Symphony of Lights to glow for holidays

Festival featuring more than 300,000 bulbs raises money for maternal, child services at Howard County hospital

November 17, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

There were deer in need of light bulbs this week, as well as bears with bad circuits and snowflakes not ready to sparkle.

But come Sunday, Brad Canfield and his 12-member team plan to have 300,000-plus lights glowing in Columbia as the annual Symphony of Lights display opens for a 49-night run to benefit Howard County General Hospital's maternal and child services.

"We just are changing light bulbs like crazy until Sunday," said Canfield, president of Event Consulting and Management, Inc., which contracts with the hospital foundation to run the event.

Organizers expect that an average of 500 cars each night will drive through the display, which includes toy soldiers, storybook characters, elves, musical instruments and other festive characters.

The event surpassed 1 million visitors in 2004 and has earned nearly $1 million in its 12 years.

Last year, Symphony of Lights raised $316,000. The hospital foundation hopes to increase the total this year with the help of a new feature: a 60-foot-by-40-foot heated tent that individuals or companies can rent for parties.

The drive also will feature new video screens that will tell visitors about the light display and the hospital's programs.

Work on the display began a little more than a month ahead of opening night, as the displays were pulled out of storage containers and erected on the grounds around Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The tallest element -- an archway that depicts an elf throwing a package into a sack -- requires workers to bring in a large crane. Others, including a storybook that appears to open and a toy workshop with conveyor belts that appear to move, are hoisted with a hydraulic lift and ropes.

"We can put it up in about two weeks," said Lou Frey, a member of the Event Consulting team. "It's just the maintenance of it that takes the longest."

Workers have to replace bulbs that broke during storage, and they conduct complete bulb overhauls of each piece every few years. The team also ends up repairing damage done by real deer who need a week or two to learn their way around the new obstacles, Frey said.

Sunday's kickoff begins with the annual Dazzle Dash run and walk through the site. Monday will be the first night people can drive through the display.

Canfield said his team will be on hand every night to make repairs and handle money and security while volunteers greet patrons and direct cars.

The display does not close for the weather unless the cars stop coming, Canfield said.

He said his staff seems to enjoy the job.

"It's one of the few places where everyone who comes is usually in a good mood," he said.

Many members of the Event Management staff work at Merriweather during its season, including Davey Knott, who is the pavilion's operations and maintenance manger. Knott said the pavilion's workers look forward to the change of pace.

"It gives us something a little different to do," he said. But by January, "we are ready to take it down."

Symphony of Lights is open to drivers at 6 p.m. every night from Monday through Jan.7. It closes at 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and at 11 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and holidays. Admission ranges from $15 to $100 depending on the number of people in the vehicle. Information: 410-740-7666.

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