VIDEO: Alight for a Christmas cause
Waterford — If you ask Scott Yarmey how many Christmas lights he puts up each year, his stock answer is "north of 50,000."
"If you don't believe me, count 'em," he said with a laugh the day after Thanksgiving, when he let loose thousands of yards of extension cords and wiring spooled around garden hose reels stored in his shed.
Yarmey and his wife, Darlene, whom he described as "the artistic director," have owned their house at 69 Mullen Hill Road just south of Route 1 for 17 years, and they've dazzled with holiday displays for almost as long.
"I'm going to be out there setting up rain or shine," he said. "It's all in good fun."
Almost a snowball's throw away from the Yarmeys, James Gessner and his wife, Carol, started a similar tradition about a decade ago. It all began a few days before Christmas, just as the couple wrapped up construction of a second-story addition and moved back into their house at 63 Gallup Lane. Carol Gessner suggested her husband hop on a ladder and string up some Christmas lights on the new roof.
"Are you out of your mind?" James Gessner told his wife, who promptly called him "a Scrooge."
He said he responded by going to Walmart and buying "every blow-up and ugly display and just made it totally gaudy. She couldn't say anything, because I could say, 'Look, I decorated.'"
James Gessner and Scott Yarmey, who spend multiple weekends setting up their displays and host charity showings every December, do not consider each other competition.
For several years, James Gessner said, the two men had recommended each other's light shows to visitors and friends. The Gessners' house is less than a half-mile southeast of the Yarmeys', but the men had never met until a few years ago.
"Now we spend hours on the phone like two little girls talking about Christmas lights," James Gessner said, noting he and Yarmey have shared helpful programming and wiring tips.
All run by 'Monster Brain'
The past several years, the Yarmeys have partnered with Toys for Tots and accepted donations of hundreds of toys and thousands of dollars in cash from onlookers and visitors who pull over to check out an animated light show coordinated with FM radio.
"I think the most we ever had stopped on the road is 17 cars," said Scott Yarmey, an account manager for Coca-Cola. "It didn't leave room for an 18th."
Sparkling trees of every color line the Yarmeys' 20,000-square-foot lawn, which also features a massive snowman and dozens of reindeer with a lit house and roof serving as the backdrop.
The centerpiece is a 20-string Christmas tree with 20 bulbs per string and 11 LED lights inside each bulb.
The lawn, house and shed lights all are wired to a "Monster Brain," transmitters and controllers from Missouri-based Animated Lighting, which Darlene bought Scott for an anniversary gift, and programmed to coincide with Christmas tunes.
The couple held their annual charity event Sunday, with New London County Marine Corps League Commandant Robert Montminy in uniform helping to collect donations.
"If it was just me standing out there with a cup in my hand, we'd collect five bucks," Scott Yarmey said, noting the event drew a few hundred dollars in donations and several toys, including "one lovely Mr. Potato Head."
The Yarmeys, whose light show is timed with music on 106.3 FM, will keep the display going throughout the season.
Charity event Dec. 16
James Gessner said after a few years of being "the house in the neighborhood that does all this crazy stuff," he and Carol said goodbye to the inflatables. Online research led him to the same company used by the Yarmeys: Animated Lighting.
"The next thing you know, we're decorating the house and putting thousands and thousands of lights on my house," said James Gessner, the vice chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council. "It's become this thing, with tons of people coming by the last few years."
The couple decided to add community spirit to the show by incorporating a toy drive, raising money and gathering donations for Yale New Haven Children's Hospital in honor of East Lyme 9-year-old Madeline Guarraia, who passed away last year after battling leukemia. This year, the couple is accepting donations for Waterford Youth Services.
"The first year we filled a pickup truck full of toys," James Gessner said. The following year, it rained the night of the charity event, but he said visitors still filled three-quarters of a truck with toys and donated upward of $600.
The Gessners' 2017 charity event, with lights timed to tunes on 101.5 FM, is set for between 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 16.
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