Autumn tends to be fairly mellow in Lamorinda. Families have gotten into the swing of their back-to-school routine. Fall sports are underway. The weather waffles between warm and sunny, mild and misty. The tree-lined streets have that burnt orange and rustic red hue.
But October is decidedly busy for Tom Stack and his family. Tom, wife Kiki, and pre-teen son Sam are keenly aware of a deadline that looms large on their calendar every year: October 31st. Halloween is huge at their Burton Valley home. And, it’s about so much more than jack-o-lanterns on the porch or cobwebs stretched out over mailboxes.
Halloween is show time, as far as Tom is concerned.
The Stack house is legendary. Indeed, the home’s reputation extends beyond neighboring streets or cross-town acquaintances. Ghosts and goblins have been known to come from far and wide simply to witness the spectacle of “that Burton Valley Halloween house” for themselves.
And, that October 31st deadline that’s looming large? Not a problem, because Tom himself is larger than life. He puts his heart and his soul into the annual Halloween display, just as he does with all aspects of his life – personal, professional, and everything in between. He lives life to the fullest – always has and always will.
What you see of Tom Stack on October 31st might be most accurately described as spook-tacular. But the other 364 days of the year? Totally spectacular.
Lights, Smoke Machines, Action
Stack is a man of his word. His annual Halloween display confirms as much. Initially, it was something he was doing to fulfill a promise he and Kiki had made to the previous owners of the gorgeous Burton Drive home.
“When we put the offer in on the home in 2001,” he reminisced, “there were a lot of people in it, at the Sunday open house. I went to the listing agent and I said ‘20% down, what does that look like on a monthly basis?’ And she said, ‘I’ll tell you that but you also need to understand that the owners will not accept an offer from anyone who is not intent on continuing the Halloween tradition here at this house. It’s very important.’ ”
Tom and Kiki were focused on scoring what they viewed as their dream house. “I said, ‘sure, we’ll carry on the tradition, but come on, how much?’ ” The listing agent wasn’t pulling any punches. She wanted to know that Tom – who, ironically, has since forged a wildly successful career as a Lamorinda realtor – would make good on the promise. “She said it's a production and that this house is the center of the neighborhood and I said ‘alright, yeah, we love to do that kind of stuff,’ ” Stack described the negotiations. “We won the offer based on our commitment to do it. (The sellers) turned down $50,000 more from a couple with three kids, they turned them down because they're busy, they didn't have the time for it. So they took our offer.” That offer included a personal letter from Tom and Kiki, complete with family picture highlighting Sam, then a precocious and chubby-cheeked one-year-old.
“I encourage my clients to do that,” Stack explained how he turned the personal experience into a business practice. “If it’s earnest, it’s effective.”
Naturally, the sellers wanted to be sure – really sure - that Tom and Kiki would hold up their end of the bargain.
“There were 10 steps throughout the escrow. Every step, they asked if I was still up for Halloween. It came up when we went to sign the loan docs. ‘Are you sure? We have a backup offer, are you sure?’ ” he recalled.
On a personal level, Stack felt compelled to honor the promise. After all, he reasoned, he earned a minor in Eastern religion from Santa Clara University. He believes in karma in a big way. And, on a lighter note, it just sounded cool to Tom and Kiki. The owners never really gave them much in the way of a blueprint – just some general rules of thumb.
"You gotta do it up,” Tom remembers being told. “And it's on you to do it up, you're going to have a lot of people coming, riding in the back of pickup trucks, pulling up, they come from all over to Burton Valley and this is the centerpiece house. It has to be rockin’.”
They’d heard about previous years’ Halloween displays in the vaguest of terms – a roaring fire in the fireplace and the front door framed to look like a dragon’s mouth – the idea being that, from the sidewalk, it looked like a giant dragon breathing fire.
"I was kind of up for the challenge, actually," said Tom.
Still, the Stacks had to find their groove. The first year was pretty straightforward – goblins and a graveyard scene on the front yard. The previous owners even showed up, disguised in costumes, to check it out. It was a solid showing, but the Stacks wanted to do more.
“By the second year we were all over it. I have a half-dozen smoke machines, I have 20 tiki torches, I have a dedicated power box for Halloween, 20 spot (lights), gargoyles,” listed Tom. “We’ve moved way past the graveyard.”
So what do they do now? Full-blown, all-out themes – and live actors are a must.
A couple of years ago, the theme was Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a Harrison Ford fill-in (cracking his whip, naturally) and a Jeep on the front yard (with a smoke machine underneath the hood for that crucial “steaming, broken down” look). They’ve also executed Pirates of the Caribbean, relying on a nephew to swagger like Captain Jack Sparrow (the ladies swooned over the young man, legend has it). That nephew once brought a classmate along to participate in Stacks’ Halloween production. Turns out that classmate, Darren Criss, went on to star as Blaine Anderson on Glee. Tom and Kiki also recruited an ensemble cast the year they did Wizard of Oz. Fittingly, Tom was the Wizard, working the mic and amplifier like nobody else in Burton Valley could.
“People were freaking out,” he enthused. “We had every character, Dorothy, the Tin Man, The Lion, a yellow brick road.”
They’re mindful of their audience, maintaining a more mellow tone earlier in the evening when the youngest trick-or-treaters come by. But as the evening wears on and the older kids stop by, it’s game on for Tom.
“The fifth, sixth grade crowd and on up, they want to get rocked,” Stack reasoned. “And we rock them.”
He estimates they give out between 1,200 and 1,500 pieces of candy ever year – usually one piece per kid.
“But by the time they get the candy,” he pointed out, “they aren’t even looking in their treat bags. Their heads are on a swivel. They’re looking at the action.”
Stack starts laying the power cords and testing the equipment a few days ahead of time, and don’t even get him started on the utility bill. But, those are hardly deterrents for a self-professed man of the community.
“It was a commitment we made,” he pointed out, “and people count on it. The enjoyment that the kids get out of it is really, really cool. And I like that.”
What a Long, Incredible Trip It’s Been
Putting on a spectacular Halloween production in the Lamorinda suburbs is a far cry from what Tom used to do. And, for the record, he’s done a lot.
The San Francisco born-and-bred kid (third-generation in Haight-Ashbury and a fifth-generation San Franciscan) used to criss-cross the country selling Grateful Dead-inspired t-shirts. He tended bar in the Caribbean. He worked in corporate Silicon Valley.
And it all started with a concert. October 19th, 1974.
“We deadheads know our dates,” he said good-naturedly.
Stack was a junior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School and scored a spot on the floor at Winterland thanks to a friend who had tickets to a Grateful Dead concert – but needed a ride to the show. Stack had the car, but no ticket.
“I knew a few songs, some buddies I knew were there, it was great,” he described his initially nonchalant attitude about the experience. “I thought, cool, they’re retiring and I can check this off my list.”
Turns out, the band came out of retirement in 1976. So, Tom caught a few more shows.
“1977 was a great year for them,” said Stack, who by that time was a student at Santa Clara University. “I went with some college friends when they did a night at Winterland and they just killed it. It was a moment during Good Lovin,’ the place exploded and I thought, ‘we’re on to something. This is what I want. I want to be with those guys.’ ”
“It became the fabric of my life. I love all kinds of music,” Tom said emphatically. “Music from all around the world.”
Despite this newfound passion, Stack was on track to enter the real world. He earned his business management degree in 1979 and took the corporate route straight out of college. He was appreciative of his parents’ generosity in sending him to college, and wanted to harness the college graduation momentum.
Eventually, though, the energy and excitement of traveling and seeing live music proved too great a pull for Tom.
Ever the trailblazer, he began making connections from coast to coast, thanks to what can only be described as an archaic, old-school type of Facebook networking – a guy in Boston who produced a handbook of names and numbers so free spirited music lovers like Stack knew who to call, where to go, and where to crash for the night when coming to town for a show.
“I’m a connector,” Stack explained the appeal for him. “That’s at my core.”
By 1984 he’d quit his Silicon Valley-based job and planned to bartend in the Caribbean. He’d been warned not to come in the summer, so he was looking for something to do to tide himself over for a few months.
Technically, he didn’t just tide himself over – he sort of tie-dyed himself over, too.
“I had to think of something to do. I thought of this t-shirt idea, I went to a concert to sell it,” he reminisced. “I sold 70 of ‘em in 20 minutes.”
He made a decent profit on each shirt and considered it a nice afternoon. And then he tried it again. And again. Until he was touring the East Coast, selling his “Club Dead” (a parody of Club Med) shirts in parking lots all over the place.
Paradise was calling, so Tom eventually did make it down to his bartending gig in St. Thomas. And, he was selling his Club Dead shirts from behind the bar, in between the Mai Tais and margaritas he was making.
Not too shabby – but nothing compared to what was about to happen. Business would soon be booming.
Brokering Life as a Businessman
Stack received a call in St. Thomas from Gloria, a New Jersey gal who ran a head shop. She’d seen Tom’s merchandise and wanted to buy 48 Club Dead shirts wholesale. She told Tom she planned to double the price and sell them in her shop.
Hesitant at first but finally relenting, he boxed up the shirts and sent them off C.O.D. A few days later, Stack received her money order. And then a few days after that, Gloria called again. She wanted 48 more shirts.
And thus began his wholesale business.
One element of Stack’s success was finding the right outlets for his shirts. Often, this was accomplished by rolling into a college town and simply asking a few students where the hip place was to buy clothes.
Whatever the answer, that was where Tom pitched his shirts.
Even as business took off, he remained committed to the music.
“I just liked going to the shows. That passion came first. The band came first, the music came first. I never blew off a show to sell. I always went in. The purpose was to see the show. The fact that I could pull money out of the parking lot was a byproduct,” he said emphatically.
Still, it was a business, and a booming business at that. His San Francisco flat, for a time, served as company headquarters, complete with employees tie-dying t-shirts in the basement sink. Ultimately, with t-shirts outnumbering living space and employees being added to the payroll, Stack took out a lease on a South of Market location, paying 75-cents per square foot. Stack shakes his head good naturedly as he considers that the office space now goes for $100 per square foot.
Then came August 9, 1995. It happened to be Tom’s father’s birthday and he needed his son to accompany him to the DMV to renew his license. The younger Stack called the office to check in.
“Sally is bawling,” he recalled. “I can’t even make out what she’s saying, so Burt the shipping guy picks up the phone and says Jerry died.”
“So here I am, untethered, on a floating raft with my father. I can’t tell my dad because he knows my livelihood is based on that, I can’t tell him. It will distract him from his driving test. He needs his license, I can’t say a word to him, I can’t turn the TV on.”
“21 years of rolling with this band and now I’m by myself on the day Jerry Garcia dies and I can’t talk about it. I can’t mention it. It was weird. I wasn’t with my people, I wasn’t supporting my team up at the office,” summed up Tom.
Eventually, Tom told his father what had happened – though not before the elder Stack passed the written driving test (thanks to some covert help from his son).
“He said you have to go, you have to go tend to your business,” the elder Stack told Tom.
A connection with the band’s manager meant that Tom was granted entrance to the funeral. He was raised to pay his respects in these types of situations, his mother had once taught him. Plus, he wanted and needed closure for himself.
He allowed himself a little time to regroup, and ultimately connected with Carlos Santana – becoming the first non-corporate licensee of Santana gear. He was working directly with the guitar legend when the Supernatural album went number one in the world on the Billboard charts. But, ultimately, things were different.
“Deadheads spent money. Santana fans aren’t conditioned to do that off-site of a concert. They don’t go to head shops, for instance,” said Stack. “The demographics are different.”
So, into IT he went, but three layoffs sent Tom went back to the Dead. For four years, he made the commute to San Rafael to be the band’s licensing guy, managing their website and merchandise. He had to sweet-talk the band into selling things in storage – sometimes decades-old stuff from concerts. Some things had been up on the shelves so long that they had survived a complete fashion cycle – the initial trend before falling out of fashion and then coming back into fashion when Stack was unloading it.
As Stack put it, he was “deconstructing” the Dead’s inventory.
As that gig was winding down, he “needed another crack in the door.” That crack turned out to be real estate.
“Three out of the five ‘big’ people who used to sell t-shirts in the concert parking lots and took it wholesale to the stores are selling real estate, two in Marin and me. Really strange how that worked out,” Stack said. “It’s a very similar business and like working without a net. For me, it’s large? Or extra-large?”
Stack keeps an animated Howie Mandel bobblehead on the desk of his Orinda Coldwell-Banker office. “Deal? Or no deal?” Mandel asks when you press the button on the pint-sized figurine.
Planting Roots On the Other Side of the Tunnel
Tom married Kiki in 1996. She is an accomplished singer and musician and has owned a hair stylist business in Lafayette for nearly three decades.
In true Tom Stack style, their paths crossed long ago at – where else? – a Grateful Dead concert. They first met in a Ventura County Fairgrounds parking lot in 1983. They saw each other for years on the music scene but one time she came into his t-shirt booth at a show, she was wearing an engagement ring.
“I had just figured out to start looking at rings. I’m in my mid 30s now and I just started to look at hands,” said Stack.
A few months later, she reappeared at his booth at Shoreline, this time without the ring. Tom’s response to her story of a broken engagement: “What are you doing Saturday? We’re going out.”
Now, they’re happily married, in Lamorinda.
He calls his move to Lamorinda a “total trust walk.” He had owned a home in San Francisco and admitted he didn’t know much about the East Bay ‘burbs.
Kiki had spent her teen years in Danville and had her business in Lafayette, so they figured Lafayette was a good fit for the family, and the ideal place to raise their son.
“I didn’t even know Highway 24,” he chuckled.
He also didn’t know anyone in Burton Valley, where he was settling down after a decades-long journey that had taken him to some of the most fun and wild corners of the earth.
“It worked for me the way it always works for me,” Stack explained the transition. “I went and found my people.”
That meant connecting with mountain biking-neighbors and local nature enthusiasts. He’s particularly proud of the open space behind his house – something he has fought to preserve.
Pumping Up the Volume at the Town Hall Theatre
Long before Stack settled in Lamorinda, Brent Mydland was here. Tragically, the musician - the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist for more than a decade - died in 1990 at the age of 37, in his Lafayette home.
Nearly two decades later, Tom spearheaded an effort to pay tribute to Brent. Always one to put his keen business and music acumen to good work, Tom wanted the tribute to be something of a double-whammy, benefitting the local arts and music scene at the same time.
In 2007, he teamed with fellow music buff, Lafayette Chamber of Commerce executive director Jay Lifson - somebody Stack calls an “inspirational guy” – to pull off an evening honoring Brent’s life. It was also a fundraising event for Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre.
“I cashed in a bunch of chips,” acknowledged Stack.
But, it paid off, raising much-needed funds for the theater, and launching Stack into his next adventure, serving as Vice President of Town Hall’s Board of Directors.
He’s putting the skills he learned long ago – not only at Santa Clara University and in his early years in Silicon Valley, but in t-shirt stands, too – to good use in Lafayette. That means analyzing Town Hall’s business practices and keeping things as streamlined and efficient as possible.
He’s equally determined to ignite the local music scene.
“We have killer acoustics, cushy seats, a sound system and lights, that’s what we’ve got,” he described Town Hall Theatre. “The kids’ programs are key, the shows are key, but hey, on dark nights, let’s put on some music. We’re flipping switches and plugging things in, and people get it. No bridge, no tunnel, no freeway. You can hear some live music and be home in ten minutes.”
Stack knows there’s an audience that craves live music in Lamorinda. In fact, it turns out his connection to one such resident runs pretty far back.
“I had a gal who came up to me at Town Hall and said ‘I bought a t-shirt from you in 1985 at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin and I remember you thanked me. And you gave me a sticker.’ She told me everything that had happened 26 years ago,’” he marveled.
Choreographing a Sense of Community
Stack isn’t just gregarious and energetic. He’s equally gracious and humble, and despite meeting everyone from Jerry Garcia to Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, and plenty of other notable people in between, he ranks the way you treat people – not your fame and fortune – as most important.
“I was raised and educated in an environment of caring. Being an individual in service to others,” Tom stressed. “And you do, in fact, reap what you sow.”
Where has he gone with that mantra? Perhaps the better question is where hasn’t he been. The one-of-a-kind, colorful and dynamic décor in his home office tells the story of a most incredible life. Bobbleheads line one shelf – Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia, Jed Clampett, Bill Walton and Willie Mays among them.
He has concert posters, memorabilia and binders filled with the ticket stubs that chronicle every show he’s ever seen. He has chairs from Winterland and Seals Stadium plus memorabilia from his good friends on the 1986 Boston Celtics World Championship team.
One peek into Stack’s home office and you just know this is a guy who’s been places. He’s seen the world (and seen some incredible live shows) and met incredible people. At the end of the day, who and what matter most?
“This poster over here,” Stack points to a frame in the corner. “Champs, 1975. That’s from St. Ignatius, my senior year. We won almost everything. There was a poster they printed, a smaller version of it, that picture, and they gave it to all the students. I had it remade by the guys who make the Fillmore posters. This is signed by all the players on the team, coaches, and president of SI and the athletic director.”
How is it possible, considering the mind-boggling amount of memorabilia and collectibles filling his home office, that he points to that poster as the one thing he’d save?
“These are my brothers. These are my guys,” he said without hesitation. “That was the making of me. I wasn’t a starter. But my work against them every day made them better and made our team better. It’s really hard to explain. The school put us into the Hall of Fame - as a team. I was a captain as a senior. It’s what we all meant to each other.”
Tom describes it as a remarkable and definitive period of time.
“I can’t really put my finger on it,” he surmised “But we’re all alive and we’re all together and we did it classy.”
Basketball great Bill Walton of UCLA and Boston Celtics fame is one of Tom’s oldest and dearest friends, and the person Tom cites as among the most influential in his life.
“He taught me a championship mentality,” summed up Stack. “Confident but not arrogant. Bill taught me to think like a champion and play like a champion.”
To a certain extent, Bill showed Tom the ropes on the road.
“He was Captain Fun. We traveled the country to see the Grateful Dead,” said Stack.
Bill’s championship mentality meant front row seats at Rolling Stones concerts and sitting in on Bob Dylan’s warm-up in his trailer before a show.
Tom and Bill pumped up the volume in 2004 with debut of “One More Saturday Night with Bill Walton,” a weekly show on Sirius Satellite Radio through 2006. The Saturday evening program ran for three hours - if not longer. Bill tapped Tom to produce the show. After all, who better to arrange interviews with members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane? Tom’s knowledge and rock ‘n roll expertise made him the perfect person to help host, too. Is it any wonder that Bill good-naturedly called Tom “Vice President of Everything” on the show?
And, when it comes to the Lamorinda real estate market, Tom is very much the champion. He has enjoyed a wildly successful career as a realtor in Coldwell Banker’s Orinda office. In fact, he has qualified as a top producer in that office each of the last three years.
He is also a certified Eco-Broker, which speaks volumes about his knowledge and ability to help clients interested in buying or selling a home with green, certified environmentally-friendly features.
Help is a key word for Tom – it’s what he does for his clients.
“Why real estate?” he pondered. “It’s the opportunity to help people, no matter their situation. Listing a home to sell it, maybe they want to downsize, to move to live near family, somebody passed away, whatever the reason, they need help doing it.”
“If you’re buying a home,” continued Tom, “a first home, expanding or maybe upgrading. I’m helping people and I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from that.”
He considers it particularly rewarding when he runs into clients around town after they’ve settled into their new home.
“I love to hear that they’re happy, their kids are in swimming or doing other sports, they love the community. They didn’t know where to go or what to do initially and they needed my help,” is how he summed up his role as a realtor.
He’s a tireless booster for Lamorinda. It’s his community. And, community is everything to Tom.
“As Deadheads, we were the largest traveling community ever. There will never be anything like that again. The St. Ignatius guys. Burton Valley, Town Hall Theatre, CYO Basketball,” Tom described his affiliations proudly. “Community. In these tough times, people need each other more than ever.”
Stack welcomes the community to his Burton Drive home on Halloween. Simply head into the neighborhood and follow the crowds - you’ll find it in no time! This year’s theme remains a closely-guarded secret.
Turn to Tom Stack for all of your real estate needs – whether buying or selling, he’s your go-to guy: Coldwell Banker’s Orinda Office. 5 Moraga Way, Orinda. (925) 878-9964. tomstack.com