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Let it glow

When it comes to holiday lights, for some neighborhoods, there's no such thing as too much wattage.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


They make friends with gravity and the night, these good men who pray for good balance before darkness falls.

They clamber up and down ladders, lassos of lights in their hands. They teeter on rooftops swathed in the warm glow of thousands of tiny bulbs. They create the visual image of holiday warmth in a place where it's rarely ever cold.

They are, for the most part, on the verge of being out of control.

"Oh ... My ... Gosh," said Susan Sokolowski. "It's almost like a sickness." She is referring, of course, to her good friends and neighbors in the Brentford section of Westchase, where virtually every one of the 85 homes is a testament to electrical consumption.

Brentford by day is just another beatific enclave in the 3,000-home development. But at night, well with the tens of thousands of lights that festoon house after house, it's hard to tell when night has fallen.

"That's what we say, wowee," said Brentford resident Kim Oliver, a local historian of the neighborhood's annual light brigade. "Actually, my husband is pretty much the culprit. He kind of got the bug in everybody."

The movement, like most major cultural shifts, started off slowly around 1998. First a few houses decorated, then some more, and more. Now, living in Brentford and living in a festively decorated home in Brentford are virtually one and the same.

"We just love the way that it pulls our community together," Oliver said. "It's something that we can share with everybody else and we're proud of it. Oh, and the kids love it. Even the ones that live outside of Brentford, their parents will park at the entrance and the kids will run around in their pajamas. They have a great time."

FOR THE KIDS

Randy Rickard got started doing if for the kids, specifically his kid.

For Rickard, it started with two snowmen in the front yard 23 years ago. Rickard's son was only 6 at the time and the father wanted the boy to feel the spirit of Christmas as the two romped in the yard.

"They were just two white plastic bags stuffed with newspapers and a floodlight on them," recalled Rickard, whose house at 14907 Pennington Road in Citrus Park now sports about 17,000 lights. "I just added a little bit more each year."

Rickard is retired now, and his son is 29 years old and living in Lithia. But Rickard continues the tradition, lugging the hand-made stuff out of storage each fall before spending a solid three weeks erecting it all.

"Why do I do it," Rickard mused. "Because two years ago we didn't put our lights up and we got so many calls and letters from people who thought there was something wrong. They just love it, every year. The kids really enjoy it. And the older kids, too."

TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Joseph Ayo is one of those older kids, a grown man with the Christmas heart of a child.

Ayo lives around the corner from Rickard at 5118 Rawls Road in a home that, on a good night, is so bright it looks like a space shuttle launch pad.

"I'd always decorated as a kid for my parents, so when I first bought my house in '94 it was a natural," said Ayo, a property appraiser by day. "But I wanted to do it a little bit different and bring in some higher technology."

For instance, Ayo has a Web site (www.rawlsroad.com) touting his new theme-park styled animatronic robot and dancing snowman. The total display features about 40,000 lights -- flood lights, strobe lights, dance club lights and disco stage lights. There's even an old Mustang draped in lights. Everything is controlled to flash and blink through several micro-processors.

Surprisingly, the extra wattage doesn't really affect Ayo's electric bill very much. Because all the lights flash on and off in time with the Christmas music from the sound system, Ayo said his power bill runs about $50 to $75 more a month. And Brentford's Oliver said her family's electric bill remains virtually the same from month to month.

"Lights don't take as much electricity as people think, even if you have thousands of them," Oliver said.

For Ayo, the holiday display is the culmination of a year of planning. "I actually put the lights into the yard and house right after Halloween, but I do a lot of the planning and making the computer devices in the summertime," Ayo said. "It's simple but also very technical. You have to cut hundreds of wires to loop things around."

Ayo has no children of his own, but his work is appreciated. "We sort of have a fan club in the neighborhood. They're honking and tooting their horns. That's why I keep taking it up another level. I'm doing some things people haven't even thought of."

KEEPING THE HOME FIRES BURNING

It's Thursday night, five days before Christmas and John Voskerichian is still hard at it, hammering in light ropes along the flower beds in his front yard. Vandals, he said, made off with a mess of lights the night before, threatening his chances of once again winning the Northdale holiday lighting contest.

"We blew it out the first year we were here in 1998 and we've won it ever since," said Voskerichian, who lives at 16305 W Course Drive. "But that's not why I do it. It's for the kids."

"The kids," in the Voskerichian home number eight. It's a "hers, mine and ours family," he said.

Then, there are the neighbor kids he enjoys pleasing, at least the ones that don't steal his thunder and lighting.

Voskerichian doesn't have a high-tech electrical system like the one Ayo uses to power his vision. Instead, he relies heavily on extension cords.

"We just keep adding more stuff," Voskerichian said, methodically hammering in the strings of glowing gold. "My wife keeps buying 'em and I keep putting 'em up."

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

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