If you live anywhere in America, you probably have “that house” in your city or town. The families who go one, or two, or seven extra miles every holiday season, covering their house with lights, filling the yard with figures. The really ambitious ones might even play music.
But unless you live in Guilford, Connecticut, “that house” in your neighborhood is most likely amateur hour. In Guilford, the family home of Joe Petrowski ’12 is more than a Christmas curiosity – it’s a full-scale production, a tourist attraction, and a successful fundraiser.
Sadly for the people of coastal Connecticut and the numerous charities for which Petrowski has raised well over $100,000, this will be the final season for Joe’s Amazing Lights. Petrowski now lives in New York City, and has to commute back and forth to assemble the display, which takes days of work. But before it’s lights out for the house on Valley Shores Drive, Emerson College Today asked Petrowski about his extravaganza. Responses have been edited for space and punctuation.
ECT: Why Christmas lights? How did all this start?
JP: At a very young age I was fascinated by holiday lights. My parents had a few lights and I just sort of took over. Every year, the displays have got bigger and bigger. For me, the lights are a way to display my creative talent in a unique way. Now in my 20th season, there are 65,000 lights synchronized to music, complete with moving lights, LEDs, strobe lights, and DMX color blasts, and my own FM transmitter for nearby cars to hear the music dancing to the lights.
For the past 10 years, I have commuted back and forth from Boston (where I attended Emerson for a BFA in Theatre Design Technology with a specialty in lighting design). Growing up, for the holidays and my birthday, I would ask for more lights and extension cords to add to my holiday displays. I also have done displays for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day.
ECT: When you were at Emerson, did you decorate your dorm rooms? How did your roommates and/or suite mates feel about that?
JP: I didn’t decorate my dorms, per se. I did have a string or two of lights like everyone does. But I do remember that one year, there was a “Haunted Common Room” competition and I synchronized some lights to “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Unfortunately, we did not win, but still representing my freshman year of the sixth floor in the [Little Building]!
ECT: How long have you been raising money for charity? Do you pick a different charity each year, and if so, how do you decide?
JP: For the past 10 years or so I have added the donation aspect. Since I started to synchronize them to music, I have a one-minute-long voiceover that talks about the display a bit and also talks about how the displays have raised more than $113,000 for local and national charities.
More recently, I’ve worked with Make-A-Wish Foundation. Wh[en] I am not in New York City working my full-time and part-time positions, I am also a seasonal cast member at Walt Disney World in Florida. I see many Make-A-Wish families from all over the country see their dreams come true. To see the beginning of a wish through fundraising efforts through the lights, and then seeing the wish actualized at Disney is an amazing, indescribable feeling that always gets me teary-eyed and choked up.
ECT: Do you have a favorite decoration or vignette?
JP: I think my favorite part of the display is the “JOY” sign, as well as the strobe lights. The “JOY” sign is over six feet tall and sparkly, and is nice and clean. I also love the strobe lights. They are strung through the trees and create a sparkling effect that many spectators seem to enjoy.
ECT: Where did they did all these lights/decorations come from?
JP: Growing up, I would always ask for holiday decorations for my birthday and holidays to add to the displays. December 26 is one of my favorite days of the year, since all the holiday decorations are 50 percent off and I usually buy a lot of supplies for the following year. When I lived at home in the summers, I would go to many garage/tag sales with my mom to get really good deals.
ECT: After this year, where will they go? Have you found a home for them?
JP: I haven’t figured out what will happen with all the decorations yet. At this point, I am just enjoying the moments of the final year. I do not have any plans to get ride of them at this time.
ECT: What’s the craziest thing that ever happened due to your parents’ house being covered by 65,000 lights?
JP: Nothing in particular comes to mind. There are usually at least 10 cars at any given time. Usually people know of my house all along the shoreline.
ECT: Do you decorate your apartment in New York at all or are you kind of tapped out by the time you finish the house in CT?
JP: Nothing happens in New York. I barely put up a Christmas tree! Nor do I really have the time to make it happen.
ECT: Inflatables: Yea or nay?
JP: Nay, haha. I did have some when I was younger, but I don’t use them anymore. They don’t really fit into the aesthetic of my display. Although, if that’s the only thing in a yard, I can respect the effort!
For more information on how to catch Joe’s Amazing Lights, visit the Facebook page.