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It is not much of an exaggeration to say Tim and Ashley Flatland bought their house as a vehicle for holiday decorations.
While the home’s interior courtyard immediately charmed his wife, another feature grabbed Mr. Flatland’s attention: “The roofline,” he says, “screamed ‘Christmas lights.’”
Come the night of Dec. 6, some 70 of the Flatlands’ family, neighbors and friends – at least two-thirds of them children – will gather at their house at 5 p.m. for pizza and beer to see what his enthusiasm has wrought.
The “official unveiling of the Flatland Light Show,” the evite announces, will take place at 6 p.m., when 9,000 shimmering, pulsing LED lights, set to music from the Disney movie “Frozen,” will star in a 20-minute, kid-pleasing program.
A friend suggested they plug their lights into a cause, and the Flatlands turned to a place where they found refuge during their home construction last winter, a neighborhood spot whose ambience and mission both resonate with them.
So while the party is on them, the Flatlands are inviting guests and passers-by to spread some light in the wider community with a contribution to Curt’s Café, which gives young men food-service and life skills that can set them on a path to a brighter future.
Saturday is Opening Night, not a dress rehearsal, for the light show. The show has been in previews for days and in development for months. It is rooted in Mr. Flatland’s Winnetka childhood, where he says he “always did lights with Dad” and where, through the years, he took on jobs with increasing stature – coat checker, cookie arranger, designated driver and, finally, bartender – at the “legendary” cookie exchanges hosted by his mother and attended by as many as 400 people.
Mr. Flatland’s vision for a light show failed to dim through their winter move and remodel; it brightened this fall when baby Jack joined sisters Vivi, 3, and Tatum, 6, in the family. It survived his discovery, when he began putting up the lights before Thanksgiving, that he has “a slight fear of heights.” In the end he joined forces with his contractor, who had never hung lights before, to implement the elaborate drawings he had made and referred to as “The CLP,” for Christmas Light Plan.
Tatum helped wrap the trees with lights and, some nights now, sits in the car with her sister, rapt before the show their dad continues to tweak. With Yuletide in full swing and curtain time approaching, Mr. Flatland is in his element. “I get a little giddy,” he says, adding a superfluous, “I love Christmas.”
Research on potential displays led him to Light-O-Rama, a company he calls “the industry leader in commercial light shows.” Despite experience as a software engineer and a conviction that lights, in general, are a summum bonum (he even installed LED lights under his young daughters’ beds), Mr. Flatland admits feeling like a “newbie” with this project.
He is profiting from the expertise of professionals, finding new software, for instance, that has shrunk the work of synching lights and music to a mere 10- or 15-minute task. “People used to start ‘sequencing’ [a music and light program] right after Christmas for the next year,” he says. He already has Motown, classic rock, Otis Redding and Etta James programs in the works and, given the capability to incorporate them so quickly, is entertaining suggestions for other soundtracks.
From the outset he was convinced he wanted “really good music.” And having seen some shows on the Internet that seemed to him “over the top,” Mr. Flatland decided to stick with predominantly white lights. Previous experience (he lit the Backlot bungalow they reluctantly left when they outgrew it after five years) taught him to “commit to one brand of light,” he says. He is using GE warm white LED lights, sold in big box stores.
He is eminently concerned with the comfort of his new neighbors and continues to prowl the block, checking out the brightness and volume while the show plays. Music from a small radio by his front door should be audible to walkers but not in nearby houses. People driving by will be able to listen on an FM radio station he is still in the process of choosing.
The lights will be lit every night, but, except for Opening Night, the shows will last for just 10-12 minutes on the hours of 5, 6, 7 and 8 o’clock. The possibilities for animation range from a sweep across the house to an “implosion” that starts in the center and spreads outward. But since the software “picks up every beat [of the music],” says Mr. Flatland, there is a threat of creating a strobe effect. Taking pains to avoid that, he says he has to “fine-tune for each song. … It’s important that the lights never teeter into ‘intrusive.’”
The fact that every single light is programmable also means he can control the display’s intensity. He says he thinks he has “brought it down from 100% into the ‘mood Christmas lighting’ sphere,” but in any case, he says, “we’ll adjust. The point is to make people happy.”
He is watching the weather, he says, hoping for a finishing touch: “a light dusting of snow.”
This year’s show is intended to be, as the invitation says, “the first annual.” From mapping out the show to refining it, Mr. Flatland says, “I love the process. …This is my niche.”