(December 11, 2010) For more than four decades, 637 Jefferson Drive was a modestly decorated home during Christmas, with lights that twinkled and shined during the month of December appealing to both neighbors and those traveling on nearby Iris Drive.
But in the last three years, those lights have started dancing as Ken Johnson, who now lives in and decorates the house his parents once owned, has gone to a more dramatic style of lighting called computer control.
For passers-by not only does Johnson offer lights, but has a street sign outside his house telling drivers to turn their radio to 99.3 F.M., where four songs bring over 200 strands totaling over 50,000 lights to life. He even put up his own 20-foot antenna to beam the signal and is working on soldering a taller, tri-pod style antenna.
He hand-picks the songs each year and has them programmed into a computer, controlling the lights. Each strand turns on and off, twinkles, fades and blinks to the beat of songs such as a techno version to “Amazing Grace,” “Good King Joy,” It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and others.
Johnson, who makes many of his own lighted signs and decorations such as Christmas trees made of upside down tomato cages, has set up his display using a computer program and 13 switcher boxes.
“Every single item in the yard has its own power source,” Johnson said. “Computer talks to swtichers and swtichers tell the lights to turn on and off.”
Johnson’s shortest song, “Amazing Grace,” which is 1 ½ minutes took him about 35 hours to program. Each song is broken down to .5 of a second, where Johnson has to program each of his more than 200 strands to do a certain action to match a certain beat. After programming which strand to do what, he then moves on to the next .5 of a second and continues to do that through the entire song.
All the time spent programming comes after the lights are up, which in itself is a long process. Each strand of lights has to have its own power source, requiring dozens of drop cords going into the switcher boxes.
That includes each strand of blue lights, green lights, red lights, white lights and multicolored lights outlining his house, wrapped around the “tree” tomato cages and lined up 20-foot fiberglass street light polls making taller trees.
“I could easily have put in 600 to 800 hours working on the lights,” Johnson said.
Of course all of his time hasn’t just been designing and decorating the display. He’s also both enjoyed the lights himself and those coming through to look at it. The first year Johnson welcomed visitors and handed out candy to those admiring his hard work.
Last year, after it had already been up the previous season, a sheriff’s deputy who patrols the area came to his door striking up a conversation about the lights.
Later Johnson looked through his monitor that feeds from the security cameras positioned around the property to protect his investment and noticed a long line stretching continuously to Iris Drive. It was a row of Sheriff’s patrol cars waiting to see the spectacle.
While the deputies came from within the county, others have come from much farther away to enjoy the visual and oratory experience.
“We’ve had people from as far away from Macon, Elberton, Dallas and Athens,” Johnson said. “People heard about it and just showed up.”
Some guests offered donations, which Johnson didn’t accept until this year. He has received cards and donations from travelers who have mailed, boasting about his lights. He now, begrudgingly, has a sign and a box by his mailbox for donations.
“I had so many requests for it that I did it,” Johnson said. “I was completely embarrassed when I put it up.”
Although like many things around the Christmas season, the motivation isn’t money.
The inspiration now comes from his desire to enhance the display and ideas from others on websites such as Vimeo, where his videos are posted, and YouTube, but it’s probably the times from when a picture he still has of him as an infant while his parents decorated the house was taken that first started the lights dancing.