The Mastermind behind the JICP Festival of Lights

Staff working on light display at James Island County Park Festival of Lights.
Staff working on light display at James Island County Park Festival of Lights.

by Susan W. Pidgeon

Every year, we all pile in our cars. We all drive over to James Island County Park and look at the glorious light display. But have you ever wondered ” Just who exactly is responsible for this magical place that used to be just a park but is now a feast for the eyes?”

Rich Raab and his elves

Well believe it or not, it all comes down to vision of one man.  His name is Rich Raab. But like any great man with a big project, he has helpers. The park staff as well as over 100 volunteers help make the park look so wonderful. Rich Raab is like Santa and the park staff and volunteers are like the elves, scurrying around making sure things work and are beautiful.

I spoke with Sarah Reynolds, Charleston County Parks Public Information Coordinator, to find out some answers. The first thing I wanted to know was how exactly did all this get started? Sarah stated that way back in 1990 when James Island County Park first opened, Rich Raab worked with a gentleman named David Chappell. Chapell was Raab’s supervisor.

Volunteers working on light display at James Island County Park Festival of Lights.
Volunteers working on light display at James Island County Park Festival of Lights.

The year before the park opened, Hurricane Hugo blasted through town and took with it most of the trees in the park. That was a big problem, because the original plan was to put lights in the trees. But having fewer trees, they had to go to Plan B. Plan B involved a trip to Wheeling, West Virginia and purchasing 18 lighted displays from them. Well, the first year was great, with 85,000 people coming to see the 2 mile route of lights! It seemed like a big success!  But like any creative person with a vision, they wanted to expand on the project.

Rich Raab was an electrician by trade and knew how to weld, so he was studying how to make these designs they bought, as well as the mechanisms behind the various light displays seen in other light shows. He announced one day, “I think I can make these displays myself “. He then began work on his very first design, which was a snowflake. Rich used coloring books and other simplistic images for inspiration initially. The figures are outlined and easy to make in a pliable metal known as rebar.

A complicated process
Lucy Anne working with Rich.
Lucy Anne working with Rich.

Rich Raab’s method is relatively simple. He projects an image on the floor of his work shed, fondly known as “Santa’s Workshop”, and then traces it with chalk. He then heats up and bends the metal into position to match the design thru a process involving soldering as well as MIG welding. Once the design is complete, which takes an average of 6-10 weeks, he winds lights around the design and it is ready for placement.  Until his retirement two years ago, Dave Chapell and his crew were in charge of the placement of Raab’s creations all around the 643 acre county park.

Currently, the park staff as well as over 100 volunteers are given instructions as early as July that involve placing the new displays as well as making sure all the lights are working in the displays left up year round. In fact, Sarah Reynolds stated this has birthed a “club” of 18-20 couples who are campground hosts who return yearly to assist with the light show . They are all great friends and enjoy the yearly venture to the park.

Rich Raab’s designs may have started out simply, but they have led to more complicated displays. Sarah Reynolds stated the first “big” one was the Santa on the roof that houses the park office. The first animated one was the waving Santa. When asked what was the most difficult one, Rich Raab said the Dancing Lights display which involves trees being lit up and coordinated with music. His favorite display is the Eagle and Stars display.

There truly is something for everyone. Reynolds explained that the volunteers come and make sure that there are no dark spots in the forest and are an important part of the process in that they are told to create “waves”  or “snow drifts” with the lights to go with whatever theme is nearby. Initially, there were separate displays, but later on, it expanded to groups such as Candyland and SeaLand. The staff also tries to put things near areas they pertain to, such as placing SeaLand near the water park as an example.

Reynolds stated as far as making new displays, Raab makes one big one as well as a few smaller ones yearly. Raab always adds one set of new animals to Noah’s Ark each year. A man like Rich Raab can use all the help he can get concerning new ideas for displays. There used to be a contest held for kids that involved them designing a new light display, but that has ended as of last year.

Rich working with Braedon.
Rich working with Braedon.
They come from all over North America

It takes 2,500 breakers and 40 transformers to power the lights. Once the light displays are in place and properly lit, the show can proceed. On average, the park sees as many as 240,000 people pass through it’s gates for the Festival of Lights. The record number recorded at the gate was 12,000 in one night, according to Reynolds. The gate staff also records the states that come through the gates via the license plates. They have seen cars from all 50 states as well as Canada. Reynolds stated in the last few years they have tried to get people out the cars more and on the footpaths. The park has firepits, a merry-go-round, a display of decorated doors from local schools, as well as a gift shop and a train ride that will take you through the more secluded areas of the park. Santa is in attendance for photos with the kids as well.  All this lends to a wonderful Christmas experience many locals enjoy.

When asked about which displays stay in place year round, Reynolds gave the example of the Cooper River Bridge display being one that is simply too large, heavy and cumbersome to deal with placement yearly. She said the Cooper River Bridge display is the size of a football field. She pointed out that many of the displays stay in place like the lit oak tree (which took 80 hours to complete), but others are put in various storage facilities and then reassembled by the park light crew run by Raab. The light displays you see are broken down into 1000 pieces, labeled and stored in 28 trailers until the next year.

See you at the Festival of Lights!

This is no indeed small operation and it is only getting larger and more popular. With the popularity comes visibility. With the number of people coming into the park, local businesses have started sponsoring various displays. These sponsorships vary in price with the largest ones being held by Piggly Wiggly and Boeing in years past. Sponsors usually sponsor the same display every year, and Reynolds said they try to tie it into their business. She gave a comical example of this being that Weight Watchers used to sponsor the display with Santa trying to fit down the chimney!

Things have certainly changed over the years, and gotten more complicated. Reynolds stated the Fun Run and Walk which started in 1994 has now increased the number of days as well as is sold out two weeks in advance of the event. As you can see, the simple idea started by Rich Raab and Dave Chapell has grown into quite a huge endeavor. At $20/car (unless you have a county pass) it is also a profitable one for the county parks. So this year, when you pile in the car with your kids, say a little thank you to the creative vision of one man, Rich Raab. He truly is Santa bringing smiles and hope and joy to those of us lucky enough to live in the Lowcountry!

Festival of Lights seen from overhead.
Festival of Lights seen from overhead.

Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)2025394 or thestudioartcenter@gmail.com. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.

The James Island Bugle shares news about the James Island, South Carolina and brings you stories about people, places and events. We are all all-volunteer, no profit news site. If you would like to contribute, write us at jamesislandbugle@gmail.com.

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