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House draws national attention

It's hard to imagine that you could be campaigning for a big national election this week and not even be aware that you are running for anything.

But that would be the case if you were John and Debbie Wagner, the masterminds behind, among others, the dead Elvis, dead Dr. Phil, dead UK basketball player, dead cops, dead robbers, dead Deal No Deal guy, the bevy of dead women bearing the sign Women Waiting For the Perfect Man, and all the towering pumpkins at 1144 Tanbark Road.

For they are one of only three finalists left on NBC's Today Show's Most Spirited Home Halloween decorating contest. The voting ends Thursday at 5 p.m.. And the winner will be announced sometime Friday morning on the Today Show. It airs 7-11 a.m. on WLEX, Channel 18.

The good news, says an NBC spokesperson, is that the winner of the competition gets "bragging rights." The bad news is that's all they get. No Al Roker on their lawn on Halloween morning. No Brian Williams on their lawn on Halloween night. No cash. No prizes. No trip to the White House.

It was Kerr Funeral Home that first alerted Debbie Wagner to the impending excitement on Monday.

"That's perfect, isn't it," says Debbie Wagner, laughing, "that we heard it from a funeral home."

Thing is, Debbie Wagner is the Lexington police officer in charge of the Citizens Police Academy and also hears from the local funeral homes about the need for police escorts on a daily basis. Ann Finn, from Kerr's, had heard Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, Meredith Vieira and Al Roker talking about this great house in Lexington.

"They showed this Gothic house and I said to myself, that isn't in Lexington, but the next house they showed was," says Finn.

Finn knew of the house because "the Wagners do on the outside of their house what we do on the inside. Hasn't everybody in Lexington seen that house?"

Anyway, so Ann Finn tells Debbie Wagner, but Debbie Wagner doesn't have the necessary Adobe Flash on her computer at work, so she has to call her husband and, finally, she confirms the news. That was on Monday around noon.

By the afternoon, she had put to use the resources that a police officer might use and found out that Christina Ford, a friend of hers who used to work for CNN in Atlanta, had nominated the Wagners without their knowledge.

"I was going to tell her if she made it to the final cut but I forgot to tape it," says Ford, explaining that she didn't record the show announcing the three finalists. The contest was the perfect one for Wagner who does so much for the community, says Ford.

Wagner defers, saying she couldn't do it without the help of the whole Tanbark neighborhood and, specifically, her helpers, Don Romsburg and Darryl Ross.

By night, she says, it's enchanting. By day, well, "we are a code enforcement nightmare," says Wagner. "I can't believe we haven't been written up."

The Wagners never meant for the display to get this large and this, well, famous, but they don't mind it either. It's just what happens when you start adding stuff for 12 years running and don't ever subtract.

"We started with four decorations," she says. "The only rule is nothing gory." And to use the yearly budget-spread method of electric bill budgeting so you don't know what October's light bill comes to.

The Wagners swear they don't do much for Christmas, though the Fourth of July does get a bit patriotic.

Come Friday though, 1144 Tanbark has its biggest moment, whether or not it takes the national prize. That's when Wagner's 90-year-old mother, Jane Lehman, will don a tight leopard costume with a long tail and start handing out candy on the pumpkin-laden porch.

"To hear the kids makes it all worthwhile," says Wagner. "It can be really touching."

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