One of the great sub-plots in the classic holiday movie “Christmas Vacation” features leading character Clark Griswold’s tireless pursuit of the ultimate Christmas light display. Countless hours on the roof coupled with dozens of extension cords and thousands of bulbs all are part of his struggles to finish decorating his suburban Chicago home.
He could have saved himself much of the hassle and time if he would have just made a call to a company in the small Franklin County town of Christopher, a manufacturer that has been making Christmas light up around the world.
You cannot blame Griswold, however. After all, few people — even in the company’s own county — know what happens in the non-descript building that houses the North American headquarters of this worldwide business along the main street in the town of 2,300. But those who really, really want to put on a holiday light show — like those at theme parks, professional sports stadiums and large shopping centers — know and trust Blachere Illumination as a company that prides itself on making holiday spirits bright.
Ronnie Brown, president of Blachere’s North American operations, likes to say that the company sells happiness, and to some degree, he is correct, but behind the happiness are the elaborate and highly-technical illuminated displays found in cities, malls and destinations around the globe. The company is responsible for lighted displays at tourist attractions including Sea World, sculptures at professional sports arenas, for creating the special twinkling millennial lights on Paris’ Eifel Tower and for giving special Christmas treatment to dozens of shopping areas including Hollywood’s Rodeo Drive.
“We sell everything from a single string of lights to fully-designed theme displays that can run up to $250,000,” Brown says. “Ninety-five percent of what we do is for Christmas.”
Brown, a native of Scotland, travels several times a year from his home in the United Kingdom to the Christopher location, from which he directs all North American activities for the French company. Blachere has a very small year-round staff in Christopher, but during the busy season of September to November (when Brown also is a fixture in Southern Illinois), the employment rolls swell to the dozens — people building the aluminum frame works for the lighting and craftspeople adding the hundreds or thousands of lights to each structure, all by hand. “There’s no machine that can do that,” he adds, noting that many of the illuminated trees the company produces feature more than 5,000 lights each.
“Our rural setting helps us because we have a great pool of people we can call on for a short time, people with a great work ethic,” he says.
The story of how Blachere lit (pun intended) in Christopher is one of coincidence, Brown explains.
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“We were looking to set up an operation in the States,” he says, his dialect giving away his nationality. “With the states being so big, we knew that wherever we would choose would be wrong in some ways. We had to find the least wrong. We thought the center of the country would be that.”
It was at a Christmas trade show in Germany where Brown met owners of the James Trogolo Company from Christopher, a holiday lighting distributor. The smaller company offered Blachere space in the middle of America rent-free. “Being Scottish, I was listening when he said that. Free is always good, especially for a new venture,” Brown adds. The international company grew quickly in the U.S., and soon Blachere bought Trogolo and continued expansion in Christopher.
Today, Blachere offers an international catalog of ready-to-use products and displays, but most of what comes from the Christopher facility is custom-designed pieces. “We can do almost anything you can think of,” Brown boasts. “Nothing is outside the realm of possibility.” One impossible job brought to life was one he championed while buying a motorcycle.
After completing his purchase, Brown convinced the owners of Black Diamond Harley-Davidson in Marion that their 140-foot-high sign pole would make an excellent lighted Christmas tree. They agreed, and in 2009, what is believed to be the world’s largest dancing Christmas tree was first lit, featuring 20,000 lights, programmed to flash and twinkle in time with holiday music played from the sign’s base.
“The response was tremendous,” says Jeremy Pinkston of Black Diamond Harley-Davidson. “We had hundreds of people who would pull off of Interstate 57 just to take pictures of our Christmas tree. People still look forward to our tree every year. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Experiences are at the heart of what Blachere produces, and perhaps nowhere is the experience as magical as it is at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The company was selected in 2007 to develop the unique, programmable exterior lighting for Cinderella’s Castle at the Florida theme park. It is Blachere’s largest — and perhaps best known — North American project. Last year, the company worked with Disney to redesign the light show, which now features Queen Elsa from Frozen who “turns” the castle to ice.
“We had to come up with a method of doing this, because what Disney wanted was something spectacular, but they wanted all of the lighting to disappear during the day,” Brown recalls. “We had to come up with a new product and a way of attaching it to the building so it wouldn’t be seen in the daylight.”
Blachere’s answer was 120 different circuits of custom-created light strands, all designed and manufactured in the same colors as the castle’s exterior. The lights are now part of the Disney magic.
“The light show is really neat,” says Crystal Antoine of Herrin, who recently took her family of six to the Magic Kingdom. “Elsa tells the audience she is going to change the castle to ice and snow and then it just pops. It’s amazing. It actually looks like the castle is made of lights. It’s amazing and the kids couldn’t say anything besides ‘wow.’ They were awestruck.”
Every time Brown hears a similar review, his eyes light up like one of Blachere’s products. It is a reaction he says the company aims for. “We strive to put smiles on people’s faces. That’s what I like to think we do. The magic really does happen when the lights go on.”