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The sights – and the sounds – of the season

On a night soon after a guy at work told her about it, Kathy Richard drove through the winding streets of suburban Lancaster until she spotted the house rigged with lights that flash, ripple and shimmer in red, blue, gold and green to Christmas music on the radio.

She tuned into 90.5 FM, like the lawn sign said, and watched colors fade and skip to the beats of “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Let it Snow.” A few nights later, Richard was back with two more friends. As snow fell, they sat in her dark car watching lights dance around the windows and lawn at 6 Red Clover Lane as the music played.

“I’m telling you even the Grinch would be happy,” Richard said, rolling down the window to talk before turning back to the house. “Look at that tree! You’re missing it.” Lights suspended from a flagpole made a screen shaped like a tree that morphed from candy cane stripes to flames to the numbers of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and the buffaloes of the hockey and football logos for a gold, blue and red medley of the Dance of the Sabres and the Bills “Shout” song.

“It gives you one more fun thing to do at Christmas,” said Robyn Karalus from the passenger seat. In the back, her son said he was glad he tagged along. “I didn’t believe you that it was going to be so awesome,” said Steven Karalus.

For Western New Yorkers, the chance to experience the sights and sounds of the season this way seems to be on the rise.

Christmas hobbyists who program lights to sync with their playlists broadcast on short-range stations are around the country and the world. An informal local count found at least six – including the hyper flashes of white lights in North Tonawanda timed to the Christmas rock of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and a Kenmore home with lights that change color along with a second-floor window that flicks on with a view of a “Christmas Story” leg lamp to the cymbal beat of Twisted Sister’s “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.”

The trend in the sparkling field of animated outdoor holiday light decorating has taken off in the last decade with online forums. At www.planetchristmas.com, get news about the second season of ABC’s “Great Christmas Light Fight” with 20 competing families and figure out how to get lights in trees with old aluminum curtain rods, turn art-store easels into mini light bushes and set up lights that change into a rainbow of colors.

“When you’re an over-the-top decorator, you tend to think about Christmas lights almost every day of the year,” said Chuck Smith, a retired electrical engineer who founded the website. “People just want to be entertained, especially at Christmastime.”

Bill Powers, a manager of a local company’s information technology department, is the man behind the scenes at the hugely popular Lancaster house. He checks on his audience, from the cracks in the window shades, kept drawn so inside lights don’t distract from the Christmas lights outside.

The taillights pile up and Powers can’t get enough. The tradition combines the pleasure of tinkering, like making the “tree” by tying 1,600 zip ties to wires suspended from a flagpole, with the quiet thrill of bringing holiday cheer to strangers who have made driving by his house into a holiday tradition.

This year, his fifth, was a surprise hit after NBC’s “Today” show, then ESPN, featured a clip of his Sabres-Bills tribute. Online views of his video went to 320,000 and kept climbing. “I can’t fathom it,” he said. Even better, his daughter Amelia got to explain the house on the morning announcements at school. “That’s way cooler, to me,” he said.

Traffic averages at 15 to 20 cars during weeknights and climbs to about 50 nightly visits on weekends, including visits from two limousines and a fire truck. His wife, Dana, worries that the bottles of wine she gave neighbors apologizing in advance for “my husband’s lights” might not be enough this year. “We never expected it to be so crazy,” she said.

The ability to make these sound and light displays happen is a result of the availability of computer software. Smith now consults for the South Glens Falls-based Light-O-Rama, which sells light controllers and music-syncing software in packages from $200 to $40,000.

“We take it very, very seriously,” Smith said. “The main reason we do it: We realize we’re making all these lifelong memories for people.”

He started decorating his house in Nashville, Tenn., in 1983 because of a boyhood neighbor who seemed to have lights on bushes, trees and anything else that would hold up lights.

“Somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to be that house,” said Smith. His own show, famous for its 212 mini trees programmed to light up as if chasing each other, grew so popular he hired off-duty police to manage the crowds. Every night, at least one light-distracted driver drove into another.

After about 25 years, he stopped. His house has been blank for the last decade. “We ended up irritating too many neighbors,” he said. “Now I help other people decorate.”

Mike Labenski, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra fan, got curious about the hobby after he noticed viral videos of musically decorated houses that followed the Mason, Ohio, home that flashed to the beat of “Wizards in Winter,” and was featured in a 2005 Miller Lite beer commercial.

For the last seven years, white lights have trimmed his place at 274 Old Falls Blvd. like blinking frost. In 2007, he won a national prize for precision in a contest sponsored by the D-Light company.

Elated, he added three more songs and replaced the outdoor speakers with an FM station. “More peaceful for the neighbors,” said Labenski, who works in the logistics department of a local bank.

For Trans-Siberian’s pretty “Christmas Canon,” his lights flick on and off from windows to roof to bushes as if controlled by the piano making its way through the music.

For his father, Aloysius, who died earlier this year, he added the Polish carol “Dzisiaj w Betlejem,” which translates as “Today in Bethlehem.” “He’d tune into the radio station and listen to it all night,” Labenski said.

The pleasure it gives people keeps him and his brother-in-law working together for three days to rig the lights each year.

As Christmas gets closer, more people come. Some nights 25 cars drive by; other nights it’s a couple of hundred. Labenski’s fans have mailed thank-you notes, dropped off a basket of chocolate and cookies and mint candy. Once someone even rang the doorbell with a gift cup of Tim Hortons hot chocolate.

There are occasional downsides, his wife, Erica, wryly points out. Before they got curtains, they sat in the dark and even cooked in the dark so as not to let indoor lights interfere with the ethereal outdoor effect. Even now people pull up late and play the radio station loud enough for them to hear inside the house. Still it’s OK. By 11:02 p.m., it’s over.

“It doesn’t bother me,” she said.

“It’s only for a month and half,” Labenski said.

In Kenmore last year, people were alarmed when the Nagel family only put a few lights up at their house at 119 Knowlton Ave., and skipped their traditional music. People who didn’t realize they were away sat in their cars waiting for the songs to start. Others called to make sure the family was healthy and hadn’t gone broke on account of the lights.

“It’s good to know that people recognize the work that goes into it and they appreciate it,” said Eric Nagel, a chief technical officer for an Internet company.

His family started planning their return this summer, going over the playlist. For fans of the film “Frozen” – including his daughters – he took pains to get the lights to match the “Let it Go” song with its tricky tempo changes. The lights follow the music from slow and calm in the beginning to loud and fast at the end. The arches on the lawn, with lights that change into any color, twinkle in blue and white like falling snow.

When it debuted on outdoor speakers on the day after Thanksgiving as the family served cookies and some 120 cups of hot chocolate to the audience in their yard, the work was worth it.

“As soon as ‘Frozen’ came on, you could hear all the little girls gasping and singing along,” said Nagel.

One of their favorite fans was a little girl from down the street who came to see the lights for her birthday a couple of years ago and danced on the sidewalk as she watched. Every night she would tell her parents she wanted to go to the “light house,” an evening trip she earned by finishing her dinner.

That, said Nagel, is the real marvel of spending two hours to program a minute of music and figure out tricks like making the lights in the arches move like snowballs to fit with a snowball fight line in the “Winter Vacation” song.

“There are times when we’ll come home at night and we can’t get in the driveway and we’ll have to circle the block a couple times,” he said. “It just makes everyone else so happy.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com