When it comes to holiday light displays you might be able to keep up with the Joneses, but you probably can't keep up with Charles Auchter.
Auchter, with help from his girlfriend, Connie Havens, has adorned his house and yard in Absecon with more than 200,000 colored lights. He has 77,000 icicle lights six layers deep that can light up his house in six different colors.
And about 150,000 of the lights are synchronized to flash on and off to the Christmas music that blares from speakers. Spectators - and there are many - can also enjoy the musical light show from the comfort of their cars. The lights are choreographed to the Christmas music on radio station 97.7 FM.
"We wanted to have the biggest display around," Auchter says.
Auchter figures there are about 15,000 feet of wiring connected to six music boxes and a computer in his basement. And his display adds about $400 to his December electric bill. Even with four helpers, he says it takes about a week to set up his elaborate display and four days to take it all down and pack it up.
While choreographed light displays have been around for years, they are still relatively uncommon, mostly because of the expense and complexity of the installation. But that may be changing.
"It's a lot easier and more affordable now," says Christy Mitchell, who owns Lighting R Us in Wildwood Crest with her husband, Jasen. "All you need is a music box that you plug your lights into."
Mitchell says her company will supply the music box and lights, decorate the house and yard with lights, and take them down after the holidays. She says a choreographed light display can cost as little as $400 and as much as $2,000 depending on the size of the house.
"The first year is the most expensive because you pay for the lights and the music box," Mitchell says. "After that you just pay for the installation and take down."
The practice of syncing the display to music broadcast over the radio is becoming increasingly popular, Mitchell says.
"People put out a sign that says what radio channel to turn to," she says. "One of our customers has it hooked up to 93.1 FM, an all Christmas music station."
It's not quite so simple for Scott Chew.
He spends nearly the entire month of November installing his 10,000 light choreographed display on Poplar Avenue in Egg Harbor Township.
"I build all the controllers myself and I spend hours synchronizing the music," says Chew, who works in video production. "It drives you batty."
Chew, who lives with his wife, Donna, and 10-year-old son, traces his interest in synchronized light displays to his childhood.
"My mom didn't like flashing lights so (Dad or my dad ???) used to bring lights home from the 5 & 10 and sneak them up to my room," he recalls. "I'd decorate my window with flashing lights."
Chew's display includes 25 strobe lights in the bushes and 15 spotlights that flash red, blue and green. A transmitter in his shed broadcasts the music over 106.9 FM.
"I only have three or four songs," he says. "I have a group called Spiraling that sings Do you Hear What I Hear and sounds kind of like Baba O'Reilly by the Who.
Chew says the neighbors don't seem to mind all the flashing lights. In fact, he thinks his choreographed light show has actually sparked interest with nearby homeowners in holiday displays.
"Maybe I've inspired people to put up more lights," he says. "The people across the street put up more lights than ever; one house even has a Frosty the Snowman inflatable on the roof."
Auchter says he's dreamed of having a supersized light display since he was a kid but didn't act on those dreams until he and Havens bought their house six years ago.
"We started out small, with about 10,000 lights," he says. "But every year it kept getting bigger. Now I feel a little obligated to keep it going."
Auchter's display is turned on from dusk to about 11 p.m. seven days a week throughout the month of December. He says people have been known to drive as long as an hour to witness the spectacle on Sooy Lane.
"About two weeks before Christmas you can't get down our street because of the crowds," he says. "On the 16th and 17th we have Santa Claus come in the garage and give out hot chocolate and cookies and we have a line a mile long."
So what do the neighbors think?
"Everybody says they like it," Auchter says. "We never received a complaint that we know of. Most everybody around here has kids and they're really into it."