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Two Saratoga County residents' holiday light displays become part of community

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Two Saratoga County residents' holiday light displays become part of community

Work starts weeks in advance
Two Saratoga County residents' holiday light displays become part of community
Gary Brownell in front of his display in Clifton Park Tuesday, November 26, 2019.
Photographer: Peter r. barber/gazette photographer

When you enter the Park Lane Estates development in Clifton Park during the holiday season, the Brownell house is hard to miss.

Gary Brownell began by hanging a few lighted candy canes from the trees in his yard, and each year over the past two decades he has made additions.

“I would see something new I liked and add things,” said Brownell. He added a 12-foot inflatable Santa Claus to the candy canes, then the display snowballed from there.

He spends about 20 hours each season decorating the front and backyards with a variety of lights, some that change colors and others that don’t, as well as inflatables, all in a North Pole theme. He lines the sidewalk leading to the house with more candy canes and peppermint-candy-shaped lights that change colors. There is a big inflatable arch over the driveway, and polar bears, reindeer, elves and wrapped presents dot the yard. New this year on the side of the house is a group of gingerbread men enjoying cups of hot cocoa.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Gary Brownell’s display in Clifton Park Tuesday, November 26, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Gary Brownell’s display in Clifton Park Tuesday, November 26, 2019.

He also decorates the backyard with a Santa Claus sitting in a chair, gifts, elves and reindeer. In the evenings, they leave the blinds open in the back so the family can enjoy it.  

Brownell has three criteria for the decorations that go into his display.

“It’s got to be something I like. It’s got to fit into the theme. And it’s got to be on sale,” he said. 

Brownell characterizes finding certain inflatables to go along with his theme as “a hobby in itself.” They’re sold through different retailers, and each year the product lines change.

More from Celebrate 2019: Traditions

“What’s available this year won’t be available next year,” he said. He notes that the inflatables hold up well and that he is able to purchase replacement parts for them, allowing him to use them year after year in his display.

Charlton resident Charlie Smith grew up liking lights. He remembers when he was a boy that there was a homeowner at the end of his street who put up a lighted gingerbread house during the holidays.

“I always remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever,” Smith said. At dusk, he and friends would go up to the end of the street and watch their neighbor come out and start plugging in extension cords. “Everybody knew that house,” he said.

For the past five years, Smith’s neighbors know his house. Like Brownell, he started out small, with a star he constructed himself and hung in a tree, and an outline of lights on his home’s roofline. Then at the end of one holiday season, he was at a home improvement store and noticed some lights on sale for 75 percent off. The affordability prompted him to ramp up the lights and have an animated show.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Charlie Smith in front of his lit up house on Stage Road in Charlton Tuesday, November 26, 2019.PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Charlie Smith in front of his lit up house on Stage Road in Charlton Tuesday, November 26, 2019.

The first time he did it, it took him a year to plan. He began searching the internet to learn about the related technology through online forums, where he found a whole other “family” of animated show enthusiasts.

“My first year was just a ton of reading and research, and seeing all the technologies out there,” Smith said, noting that much of the software is free. 

He has floodlights in the front of the home that provide a color wash on the facade of the house. He wraps the front poles on the porch with lights and places a wreath on the end of the house. The main features are a series of hoops and two Christmas trees. 

After he installs the lights and light-up structures, the artistry comes. This is the most time-consuming part of the process.

“The artistic side is sitting down with the music and giving your show a feel,” Smith said.

He carefully selects songs that are catchy, but not too traditional or religious. He aims for music that lends itself to slow fades and color changes. Then he programs the lights for color and to go with the tempo and dynamics of the music. For example, one year he used the song “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen.”

“I had this picture of snow and ice and blues and whites — that sort of feel,” he said.

Each year, Smith has added a new song, and he has the goal of adding four or five new ones this year. At the beginning of the season, he has to do a bit of review of the software, but once he gets going the process moves quickly.

“You want to come up with something new and different for each song,” he said. “You think about something you want and try to figure out how the software can make that happen.” 

To help with testing out the programming of the lights and music, Smith set up a camera outside so that he can check the results right from his computer in the basement. 

He mounts a digital display with a radio station frequency that people can tune in to to hear the music. He has an FM transmitter plugged into a computer that broadcasts the music to a small area around the house.

LOGISTICS

The weather is a big factor in when the outdoor displays go up. Brownell begins working on his display right after Halloween, completing it a bit at a time. He stays off ladders, using fishing line to hoist the candy cane lights up into the trees. 

Smith puts the roof lights up in October, before the cold weather sets in, then programs them for Halloween colors. To put up the trees, he has to drive rebar into the ground. This year, the cold and snow came early, so putting those features up was more of a challenge than usual. 

Brownell has to be mindful of the weather during the eight weeks he has his décor on display.

“One of the biggest enemies to a display like that is the wind,” he said. Sometimes he must deflate some of the bigger pieces. Ice can weigh them down, so he has to clear them off in frigid weather.

Smith is concerned about traffic patterns created by those who come to watch and listen, so he intentionally programs pauses in the show that invite a natural exit.

“The aim is not to create a traffic jam,” he said. 

THE WHY

Both Brownell and Smith view the holiday displays as a hobby. “This hobby let me get my nerd out,” Smith said.

“My children are both special-needs, and it was just entertainment that turned into a hobby,” Brownell said. “I just do it because I like to — it’s fun and it gives me something to do.” 

“It’s a happy kind of display,” said his wife, Pat Brownell.

More from Celebrate 2019: Traditions

Many who take in the displays express appreciation to the families for putting them up. Someone put a letter in the Browells’ mailbox last year. The Smiths also receive notes and comments from neighbors in the mailbox and taped to the house. 

“Every year you seem to get that one rewarding story,” Smith said. One year, some grandparents brought their autistic and quiet granddaughter to see the show. When “Let It Go” came on, she lost all of her inhibitions and started belting out the song.

“They were so grateful for that moment and seeing their granddaughter like that,” Smith said. “I try to keep it in my thoughts. That’s why I do it.”

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