Patty Reilly learned the true value of a good Cruise of Lights commentator the night she described a series of bright, ornate houses that no one could see.
Reilly, who has provided narration for more than half a decade during Huntington Beach's annual holiday event, found herself once on a boat maneuvering Huntington Harbour in a thick fog. Her task, as always, was to point the passengers' attention toward the decorated homes that line the waterways, but all that showed through the pea soup were vague splotches of color.
So Reilly relied on her memory. As the boat inched through the water, she described what each house looked like — in essence, what the customers were missing.
"It was the last cruise of the season and it was sort of like, how do you ask anybody to come back tomorrow night, because there is no tomorrow night?" Reilly said. "And every person who got off said that they had a great time and 'Thank you very much.' And I did check with the office after that to see if there was anybody who may have called, and we had received none."
Reilly, a Huntington Beach resident, may be just one of 36 commentators for this year's Huntington Harbour Philharmonic Cruise of Lights, but she has an exalted position with the group: She leads the training for others who want to narrate. Together with script writer Mike Novak, a former commentator himself, Reilly spends the weeks before the cruise checking out the homes along the harbor and logging any insights.
The end result is a 16-page script for commentators to work off of, plus a supplementary list of "cruise fillers" to fall back on during lulls. A third handout, which outlines do's and don'ts of commentary, ends with an overall rule: "You don't have to be perfect. Use your script as a guide to commentate. If you're having fun, your guests are having fun."
Novak, who lives a stone's throw from the cruise area, is back at work on the script this year after a long absence. He previously worked on it in the 1990s. To brush up on narration techniques, he studied one of the world's most famous waterway tours.
"When I was a commentator years ago, besides singing, I did jokes, so honestly, I would go to Disneyland and I would ride the Jungle Cruise ride about four times, because each of the guys has his own shtick," Novak said. "And I just threw in some of their stuff."
The cruise this year, which lasts about 40 minutes, passes houses with designs built around pirates, toy soldiers, Santa Claus and more. Every year, the Huntington Harbour Philharmonic Committee organizes the event to raise funds for music education programs in Orange County.
Music plays a part in the cruise itself. The commentators sometimes use recorded tracks to pass the time between houses or even invite children to come up and sing. Ultimately, Novak said, it's up to each narrator to imbue the event with his or her personal style.
"After you're out a couple of times, you can take this thing and put it away and just talk about the houses and talk about what you like," he said, tapping the script. "Make it yours."
Are you up to being a commentator?
Here are some rules provided to those who narrate the Huntington Harbour Philharmonic Cruise of Lights:
If telling cute stories, remember to be age appropriate and politically correct.
Keep your script, flashlight with extra batteries, warm clothes, water, throat lozenges (you never know), music and glasses ready to go.
Please no alcohol during your cruises.
Never talk about how much houses cost or who lives in them.
If You Go
What: Huntington Harbour Philharmonic Cruise of Lights
Where: Huntington Harbour
When: 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 15 and 19 through 23
Cost: $17 for adults, $10 for children ages 2 to 12 ($15 for adults on Dec. 19)
Information: (714) 840-7542 or http://www.cruiseoflights.org