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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

Land Of A Million Lights

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In the 36-page binder entitled "Lights Before Christmas Script," one of hundreds of entries reads, "AE #8-3 CA 12 DRAPE. An orange tag with identical information is tied onto the third tree (3) in the Arctic Encounter (AE), on landscape island 8. And 12 strands of miniature lights the colors of Caribbean (CA) waters are to be draped on the branches of AE #8-3.

"Lights, lights, lights, lights. Love 'em," sighs Chris Ottney. As assistant director of grounds, he oversees Operation Illumination for six months each year.

With almost 20,000 strands, 200 lit images, and a new crew every year, decking the zoo for the holidays requires the organizational skills of a military strategist.

The venture has been a hit since 1986 when the zoo purchased 50,000 lights. Within weeks it recouped its investment. This year it spent $64,000 on new images, boom rental, and replacement lights.

"We don't scrimp," said Ottney.

Zoo staff has come to know the very soul of lights - more than 1 million of them this season.

They know blue paint is the first to flake off, followed by green, red, and gold. Average strand life: six years. Rope lighting can be airbrushed to create the effect of one color merging into another. Squirrels and rabbits chew wires. There's only so much electricity to go around. Under optimum conditions, it takes four people 30 minutes to switch on all the lights, and the same to turn them off.

And with innovation comes the unforeseen.

This year's new species has light-emitting-diode (LED) technology. So durable they can be stomped on without breaking, the manufacturer claims they'll last for 200,000 hours, save 80 to 90 percent on electric costs, and never fade.

Ottney ordered 1,100 strands of these "Forever Bright" lights and figured the entrance would be designed with rich blue and icy white. But the shipment from China got hung up off a West Coast port in last month's labor dispute. Staff decided they'd take only what they could get by Oct. 31, and received half their order, but none of the icy white.

Then, some of the new strands didn't light, apparently because female and male plugs didn't connect snugly. They don't emanate as much light or heat as the miniatures, so will they have a vivid impact? Will they melt the snow? How will they react to moisture seeping in the seams?

Years ago, a fiber-optic image of a hippo looked great underwater. Problem: it prevented the real hippos from using their pool when the temperature reached 45 degrees. The image was moved to land but the effect wasn't as good, said Ottney.

For many years, staff made animal images of preening peacocks and curly-tailed pigs on bamboo frames and adjustable aluminum. Lights were taped one-to-the-next to create a linear effect. The job got easier when roped lighting was introduced. But the images were sometimes too heavy for the frames.

Now, zoo employees simply brainstorm about possible images. A Colorado metal-sculptor sketches a design; a Utah firm builds the frames, a Missouri man makes the controllers, and a Toledo artist attaches and paints the rope lighting. Zoo staff installs them.

There are, of course, bumps. Once, a bad connection in a plug caused a short, burning wires on an ash tree. Melting rubber ignited a pile of dry leaves, but it was quickly extinguished.

A heavy rain in September, 1997, flooded the storage area, caking thousands of lights with mud.

And then there was the night Ottney faced his worst fear.

The lighting crew ran into his office. There had been an accident. He dashed outside to see a body dangling from the high boom used to string upper branches. After a moment of panic, the crew burst out laughing. It was a dummy they had dressed and rigged up.

But a million of anything can be overwhelming.

"You really do kind of get burned out," admits Ottney, without cracking a smile.

There was, however, the night he crossed the plaza and overheard a child's happy chatter: "You know, Grampa, this is the best Christmas present you could have given me!"

That, he says, makes it worthwhile.

The majestic 80-foot Norway Spruce at the Toledo Zoo's Lights Before Christmas is a showstopper with 32,500 multicolored lights. The 650 strands stretch three miles and weigh 500 pounds.

Michelle Arquette, a seasonal employee, drapes it in about 40 hours.

New lights are used every year to avoid the complex maneuvering required to make replacements. It has a dedicated, 140-amp electric circuit. Estimated to be about 55 years old and still growing, the boom barely reaches its top. It is located on the Broadway side of the zoo near the conservatory.

Tip: look for an opening in the low branches; gently part them and take a few steps toward the trunk. Look up at what appears to be a sky loaded with stars of many colors.



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