottoms gave a hint of what was to come.
When the children left home, Janis said, they weren’t interested in returning for family photo ops, and she wasn’t excited about a photo of the two of them.
“I decided to have fun with it,” she said. “We did a couple of silly ones, and people started looking forward to them. They would say, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do next year.’
“I don’t think we can stop even if we wanted to.”