If there's a downside to the joy of operating a 55,000-bulb holiday light display that's synchronized to popular Christmas music, it's the time it took to program the 30-minute extravaganza: 12 hours of coding for every minute of show, the equivalent of nine 40-hour work weeks.
But for North Laurel resident Bob Henschen, a computer program manager with the Department of Defense, the flashing display at his home at 8492 Tipton Drive was worth every occasionally unnerving moment he spent working on it.
"The kids just love it," said Henschen, who is 59 and single. "Some of them come and sit on the hoods of their (family's) cars and watch it over and over."
His closest neighbors no doubt notice the bright, LED lights flashing on and off around his 1-acre yard near Scaggsville Road each evening between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, except when there's inclement weather.
But fortunately they don't have to hear the accompanying music track repeating in a half-hour loop each night, beginning at 5:30 p.m. As colorful lights flick on and off like winter fireworks to the beat of a 10-song playlist, viewers listen from their vehicles by tuning into FM 93.5 on their radios.
While Henschen is pleased with the result of the massive effort, he wasn't sure how the project was going to get off the ground, so to speak, when he hurt his back raking leaves on the second day of the month-long leave he took in November to set up the display, he said.
His tenant, Rick Felipe, whom he says is like a son to him, came to the rescue and ended up doing 75 percent of the work.
"I told Bob that if he could provide me with a harness then I would get up on the roof," said Felipe, 40. The pair threw a 100-foot nylon rope over the roof and anchored it to a deck post to ensure safety. Tall maples, an oak and cherry trees took extra effort on ladders as well, he said.
Though it was difficult to pull off, he said the decorations were definitely worth all the time and energy expended.
"The music and lights bring out the holiday spirit, even if you aren't in it," Felipe said.
Supports Boys and Girls Club
And if treating the community to festive lights and holiday cheer weren't enough, Henschen had another bright idea this year. He constructed a small box to collect donations from visitors for the Laurel Boys and Girls Club.
"Bob realizes the importance of giving back and said he's read stories about us needing financial help," said Levet Brown, president of the club, which is attended by 3,300 youth ages 4 to 18.
"People like Bob help give the club the opportunity to give other people an opportunity" in life, he said.
Brown, a 17-year Howard County firefighter, called the light display "really neat."
Henschen set a 20,000-bulb display to five songs last year. But this year is the first time he's used Light-O-Rama, which he said is the same computer software program used in Disney World.
"The show definitely has more of an effect with the extra lights and music," he said of the display, which Henschen said requires a mile of extension cords.
The premium-quality LED lights are expensive — Henschen's total equipment investment he said is $20,000, — but they are cheaper to operate and will last several times longer than incandescent bulbs, he said. He said his electric bill only increased by $20 last year for the entire five-week period, so he expects to double that amount to $40 for this year's expanded display.
When the lights click on at 5:30 p.m., Henschen's laptop screen fills with a pulsing red, white and green horizontal graph that shows which bulbs are turning on and off during each 10-second increment of the 10 songs he chose. He even created a rudimentary Etch-a-Sketch style drawing that illustrates the entire program in action, a feature that helped him to balance the lighting around the house and lot during the design phase.
While the playlist leads off with Burl Ives' "Holly, Jolly Christmas," Henschen says Celine Dion's rendition of John Lennon's "Happy Christmas" is his favorite tune. Four of the selections are instrumental, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Angels We Have Heard on High," and six feature other popular vocalists like Elvis Presley and Josh Groban.
'Spirt of giving'
To add to the fun, a 3-D plaque of Santa's head, mounted on the front of the garage, is more than ornamental: Jolly Old Saint Nick mouths the words to all of the songs that have vocals.
"It took me two days to get the mouth right for just one song," he said with a laugh.
He and Felipe also created 10 red and 10 green bushes along the front footage of his property with tomato cages and draped strings of lights to create silhouettes of pine trees.
Jim Craze, who lives nearby on Heatherwold Drive, says he enjoys the show but what's most important about his neighbor's light display is what it says about him.
"Over the years I've just been impressed by Bob's spirit of giving," said Craze. The kick-off reception Henschen held Nov. 23 for the community "served as a brief moment in time for neighbors to talk, see the lights and enjoy refreshments. It was wonderful."
"Bob and Rick are sharing something to make a contribution to society and that's catching," he said, adding he hopes a lot of money is collected for such a worthy cause.
Henschen's appreciation for the holiday season started at home in State College, Pa., where he grew up with three sisters.
"Mom and Dad made Christmas very special for us every year," recalled the Penn State graduate.
And now, he's the one who can watch people respond to the gift he's given them.
"People drive by and look, but then they stop and wait to see what's going to happen next," he said. "I love that."