High-Tech Holiday Lights Return To Harwich, At The Cultural Center

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Holidays , Arts

Reindeer take flight at Bob Doane’s holiday light display at the Harwich Cultural Center. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH — If you’re looking to put the twinkle back in your holiday spirit, Bob Doane’s got just the thing.

Swing by the Harwich Cultural Center after dark and you’ll see a dazzling display of holiday lights synchronized to music. Candy canes dance to Tchaikovsky, reindeer take flight and frisky penguins play in a winter landscape. The display is free for all to enjoy, and visitors tune in the music on their car radios.

Many remember the lights Doane had outside his home on Forest Road several years ago. The display was a hit, but it became so popular that it caused traffic jams. The new venue at the cultural center means that visitors can take their time enjoying the display without impeding traffic.

The holiday lights will operate nightly from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., with one-way traffic allowing cars to enter from South Street. Visitors are encouraged to remain in their vehicles to enjoy the display. Community Center Director Carolyn Carey said a donation drive for The Family Pantry of Cape Cod will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 18 from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., when visitors can bring non-perishable food donations, health and beauty supplies, clothing and household items.

Doane, who is semi-retired, works as chief technology officer for a company putting solar panels on large trailer trucks. He’s not only skilled in electronics, but he’s got a flair for the arts, having been involved with Harwich Junior Theatre for many years.

“I never really wanted to do performing myself, but I have a love of the performing arts,” he said. The Cultural Center at the former Harwich Middle School is a perfect venue, he noted.

“One, they have a great location where the traffic can enter on South Street by the elementary school and stack up without interfering with general traffic,” Doane said. “And it’s a cultural event that’s very appropriate to do,” he said. “The point is to bring more attention to the cultural center.”

The lighting system is a product of a company called Light-o-Rama.

“They’ve developed a computerized system that will take music and then will basically give you a grid where you can turn off and on lights and different effects while the music’s playing,” he said. The timing can be as precise as one-twentieth of a second, which is still visible to the human eye. Manually programming the light show is a labor of love.

“It’s roughly 15 hours per minute of music,” he said. Is he a perfectionist? “A little bit,” Doane said with a chuckle. “It evolved every year. I’ve added more and more,” he said. In the end, Doane’s work demands caused him to give up doing the display, not the traffic concerns.

“I just did not have the time to do it for several years,” he said. In May, he set up a smaller display at the cultural center as part of Art Week, and it was well received. “That kind of led to me doing this display again,” he said.

The display at the cultural center is erected up against the building, stretching most of the length of the former school. A parking lot provides an ideal spot for viewing the whole display, and a sign at the entrance directs visitors to tune their radios to a particular FM frequency. Doane already has the requisite low-power FM station license from the FCC to operate the transmitter, but encountered a new problem this year.

Modern car radios have digital signal processing, which causes a tiny delay before the sound is sent to the speakers. While that doesn’t matter for ordinary radio stations, it’s a problem when the music has to be precisely synchronized with the flashing lights.

“It took me awhile to figure it out,” Doane said, but a feature in the software package allows the entire light show to be delayed by a matter of milliseconds, bringing the sound and lights back into sync.

Doane encourages people to visit the display more than once this season, since additional musical pieces will be added over time.