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Columbia's king of holiday lights plans his grand finale

For The Baltimore Sun
Meet the man behind Beaverbrook's most extravagant holiday display.

At the peak of December’s annual pilgrimage to Beaverbrook, 500 vehicles an hour slowly snake along the Columbia neighborhood’s streets and spill out onto Clarksville Pike en route to one brightly lit house.

Holiday lighting fans from across the county and beyond embark each year on a quest to view the iconic display at 5034 Durham Road East — one that has boasted as many as 400,000 bulbs and can rack up a $1,000 electric bill. 

Buses bring schoolchildren and senior citizens. Limousines deliver holiday revelers in style. People tramp around the yard and take photos. Someone even proposed marriage under the driveway’s illuminated arches one year.

This season will be no different, with one caveat: Charles “Chuck” Daniels plans to pull out all the stops with his usual $30,000 worth of inventory, but this will be his last over-the-top holiday extravaganza.

After a 14-year run, the lighting master is planning in 2015 to dramatically reduce the scope of the spectacle that tops many residents’ must-see lists.

“This year I think I’m going to go overboard,” says Daniels, a retired computer programmer who helped write the software for the New Jersey lottery system, which was the first of its kind in the country.

“It won’t be a grand exit, just more of a stepping-stone as I go from having an attention-getter to something less.”

He’s not cutting back because he turned 75 this year, a milestone that no one who has seen what he creates on his own would have guessed anyway. 

And for a man who just completed two of three phases of a solo transcontinental bicycle ride in September — and who, during retirement, has run the Boston Marathon and hiked the triple crown of America’s elite hiking trails — it’s certainly not a question of health or stamina. 

Daniels says the decision to downsize was made for him.

“Mother Nature has taken away my props,” he explains, referring to three 40-foot pine trees in his front yard that are dying. He strings cable among those 50-year-old pines to suspend his most elaborate decorations.

“When we take down those three [in the spring], we’ll have to stand back and decide if we need to take down other trees in order to balance the landscaping,” he says, and that will drastically alter his future design strategy.

 “We” refers to Daniels and his wife, Andrea Almand, a retired River Hill High School teacher. 

Almand says her husband “gets laser-focused on his projects,” and she has tried for a few years to get him to call it quits so they can travel during the holidays.

“Everything Chuck does is on a grand scale,” she says. “He is the most goal-oriented person I know, and he is not happy unless he has a list of massive projects.”

A recently expanded kitchen and a two-story addition on the back of the house, both of which Daniels built himself from top to bottom, are prime examples of his extreme level of determination, Almand says.

Daniels freely admits he’s a perfectionist who derives great pleasure from attaining goals.

“I don’t know if I could be a happy person if I woke up every day without a plan,” he says. “I need to always have something cooking on the stove so I can go from one thing to the next. It’s in my DNA.”

Daniels notes he’s been forced to make design concessions in past years. 

Santa and the reindeer used to fly four feet above the roof of Daniels’ home, for instance. But it was such an engineering challenge to hoist and suspend the 200-pound head elf, sleigh and team from cables that he finally banished them to the yard in 2010.

One thing that won’t change is Daniels coming down his driveway in the evenings to interact with fans.

“I like to socialize with people, and they love to meet the person behind the lights,” he says, conjuring up a vision of the Wizard of Oz at his control board behind a curtain. 

For many admirers, that’s not too far off base.

“Chuck creates a winter wonderland,” says John Migliore, who lives in Beaverbrook with his wife, Linda. “When our grandkids visit at the holidays, we always take them to see it.”

Daniels especially likes to quiz kids on different aspects of the display.

“I ask them, ‘Can you name me seven things that are different from last year?’” he says, with a big grin. “I mean, who counts the deer? Kids do. And who has 64 deer anyway? Only me.”

Daniels’ devotion to holiday lighting started when he was 13, growing up in a Philadelphia suburb. When his father tired of putting up Christmas lights one year, he asked Daniels to give it a whirl.

“The next thing you know, I’m asking myself how I can add more lights,” he remembers. He ended up sneaking single strands here and there from neighbors’ displays to build up his inventory, figuring they wouldn’t miss them. 

At age 16 he saw a design in Popular Mechanics for two carolers and a howling dog with a moving head, all made out of painted plywood. He used his earnings from making repairs to his father’s rental properties to buy supplies.

 “I made good money, and I had a ’56 Ford convertible and a speedboat,” he recalls with a laugh. “I’ll tell you, I was Mr. Big.”

That project whetted his appetite for bigger concepts, but the novelty wore off by the time he finished high school. He started decorating again after marrying his first wife, who had been his high school sweetheart.

One holiday season early on, he veered from his usual preference for a classy display.

“Everybody has to hang a tree upside down,” he says, laughing at the memory. “You haven’t lived until you’ve done that.”

There was even a time he aspired to use a million lights, setting his sights on appearing on “Oprah” and in the pages of “Guinness World Records.” But reality sank in when he realized he’d have to start decorating in May in order to reach that goal.

Next-door neighbor Rob Smith has volunteered his yard for years to permit his friend to expand his tableau. This year Daniels is taking him up on that offer.

“Chuck told me what he plans to do, and I welcome it,” says Smith, who has lived in Beaverbrook since 1974 with his wife, Julie. “We could all aspire to accomplishing half of what he does with his life.”

Daniels acknowledges that not that many of his neighbors attempt outdoor lighting displays because they feel they can’t compete with him.

“I don’t see this as a contest — not at all,” he says. “It’s just me trying to get people in the holiday spirit.”  

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Chuck Daniels' holiday lighting basics

  • For a simple but stunning display, wrap the branches of one tree with as many lights as you can. Aim for 15 to 20 hundred-light strings for a 20-foot-tall tree.
  • Mix strands of green lights in with blue ones to create a river that has depth, and add ripple or sequential lights to mimic the water’s current.
  • Don’t run lights parallel or perpendicular to your house, because the spacing will be too visible and spoil the illusion. Place them at a 45-degree angle where possible to create a beautiful, random matrix.
  • Be patient and persevere. The work will bring you a lot of joy.

 

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