How many electricians does it take to change a few thousand light bulbs?
Just ask Mike Kreimer, who's spending hours each week single-handedly making sure that dead bulbs don't dim the brightness of the Symphony of Lights, an annual holiday fund-raiser sponsored by Howard County General Hospital and featuring dozens of light displays on the grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
Hands on his hips, Kreimer recently surveyed a 25-foot-high display of a toy soldier silhouetted against a clear blue sky and noted a couple of bulbs that had lost their twinkle. "There's one," he said, pointing out a dead bulb among the hundreds glowing before him. He climbed back into the hydraulic bucket on his truck, maneuvered it near the soldier and searched through a stack of small boxes of bulbs for the colors he needed. Then he removed the dead lights and screwed in the replacements, one by one.
It's midday, and Kreimer has spent the last few hours driving through the grounds, checking for dead bulbs among the 250,000 that make up the dozens of colorful displays, many of them animated, that are designed and created by a North Carolina company.
There are roughly 270 displays spread out along the 1.4-mile drive, from knee-high snowflakes to a 29-foot-high animated storybook. There are blue bulbs, amber bulbs and red, pink, green and clear bulbs. There are lights that twinkle and lights that don't.
This is the sixth year that the county hospital has lit up Symphony Woods with a holiday lights display to raise money for its birthing center.
The event, co-sponsored by more than a dozen businesses, has raised $398,104 over the past five years.
Last year's net proceeds of $105,051 funded maternal-child health education and programs. In 1998, more than 22,000 cars carrying visitors from across the country traveled the gravel pathways and gazed at such multicolored creations as elves wrapping packages in a giant toy factory, teddy bears ski jumping, a rocking horse and reindeer leaping over the road.
The display of lights grows each year, according to Debbie Daskaloff, executive director of the Howard Hospital Foundation, the hospital's fund-raising arm. This year, visitors are treated to a new section, "Mother Goose Magic," complete with an animated Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muffet and giant storybook with turning pages.
"In order to keep the show fresh and interesting, you have to have something new out there," Daskaloff said.
And in order the keep the lights blazing through Jan. 2, someone has to change the dead bulbs. That's the job of Kreimer, 30, a service technician with Blumenthal-Kahn Co. of Owings Mill, which was awarded the contract this year to install and maintain the lights display. The thought of eyeballing hundreds of thousands of bulbs might make anyone want to pull the plug, but Kreimer goes about his work with a twinkle in his eye. It's not just dead bulbs he has to contend with; there are also those that have been smashed by deer running through the low-lying lights lining the pathways, and the ones crushed by birds that find the tall displays a convenient place to perch.
"Sometimes crows land on top of them," said Kreimer, who lives in Westminster, Carroll County. "You start to wonder, why do the top ones keep breaking?"
When replacing broken bulbs, Kreimer first unplugs the section where the bulb is located and then digs out the fragments with a screwdriver. "I know Martha Stewart says use a potato [to remove fragments], but we'd have gone through 1,000 pounds of potatoes," he said.
Kreimer spends one day a week checking the bulbs. Although the work can get monotonous, it's a lot less complicated than the installation of the displays, which took an average of seven men working six days a week for two months to complete. That's 2,000 man hours spent pounding in stakes, tying guy wires, erecting metal frames, installing wiring and screwing in five-watt bulbs.
Come early January, it all has to be taken down and carefully packed away for next year. Kreimer will supervise the deconstruction, just as he did the installation. And then he'll stop seeing visions of multicolored bulbs dancing in his head for another year.
"It's definitely not your average run-of-the-mill electrical installation," he said.
The Symphony of Lights is open from 6 to 11 p.m. daily through Dec. 30 and Jan. 1-2. Admission is $12 for a car, van or recreational vehicle carrying up to 11 passengers. For more information, call 410-740-7666.