Poor Clark Griswold. He was born too early.
Fans of the classic movie “Christmas Vacation” remember that his quest to coat his house in Christmas light so plentiful that they were visible from space was an exercise in extension chords, frustration and citywide power outages.
But that was 1989.
In 2013, modern Clark Griswolds take a much more streamlined, high-tech approach. Thanks to computer technology, these illumination artists can not only ignite every square inch of their houses with lights, they also can make those lights dance to music broadcast on their own radio stations.
Wichita is home to a growing number of such artists, who over the past several years have amassed thousands of dollars’ worth of technology and lights, which they obsessively turn into elaborate Christmas light displays that that cause nightly traffic jams on residential streets from east to west, north to south.
Wichita’s group of Griswolds are local men, many of whom engineer and build things in their real lives. Most say they started their holiday hobbies after admiring other people’s work. All say that once they started, they couldn’t stop.
Among them is Dave Williams, the mastermind of Lights on Barrington at 7507 W. Barrington. His house, in the center of a neighborhood near 21st and Ridge, is covered in 40,000 lights that flash and flicker to the beat of several classic Christmas songs.
Putting displays like his together take time, dedication and cash, he said. He’s been collecting pieces of the display for six years, which is how long the display has been up and running. He’s not sure how much he’s spent on the display over the years but guesses that he drops between $3,000 and $5,000 a year.
The displays are created using special software and kits that are controlled by a computer. A basic starter kit costs around $350, lights not included. The display builders attach various lights to their houses, roofs, trees and landscaping. Many create their own structures, too, from wire Christmas trees to arches made of PVC pipe.
The kits come with controllers, each of which can accept about 16 plug-ins. The computer software allows the designers to program how and when the lights attached to each plug in will flash, and they can sync the shows to their music of choice. Depending on a designer’s level of experience, it can take between 40 and 100 hours to program a single song. Assembling the light display takes even longer. Most start putting lights up by Halloween.
Most of Wichita’s display builders broadcast the music onto a radio station, which can be heard only within the vicinity of the house. They post signs instructing visitors where to tune their car radios, and many are accepting donations for charity. Williams’ charity of choice is Make-A-Wish, and he manages to collect about $1,000 a year.
Williams said that he’s motivated by the positive reactions he gets from people who visit his display. Last weekend, he said, he looked out the window and saw three buses parked outside, filled with people watching his masterpiece.
He’s also encouraged by his neighbors, who could grow impatient with the constant traffic or annoyed at the late-night daylight coming in their windows. But Williams’ neighbors love what he does, he said.
“We’ve got one of the best neighborhoods in Wichita,” he said. “In fact they bought me a Clark Griswold hockey jersey this year. I kind of wanted one, and they chipped in and got it.”
The popularity of elaborate animated displays might have something to do with the advent of the LED Christmas light, said Clayton Gossett, who has been putting up a display at his house at 3805 Longview Lane, near Kellogg and Hillside, for the past seven years.
When he first put up displays, he didn’t use LED lights and received a few power bills that “were probably a little shocking.”
But LED lights are so inexpensive to run that even with his 31,500-light display that covers his entire yard, he doesn’t notice any difference in his power bill.
Gossett, a home remodeler whose side job is drumming in local bands, describes himself as a hobbyist whose nature is to “go bigger and better every year on things that I do.” His display on his two-story house has grown and grown. This year, he erected a 40-foot pole in his front yard, which he designed into a light-strand Christmas tree that’s the center of his display.
This year, he also enlisted the help of a musician friend in Denver, who recorded a funky, 12-minute long track of electronica Christmas carol mashups that give Gossett’s display a distinctly modern feel.
“The other night, I came home, and the party buses were out there,” he said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ I’ve also seen people dancing in the street. I saw a couple get out of their truck and just start dancing in the street.”