By Kelly Youngblood
Victor Johnson will be “Lighting Up Paxton” yet again this holiday season with a computer controlled synchronized light show that includes 140,000 lights.
Victor, who has been dazzling the community with his electrical skills for several years, says he plans to “open” his display again on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
We talked to Victor recently to find out more about the man behind the lights and also the answer to the question everyone wants to know. How much does his power bill go up this time of year?
What’s your “day job”?
I’m a crop insurance agent with our family’s insurance agency in Paxton. I studied agribusiness at the U of I among other things. Christmas lighting has always been just a hobby, albeit a very large one.
Does your family help you with the display or is this more of a solo effort?
The display is over 95 percent just my work. I receive some help from my mom, Kammy (Johnson) and some of our gracious neighbors when more than two hands are required. My two younger siblings don’t really help because they have their own busy lives currently. My father passed away in 2007 before the display got to the enormous scale it is now.
How long have you been doing a holiday light display?
I remember helping my dad put lights up when I was as young as 8 years old. And shortly after I soon took over the reins and it started to grow. I was always asking my parents if we could buy more lights. After I graduated from college and moved back to town, I decided I wanted to take the next step and synchronizing the lights to music with my own budget. That was the big jump from 25,000 lights to 85,000 in 2011. This will be the fourth year with a computer controlled show, now at 140,000 lights.
What motivated/inspired you to do it?
As a kid I always enjoyed riding around town and looking at other Christmas displays which led me to create my own. That was probably the motivation early on. Then, while I was in college I remember watching all of the other synchronized Christmas displays on the internet and wondering if I could manage such a thing myself. With enough time and planning, it actually ended up being a lot of fun and now allows me to put my creativity on display for others to enjoy. The best reward I have now is seeing how much kids enjoy it when they come by to watch.
How many lights do you put up? Do you add to or change it every year?
This year the total is 140,000 individual light bulbs. I try to add something new each year. Even going back to when I was in high school, the additions I added then are still part of the display now. This is the first year I don’t have any new display elements since I ran out of time to add things, but I do hope to add new music eventually.
Is it just lights?
Almost all of the lights I use are just standard light strings you can buy at the local store. I don’t use LEDs because the store-bought quality is poor and not cost effective. Instead I just use standard incandescent mini lights and old-fashion C9 lights. Clear, red, and green strands go on everything in the display. I use incandescent lights because they have the cheapest cost, are easily maintained (if you know how to fix them), and work well with the light controllers. The light controllers run off of a specialized software program that allows me to synchronize them to any music I choose. Besides the software program, the other abnormal thing is probably the electrical system to handle all of the lights. The house is wired with 24 dedicated circuits to handle all of the power requirements for such a large display. Very few people can say they have 24 outlets on the outside of their home.
How long does it take to put up everything?
I start the first week of November with the goal of getting it finished before Thanksgiving. It requires working in the evenings after work and full weekends for at least three weeks. Putting up the lights is only half of the effort though. Synchronizing the lights to a new song can take over eight hours for just one minute of music. I try to do some of that work over the spring and summer months along with planning out things I want to add for the next year.
It looks like a lot of work. Why do you keep doing it year after year?
It has always been a hobby for me and one that I do enjoy a lot. It can be stressful once in a while with all of the time involved, but it’s a very rewarding experience to see all of your work come to life when the lights finally come on.
The question everyone wants to know- how much does your power bill go up this time of year?
Even though I don’t use LEDs, the power bill is no worse than what some probably pay for their own house. Since the lights are always flashing on and off they don’t pull nearly as much power as they could otherwise. Combine that with low electric rates and last December’s total bill came in under $250.
You went to an American Christmas Decorator’s Conference earlier this year. Obviously you are very passionate about this. Besides attending conferences, what else do you do to educate yourself about how to make your Christmas display the very best?
Sometimes I’ll watch videos of other displays to find ideas and then try to incorporate my own version of what I like into my display. Online forums full of other Christmas decorating enthusiasts are also very helpful for sharing ideas and the more technical aspects of managing a large computer controlled light display. However, most of the display is just me trying to show my own creativity and doing what I think looks best to me and others who come to enjoy it. The music synchronization is a large part of that too. Not only do I plan out where I put my lights, but also how to make them dance to the music.
What else should people know when they visit your display?
The weekends bring very long lines later in December. People on Christmas Eve last year waited in line over 30 minutes to get to the front of the display. The best time to come for shorter lines are early weekends in December or anytime in the middle of the week. The synchronized music is broadcast to your car on 89.9 FM.. You can only get the signal if you are within a few blocks of the display. Rain causes many problems with the lights if it is heavy enough. If it’s raining some of the lights usually shut off on their own. If I ever have to shut the entire display down because of rain I always post it on my Facebook page and Twitter feed. The display runs fine under snow cover. It’s actually the best time to come!
Lighting Up Paxton: The display is located at 332 W. Patton St. Victor suggests people approach the display from the east on Patton St. for the best view. To get to Paxton from Champaign-Urbana, take I-57 North to the Paxton exit; turn right onto I-9; Left onto Taft; and left onto Patton. Takes about 30 minutes.
Victor posts update to his Facebook page www.facebook.com/lightinguppaxton regarding cancellations. Lighting Up Paxton runs until Jan. 6. The display is on from 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
For more information about Lighting Up Paxton:
website to watch videos: www.lightinguppaxton.com
facebook page: www.facebook.com/lightinguppaxton
Follow on twitter: @lightuppaxton
More videos on youtube: www.youtube.com/user/lightinguppaxton