Wichitans’ holiday spirit surges with elaborate light displays

12/02/2012 2:10 PM

08/05/2014 10:19 PM

Standing across the street, Steve McKinney could see that something was wrong.

A string of Christmas lights was out on his North Riverside house.

It was no small feat spotting the problem. McKinney was looking at more than 100,000 lights, all flashing, leaping and sweeping across his roof and trees, and even through his next-door neighbor’s yard, to the beat of Christmas music.

“You always lose some,” he said with a frown.

McKinney knows where every light is supposed to be. He spent weeks setting them all up with his son, Sean. They started in mid-October and finished the weekend after Thanksgiving.

All around Wichita, houses are coming alive with Christmas lights, including elaborate displays like McKinney’s that illuminate entire neighborhoods and draw visitors from across the city.

McKinney’s light display at 1462 Coolidge has been popular enough to back up traffic and draw touring party buses and limousines. Last year, a helicopter even circled the house.

McKinney started six years ago and the display has grown ever since.

“We’ve always liked to put up lights,” he said. “We just got a little crazy and can’t stop.” He gave up counting the number of lights few years ago at 80,000, and now estimates the number at well over 100,000. A computer program syncs the lights to music through more than 300 individual switches.

McKinney, a retiree, said he would be afraid to figure how much money he’s spent on the display. But it doesn’t affect his electric bill as much as people might think, he said. He uses mostly LED lights that don’t draw as much power as regular lights. The show probably adds no more than $50 to $100 to his energy bill, he said.

The investment in time is far greater. It takes 40 hours to sync lights to a three-minute song, he said. McKinney selects musical passages from each song to create a constantly changing display of multi-colored lights.

Visitors can tune their car radios to a station that plays the music while they watch the light show. Listeners also are invited to make donations for Inter-Faith Ministries and the Kansas Humane Society at the house before they pull away. Last year, the display raised $1,500 for each, according to his website, christmasatthemckinneys.com.

McKinney said his program contains about 20 songs, but he probably will cut it to eight to 10 songs as Christmas nears and traffic gets heavier.

“You want to get the cars in and out so everybody gets a look,” he said.

Neighbors are really good about the display and the traffic it brings, he said.

“Here in Riverside, they kind of take it as a neighborhood thing,” McKinney said.

The reward for all the work is getting a good response, he said. Some have told him the house has become part of their Christmas tradition.

“You can’t get much better than that,” McKinney said.

Another popular display is at 620 N. Stratford, near Central and Woodlawn. It is the work of Mark Marshall, an electrical engineer, and a family full of engineers.

It consists of about 80,000 lights, also synced to music through about 300 switchable channels controlled by a computer.

“Our biggest issue right now is that we’ve pretty much reached our limit in how much power we can switch,” Marshall said. “We’re pretty maxed out right now.”

Lights in the house dim when everything goes on at once, he said.

“We don’t usually turn all the colors on everywhere. It just consumes too much power,” Marshall said “Breakers would start tripping. We have to manage that.”

With a large family and some help from a couple of neighbors, the project takes about a week and a half to set up, starting the weekend before Thanksgiving, Marshall said. He and his wife, Susie, have six children. Four are at home, and two older children have engineering degrees and are married to engineers.

With all that expertise, the Marshall display is largely homemade — soldered and cobbled together with lights that were purchased after Christmases at 75 percent off, and about 500 extension cords bought at garage sales.

But it’s a challenge to keep it all going.

“Things break down a lot,” Marshall said. “We constantly have stuff that goes bad, especially if it snows. And rain will shut us down pretty much.”

Marshall said he doesn’t use LED lights, so his electric bill goes up a couple of hundred dollars when the display is up and running.

“It’s not quite as bad as you might think,’ he said. “It’s significant, but it’s not completely loony.”

Marshall said it takes 80 hours to sync lights to a song. The goal is to create an artistic experience.

They use six songs in the show. Whether they play all of them depends on traffic. They play only two or three when traffic is heavy.

Visitors can tune to a radio station to hear the music. They also are invited to donate to the Lord’s Diner and the St. Anthony Family Shelter. Last year, the display raised $2,600, Marshall said.

“What I like the most about it is, it’s really a family project,” he said. “It kind of forces us to do an activity together and do something creative.”

Marshall said deaf people have thanked him for the display because it allows them to see the music.

He said the family gets many letters from people who enjoy the show.

“That’s really appreciated,” Marshall said. “We do it for the community.”

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