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Candle power: Holiday lights attract visitors to Brookgreen Gardens

By Jason Lesley
For the Observer

Susan and Loren Power of Hilton Head weren’t prepared to shoot pictures when they made their first visit to Brookgreen Gardens’ “Nights of a Thousand Candles” last year.

“We had no idea what this place was about,” Susan said.

The Powers looked the part of serious photographers last week when they returned to Brookgreen for opening night of the annual festival of lights in the sculpture gardens. The Powers said they had taken classes in night photography to prepare for their second seasonal visit.

The weather was certainly kinder on opening night this year with lingering Indian summer temperatures in the 70s. “It was a lot colder last year,” Susan said.

Comfort during the event is always subject to the fickle December weather, though plenty of visitors brave the cold nights. While the Powers had the optimum weather after driving from Hilton Head, a wet Saturday night may have persuaded local folks to postpone their visits for one of the three-day weekends remaining: Dec. 12-14 and 19-21. Insiders with an eye on the entertainment schedule may be waiting on the final weekend to catch actor Bill Oberst performing his one-man version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or Barbara Bailey Hutchison, Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, amid the folk, jazz and traditional holiday tunes.

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The lure of holiday lights drew plenty of tourists opening night. Sweatshirts from Jackson Hole, Yellowstone and even Havana made visitors easy to spot as they got off their charter buses.

See “Lights,” Page 16

From Second Front

Volunteers and staff wearing Santa hats or reindeer antlers greeted them with pamphlets and maps and explained what they were about to see:

• 500,000 mini lights and 100,000 LED lights connected by 3.5 miles of extension cords;

• 5,500 candles with 500 floating in pools awaiting 40 volunteers and staff to light them at dusk and extinguish them at 10 p.m.;

• 150 volunteers and staff on hand to answer questions and guide visitors to the entertainment, food or the do-not-miss places to see.

That’s a far cry from the first event in 1999 when a few hundred lighted candles in paper bags with sand lined the sidewalks. The event expanded to four nights the next year and has grown from there. Brookgreen CEO Bob Jewell said opening weekend brought in around 9,000 people. “Thursday and Friday went very well,” he said, “Saturday, not so much with the rain. We still had over 1,000 people, with 5,000 on Friday and 3,000 on Thursday.”

The light show expanded this year from seven nights to nine. “More lights, more nights,” Jewell said. “Every year we try and add to the core presentation. We’ve made some changes to the Allee of the Oaks and the Fountain of the Muses. The children’s garden is even more fun than it has been the last few years.

“We continue to present the premiere holiday event in the Southeast. All the feedback we get from our guests is that more and more are coming for this event. It not only provides a great holiday experience, it is impacting to a degree the economy in this area, adding to hotel occupancy and with more people eating in restaurants. We’re proud of Brookgreen Gardens, and the community is also.”

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“Nights of a Thousand Candles” starts at 3 p.m. each day, and organizers recommend people come early. That way they get to see the lights being lit and watch twilight tiptoe along the pathways and the lights grow brighter in the dark. Traffic peaks around 7 p.m., although even on a record-breaking night when 6,400 attended the wait was only about 30 minutes.

Before this year’s guests get to the lighted gardens they have opportunities to see Christmas displays in two indoor galleries. “Flora and Fauna” features plants arranged in holiday fashion. The staff has been working on the displays since August, according to Sara Millar, Brookgreen’s vice president of horticulture and conservation.

The display features an impressive Christmas tree of 200 potted poinsettias and trees with peacock feathers and ferns and moss. One wall is covered in lush tropical plants.

A second display across the pavilion, “Batteries Not Included, Holiday Trees, Trains and Toys” is the playground of Jeff Hall, manager of exhibits. He runs a dozen authentic Lionel and American Flyer toy trains, keeping the locomotives puffing with a medicine dropper of liquid smoke. The Erie-Lancaster diesel engine on display is one of only about 10 remaining, he said. Most of the trains in the exhibit are named for places in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

On the wall in the exhibit room is a collection of antique metal erector sets to mark the toy’s 100th anniversary. There was a model of the Coney Island parachute drop that took Bob Checkaneck back to his youth. “It would freeze up halfway down,” Checkaneck said, “and leave the riders suspended.” He had a little erector set as a child, but Checkaneck said his father bought him model trains. “He used me as an excuse,” Checkaneck said. “He played with them all the time.”

In addition to the memorabilia from the 1940s and ’50s, the exhibit included “Star Wars” and “Cat in The Hat” displays that triggered memories for other visitors.

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Out in the gardens, the main show waits on darkness to fall. Electric lights are twinkling when the gates open at 3 p.m., but the candles stand at the ready until around 5 when 40 volunteers and staff members use butane lighters to hit the wicks with a blue flame.

“We’ve tried every kind of lighter you can possibly think of,” Brookgreen employee Brad Fowler said as he waded in the pool at Anna Hyatt Huntington’s 1922 statue of Diana at the Chase, Roman goddess of the hunt. About 50 candles float on foam squares in the pool. Fowler and two other employees in chest waders go into the cold water for the nightly lighting and extinguishing.

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Volunteers light most of the other 5,500 candles in about an hour. Robert Quinn, a volunteer with one of the prized butane lighters, said about 150 people have been trained “to the nth degree” for the operation.

Light strands started going up in October, volunteer Joan Wood said. Strands are wrapped around trunks and limbs and the cords carefully camouflaged. Even the leaves fall in pleasing patterns on the ground. An exotic camellia in the children’s area, wanting in on the show, has burst into white blooms. Daffodils are coming up in the grass on the Live Oak Allee. Volunteer Joan Wood said the usual pedestal lights in the grass gave way to hundreds of strands hanging from the tree limbs this year. She said there is more color in the children’s garden than in year’s past, and other new features include a tunnel of lights leading to the 1893 Diana bronze statue and a canopy of lights over the Fountain of the Muses. Volunteer Nancy Launi said the canopy was erected using “Brookgreen magic.”

Ross James, a volunteer in the children’s garden on opening night, chuckles as a toddler runs away from her mother down the sidewalk. James, a former Little League coach and scoutmaster in New Jersey, said the children’s garden is one of his favorite places to work. He rushes over to help with a family photo so everyone can be in the picture.

As dusk descends, Peggy Leonard Gaudreau begins playing the bagpipes and strolling the gardens. She’s been performing at Nights of a Thousand Candles for 13 years and will be back this weekend.

Entertainment schedule

Dec. 12 to 14: Lissakeole (Irish music band); Paul Grimshaw Band (pop band); Thistledown Tinkers (Celtic pop duo); Miller-Rowe Consort (classical guitar and hammered dulcimer duo); Peggy Leonard Gaudreau (bagpipes); Class Brass (brass quartet); Timmy and Susana Abell (original children’ songs, puppet shows).

Dec. 19 to 21: Bates Holman & Friends (holiday jazz, Thursday and Saturday only); Barbara Bailey Hutchison (Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter); Bill Oberst (one-man rendition of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”); Bella Corda (guitar octet – eight guitars performing holiday music); Carolina Master Chorale (symphonic chorus); Palmetto Bronze Handbells (Friday only); Miller-Rowe Consort (classical guitar and hammered dulcimer duo)

For times and locations go to brookgreen.org.

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