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Music, bright lights put Ellicott City holiday display on the map

Music, bright lights put Ellicott City holiday display on the map
Bryan Bartlett along with help from his wife Angie, stage a lighting display on their house for the community and their two kids, Bryson (11) and Brynn(8) each year, trying to top the year before. Last year they were on "The Great Christmas Light Fight" on ABC. This year they had a grand opening party with 250 people and did a mannequin challenge. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

'Twas the night before Labor Day and all through the Ellicott City house, not a creature was stirring – except for Bryan Bartlett, who was busily testing strings of holiday lights and synchronizing them to trendy songs.

Yes, the holiday lighting king of 4802 Red Hill Way works from September through Thanksgiving on his annual Christmas extravaganza, a month-long display that has drawn visitors from as far away as Lancaster, Pa.

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"In my head, people driving a distance just to come see this deserve as good an experience and as good a holiday memory as I can give them," he said.

Bartlett, 38, estimates that tens of thousands of people from Howard neighborhoods and surrounding counties have turned out to see his decorated house and yard since he started in 2009.

This year they're showing up to see in-person an interactive display they may have already glimpsed in advance on social media under the heading, "Ellicott City Lights."

The light show operates from 5:15 to 10 p.m. on weeknights and sometimes as late as 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The display's last day for the season will be Jan. 1.

Bartlett spends 100 hours of his free time putting up the lights on his family's two-story home off Montgomery Road when he isn't working as a real estate agent or coaching one of his kids' sports teams.

"People ask me if I'm an engineer or a computer programmer, but I'm neither," he said. "Everything is homemade using regular lights and creative thinking. Anybody could do this."

At a Black Friday invitation-only party to kick off the season, Bartlett made a #MannequinChallenge video outdoors, weaving in and out with a video camera among 200 motionless people who held creative poses while "Black Beatles" by rap duo Rae Sremmurd played.

This year's display features a waterfall of 10 dozen 100-light strings of white bulbs cascading from the roof of the house to the ground; an arched tunnel of lights; and outlines of Maryland-based sports team icons, like Baltimore's Ravens and Orioles and the University of Maryland Terrapins.

"If I have a theme, it's Ellicott City, Baltimore and Maryland pride," said Bartlett, who grew up in Prince George's County.

Making a comeback from last year is the eight-foot-square dance floor Bartlett built that's proved to be an enduring hit with kids. It's comprised of a deck-like base covered with 16 acrylic panels that are lit from behind by color-changing spotlights anchored in the ground.

The dance floor played a big role in an episode last year of ABC's "The Great American Light Fight," which was filmed at the Bartlett home on a warm fall day in early October with a couple hundred people sweating in winter gear for several hours. While he didn't win the $50,000 prize, that didn't deter him this year from continuing, and even expanding, his display.

The most distinctive feature may be the lights that pulse to the beat of pop songs and Christmas carols, which visitors can tune into on their car radios at 96.1 FM. The tunes play outdoors as well, with approval from neighbors.

The pop song rotation includes "My House," by Flo Rida; "Can't Stop the Feeling," by Justin Timberlake; and "Closer," by The Chainsmokers, among other selections.

Bartlett's wife, Angie, a health insurance specialist, pitches in on the project, but he mostly works alone. And yes, he slipped off a ladder once a la Clark Griswold and "ended up battered and bruised, but didn't break anything." The incident made him more cautious, and he now anchors his ladder to a tree.

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Much like Griswold, the Chevy Chase character in the 1989 film "Christmas Vacation," Bartlett takes on the mammoth job each year for the enjoyment of his family, especially for Bryson, 11, and Brynn, 8.

But he also strives to elevate its purpose.

He wrote "EC Strong" in lights across his garage this year, for instance, to show support for Historic Ellicott City, which continues to recover from the flash flood on July 30. The family also collects food for the Howard County Food Bank; last year 800 pounds was amassed.

"This brings people together to make new friends and new memories," Bartlett said. "Community-building — that's my focus."

Community donations are accepted in a red box on the fence and defray 75 percent of the cost of the display plus a few extras, he said.

"If it weren't for the generosity of the community, I couldn't afford to do all this," he said, estimating that $30 is spent each night just on free hot chocolate and popcorn.

Kara Nanni, a mother of three who lives nearby in Brampton Hills, is amazed at the Bartletts' willingness each year to happily have people coming and going for five weeks.

"Everyone looks forward to this and it brightens everyone's holiday season," she said. "What the family does is very heartfelt and has touched the community in a powerful way."

Neal Jarvis calls the house up the street from his "the place to be for Christmas decorations."

"My wife Virginia and I like to get out and walk multiple nights a week, so we always head up there for hot chocolate," he said, chuckling. "Bryan is very welcoming and the place is always packed."

Bartlett said he gets as much out of the project as he gives.

"Someone asked me once where the best place to view my lighting display is," he recalled. "I answered that the best spot for me is with my back to the house, so I can see the looks on all the faces."

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