As the sun sets over Merriweather Post Pavilion, Justin Lavis prepares to bring a giant lighted toy soldier and cannon to life.
Walking around the nearly invisible guide wires that anchor the towering, 14-foot soldier, Lavis makes his way over to what looks like a fancy power strip. Then, he flips a switch.
Bright red, white and blue LED lights instantaneously outline the soldier and illuminate the darkening sky. But a third of the cannon’s blue lights remain dark.
Lavis walks over to inspect.
“It has a cut wire,” he says, pointing to the bottom of the cannon display.
“That’s why we test them,” says Emily Shreve, special events development manager for the Howard Hospital Foundation, the beneficiary of Symphony of Lights.
The soldier and cannon are part of the annual holiday lights display, which returned to Columbia this year after skipping 2015 to allow for redevelopment of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. The holiday tradition has raised more than $7.5 million since it debuted in 1994.
During the break year, Howard Hospital Foundation sent more than 200 display pieces to a company in North Carolina so their 22-year-old frames could be stripped, sandblasted, acid-dipped, powder-coated, baked and rebuilt. The company also built new displays for the event and replaced more than 250,000 incandescent light bulbs with more environmentally friendly light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
The foundation used the extra time to recruit new sponsors, move the displays closer to Merriweather Post Pavilion and add an ice skating rink to experience.
While crews no longer labor to replace every display bulb as they did in years past, it takes weeks to prepare the spectacle for 100,000 visitors who drive, walk or bike through the lights each year. unloading, assembling and anchoring massive frames; connecting displays to power sources; laying almost nine miles of electrical cables; marking the 1-mile path with almost 50,000 LED lights; and accommodating special requests like marriage proposals.
A tractor-trailer leaves North Carolina-based Mosca Design — the temporary home for Symphony of Lights displays — early the morning of Oct. 13. Inside sit dozens of cardboard boxes filled with the newly built and wired displays.
As the trailer pulls into the Merriweather’s South Entrance Road entrance, employees from Event Consulting and Management Inc. gather in the display’s staging area. The Columbia-based company has operated the lights display since its inception.
One by one, crews unload the boxes. Some are only a few feet long, while others, measuring more than 20 feet, require multiple hands and, at times, a forklift. Employees open one of the larger boxes to reveal a white metal frame adorned with white and red lights.
“That’s the book from Mother Goose,” says Mike Deckman, a Columbia resident and Event Consulting and Management employee who has helped assemble the displays for almost 10 years.
He carries it over and places it against a fence, where it waits until all of its sibling pieces are unpacked.
Each display piece has new silver identification tags this year, bearing names like “Globe 1” and “Globe 2.”
“All of the original tags were gone,” says Lavis, an Event Consulting and Management project manager who has worked on Symphony of Lights for the past 17 years. Over the years, the tags had bent or rusted completely.
“They were out in the worst conditions of the year for months,” Lavis says.
These new tags make it easier to match the pieces in a display, employees say, although many of the veterans can assemble displays from memory.
Unpacking continues for the next week. Then, the set-up begins: large structures like the toy factory, bear toss, kissing couple and soldiers first, “filler” like candy canes and snowflakes last, Lavis says.
In the past, it took seven weeks to set up the displays. But this year, crews are doing it all in five weeks. They got a late start due to the mid-October WPOC Weekend in the Country concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
That’s OK, says Brad Canfield, owner of Event Consulting and Management. They’ll make up the time in the next stage.
When the displays used incandescent lights, crews would change more than 80 percent of the bulbs during set-up.
“Changing 250,000 light bulbs takes a long time,” Canfield says. “We don’t have to do that now.”
The new LED lights can last up to 50,000 hours and use about a fifth of the power used in previous years.
“We may never have to change a light bulb again,” Canfield jokes.
Yet as seen with the solider and his cannon, problems can still occur.
After crews build the displays, they anchor them into the ground and asphalt using steel “T-stakes” and then support them using guide wires. In past years, deer have run into the guide wires at night, causing some of the displays to fall over, Canfield says. Then, the set-up begins all over again.
This year, since the lights are mostly inside Merriweather’s gates, Canfield says he doesn’t expect the animals to be a problem.
For two weeks, crews test the lights to ensure every bulb is lit. One by one, crews also replace nearly 50,000 incandescent pathway bulbs with LED lights and then mark the new, 1-mile course with them.
New electrical devices also make troubleshooting easier on animated displays.
“It’s a lot of extension cords,” Canfield says.
By opening day, he expects to lay more than nine miles of electrical cables on the Merriweather grounds.
In the weeks before Symphony of Lights opens, Shreve is answering constant calls and emails about registration, cost and even marriage proposals.
“We got our first call for a proposal last week,” she says in early November. “We get at least one a season.”
Shreve helps proposers coordinate their visit, having them come either at the start or end of the display hours. The most popular site for proposals? The kissing couple display.
She also has new challenges this year given the new location and features, including ordering a crane to transport the 15,000-pound ice skating rink chiller and relocating the 3-D video from the side of the barn to the concert venue’s lawn. The trees in front of the barn grew over the spring and summer, affecting the viewing area, Shreve says.
Planning for the event never stops, she says.
“As soon as we’re done in January, we visualize what the plan is for the coming year,” Shreve says.
Still, all the hard work and frozen toes from standing out on the course night after night are worth it, she says.
“Having the Symphony of Lights back in 2016 is absolutely worth the yearlong planning process, because the foundation is able to continue this treasured holiday tradition in our community, and raise critical funds to support Howard County’s only hospital,” Shreve says.
“It’s about as ingrained a holiday tradition in Howard County as anything.”