Spirit of Springfield to celebrate Bright Nights' 15th season

Date: 9/8/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Fifteen years ago, Bright Nights at Forest Park was considered a radical idea -- no one had done that kind of animated light display in the Northeast.

This year, the holiday season tradition will mark its anniversary with the publication of a hardbound book on its history as well as a cookbook, a CD of holiday music by local performers and the addition of a new display and activities.

Judy Matt, president of The Spirit of Springfield, explained to Reminder Publications the genesis of one of the largest attractions in Western Massachusetts came about from a flyer from a lighting company.

She recalled that Patrick Sullivan, now head of the city's parks and building management, received the flyer and showed it to her.

"We didn't know what we were getting into," she recalled with a smile.

She said that because no one had done anything like Bright Nights, the first year it was difficult to budget for the show. Spirit of Springfield personnel had thought that police to help manage traffic would cost $75,000 over three years. The cost for the first year was over $100,000, she said.

Over 14 seasons, Bright Nights has generated $3 million and Matt said the lighting display has "become a little profit center for the city." The Spirit of Springfield leases Forest Park from the city, pays park personnel to put up and take down the displays as well as provide additional employment for the city's police.

Private donations and receipts from Bright Nights finance the entire budget for Bright Nights, as well as the other Spirit of Springfield activities -- such as the Pancake Breakfast and the Balloon Parade. The Spirit of Springfield doesn't receive city funding for the events.

Matt noted that without the funding provided by the City of Bright Nights Ball and Bright Nights itself, the Spirit of Springfield couldn't stage the other events it does every year.

A challenge for the attraction is to come up with something new each year. This year, there is a new light display called "Winter Garden," and several new activities such as a "Dinner with Dickens" event.

Adding a new lighting display is very expensive, Matt said, between the creation of the lights themselves and then the installation of electrical service. She said her organization couldn't afford bringing in a new display every year.

The Spirit of Springfield spends thousands of dollars every year just on replacement light bulbs, she noted.

The book on Bright Nights, which is being written by Keith J. O'Connor, is a way not only to celebrate the attraction, but also to give credit to the many people who've made the attraction possible, Matt said. Not the least of which is lighting designer John Catenachi, who is responsible for many of the displays in the park, she added.

The exhibit is set to open on Nov. 25. For more information, log onto www.spiritofspringfield.org.