Sunday, December 11, 2011

Synchronized Electric Holiday Cheer

While visiting a drug store this weekend, I noticed that A Christmas Story has become a cottage industry -- a fairly major cottage industry, I'd say, to get a whole endcap display of its themed merchandise at this particular large chain. Maybe this year I'll get around to seeing that movie, since somehow or other I've missed it over the years. I'd never even heard of it until some years ago, when I read that the house in Cleveland used for exteriors had been converted into a museum devoted to the movie. Or I could just read about the movie, so that I'll understand the significance of a female leg table lamp in the story.

Until this weekend, I'd also never seen home Christmas lights synchronized to flash in time to a musical score, though I'd been vaguely aware of such displays, which are still fairly new. An early example of synchronized Christmas lights "was the work of Carson Williams, a Mason, Ohio, electrical engineer who spent about three hours sequencing the BB Light-O-Rama channels that controlled the 16,000 Christmas lights in the 2004 version of his annual holiday spectacular," says Snopes. "His 2005 display included over 25,000 lights that he spent nearly two months and $10,000 to hook up. So that Williams' neighbors wouldn't be disturbed by constant noise, viewers driving by the house were informed by signs to tune into a signal broadcast over a low-power FM radio station to hear the musical accompaniment."

Another source says that Williams spent three hours sequencing each minute of his display, but whatever the total, I'm sure it was a lot of work. Now, in the holiday season of 2011, either the techniques involved in creating this kind of light show are being defused to the benefit of Christmas-display enthusiasts, or Christmas-display specialists have learned Mr. William's strategies and are finding a market for their services. Or both. But when you chance across an elaborate synchronized display in the heart of the northwest suburbs, you know the thing's got some legs, at least among homeowners for whom static Christmas lights just aren't enough.

One of Lilly's friends told us about a synchronized display a block from her house, and when Lilly and I were in the area on Saturday evening, we stopped in front of the house for a few minutes and watched. It's exactly as described above: thousands of lights and a hand-lettered sign advising us to tune into a certain unoccupied FM frequency. As we watched, the lights flashed in artful on/off patterns to "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" and a few other songs. A remarkable sight. I plan to take Yuriko and Ann to see it soon.

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