Bill Ellick was concerned that there wasn't enough Christmas spirit in Long Lake.
"I just felt like the spirit of the season was kind of slipping away from the town," Ellick said Thursday in a phone interview. "Nobody cared. It was kinda like, 'Yeah, it's the holidays. No big deal.'"
He had been toying with the idea for a few years, but in 2008 he decided it was time to set up a huge holiday light display at his home and coordinate the flashing lights to the tunes of popular holiday carols.
Bill Ellick’s Christmas light display last year lights up the night.
(Photo — Tracy Thomas)
"I said, 'What the heck, I'm just going to go crazy and jump into it,'" Ellick told the Enterprise. "So I did."
For the last four years, Ellick's display, which he calls Long Lake Lights, has been enthralling more and more people from around the area as word spreads about it.
This year's display will light up for the first time tonight. The setup is automated to light up at 5 p.m., then the music begins and the lights start flashing, fading and flickering to it at 6 p.m.
"I don't have to do anything," Ellick said. "I can just sit here and watch it, or I can go out, it doesn't matter."
It's not that easy in the weeks before the display is ready to go. Ellick actually has to work on it all year to get it ready to go on Dec. 1.
"I walk around in July with Christmas tunes in my head," Ellick said.
He pays about $20 per string of LED lights, and says he doesn't even want to think about how many of those he has. He estimates that he's put about $25,000 into the display so far.
"It's not easy, and it's not cheap," he said.
Using LED lights is actually a lot cheaper to run than most people think, though, because they are so efficient, Ellick said. His electric bill usually runs an average of $35 a month for the year.
He uses equipment from Light-O-Rama, a company based in Glens Falls, to program the lights to the music. It includes a 16-channel controller, which controls 16 different strings of lights or glow molds - those lit-up statues of angels or Santa that sit on many lawns this time of year.
With the software that comes with the Light-O-Rama, he can listen to each song - many times, he said - then tell the controller which lights to turn on, off, fade or sparkle for each portion of the song.
Generally, it takes about three to five hours to program each minute of song, Ellick said, and that number grows as he adds more and more channels. There are about 255 channels in this year's display.
The music broadcasts via a small radio transmitter, which lets music reach radios within about a 1,500-foot radius.
Ellick said he builds new things daily for the display, and spends a lot of time thinking about the kinds of things he can do. He's a do-it-yourself type and likes to experiment.
One of his current dreams is to get two tall towers and rig them with rope or string between them so Santa and Rudolph can fly from one side to the other.
There is a strong online community of people who put up similar lights-and-music displays all over the world and help each other come up with new ideas and problem-solve old ones. There's an especially strong community of decorators in Australia, Ellick said.
"Of course, you wouldn't think they do," he said. "They don't have snow."
It's catching on more and more in the U.S., though, and there are technological advancements that make it more interesting every year.
"It's time consuming," Ellick said. "You more or less have to be fairly dedicated to it to keep up with it."
Ellick said he wanted to be able to do more new things this year, but he has a number of physical ailments that make it harder every year. Plus, he's having a hard time getting by in this economy on the odd jobs he does - contracting, plumbing, electrical work, "pretty much anything I have to do to survive."
This year, Ellick wasn't even sure he was going to put up a display until about three days before Thanksgiving. But then he decided he would, and spent about four straight days setting up the yard. Since then, he has put in countless hours sitting in a chair and programming the lights to the music.
But it's all worth it when he sees people enjoying it.
Ellick said he likes to sometimes sneak out of his house and sit under his porch or off to the side of his house and watch the people watching his display. He especially likes watching the kids enjoy it.
"To listen to the kids just 'whoop' and 'yay' and 'wow,' that makes you feel good," Ellick said. "It makes it worth it."
Maybe a dozen cars a night come to see his display. Some people come for a song or two, and some come back regularly. There is one woman from Tupper Lake who brings her children over once a week. They bring hot chocolate and her kids get out of the car and dance to the music, Ellick said.
He said the display is a way of giving back to the community, too. Long Lakers work hard through their summers to earn every dime they can from tourists and second-home owners so they can get through the long, slow winters.
"This provides a little break at the end of the year for all us locals," Ellick said.
Long Lake Tourism Director Alex Roalsvig agreed.
"It's an unexpected and delightfully happy attraction in December, which is traditionally a quiet month in Long Lake," Roalsvig told the Enterprise in an email. "Having this festive, musical display is pretty fantastic. How surprising is it to drive up a side road in Long Lake and discover this programmed light show across the street from the cemetery?"
Roalsvig said she also loves the light display as a mom. She'll load her kids and their friends into the car and go watch a few songs or the whole show. She's even had friends from Albany come up to see it in past years.
As tourism director, she likes that it gives people from outside the area a reason to come to Long Lake.
"I like to think people will make an event out of it and grab a meal, stop in the shops and take in the Long Lake Lights," Roalsvig said.
She noted there are a number of other events in Long Lake this weekend, including an Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts production of "Little Women" and a craft fair and a comedy show today.
Tupper Laker Tracy Thomas said she had never seen a lights-and-music display before, but managed to catch it on the last night it was up last season. She said she had a blast watching it.
Ellick had mixed feelings about talking to the Enterprise about the display at first. He has heard a lot of horror stories from his online friends with displays in other areas who have angry neighbors, too much traffic and even lawsuits over car accidents due to too many people wanting to see their displays.
"I never want this to become a big drawing item type thing," Ellick said. "I do it because I enjoy it. It's fun."
This year's display has the same 37-minute music program as last year. The playlist is listed on his website, and it includes the Muppets' "12 Days of Christmas," Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas," and several Transiberian Orchestra hits, among others.
The new part of this year's display is the setup. He moved the large tree to the middle of his yard and set up two groups of choirs on either side of the tree. Then there's some pinwheel-type decorations that spin around
Ellick said he gets excited about the first lighting of the year, but he also gets nervous too. He tests his channels and tries to make sure that everything is in place. He's hoping it works right, but "the more channels, the more you get a chance for an oops someplace."
Ellick lives at 46 Stone Lane. If you head to Long Lake from Tupper Lake, turn left at the Y-intersection next to Hoss's, then right at the top of the hill onto South Hill Road. About 1,500 feet after that, turn left onto Stone Lane. Ellick's house is a few hundred feet down the road, across from the cemetery.
Don't forget to tune your radio to 87.9 FM to hear the music.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.