Behind the scenes of Lights on Display, with projects, tips and relevant links.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chasing Candy Canes

One of the elements of my display is a line of chasing candy canes bordering the front of my display. The canes are individually illuminated and controlled by one sixteen channel controller.

The 30" canes can be purchased at a home center, but they are not the illuminated canes that are often found as a group of three. The canes I use are solid White PVC and need to be modified. The results are much better and result in an even illuminated candy cane.

To create the chasing canes, I first start by cutting a half inch clear rope light into a three foot length, which is two rope light cut segments. I cap off the cut end of the rope light and add the power cord to the other end. 

Then, I carefully drill a half inch hole 2" up from the bottom of the candy cane. I choose the direction of the cane I want to face towards the audience, and drill the opposite side. Returning to the rope light, I cut off the plug, leaving 8" of wire attached to the rope light. Then I feed the rope light through the bottom opening of the cane. This may take some gentle twisting and wiggling to get the rope light through. I stop as soon as the end of the power cord reaches the drilled hole.  A small pair of long nosed plier can be used to pull the wire through the hole. Pull the wire and the rope light until the capped end of the rope light stops right at the top end of the cane. The same plug can be reattached by carefully wrapping it with electrical tape to protect it from the elements. A better and quicker alternative is vampire plugs that can quickly be attached to the cut ends.

Half inch sections of PVC pipe can be used to stake the canes into the ground. The pipe should easily slide into the base of the cane, but may need a small piece of Duct Tape wrapped around the top of the pipe to create some friction. Cutting the bottom of the PVC into a spike will help to drive the pipe into the ground. Small PVC hand cutters are perfect for this job. When placing the canes, you can either gently drive the PVC pipe into the ground with a hammer, or use a large screwdriver or rod to open up a hole in the ground. The canes can then be slid over the pipe and into place. Be careful not to force the cane down onto the pipe too far, which could severe the power cord.

An electrical harness of wires needs to be created, which will feed power to each cane from its corresponding plug on the controller. The easiest way to make this is with individual runs of lamp cord cut to the proper lengths and plugged on both ends. A more economical, but more time consuming and less bulky method is to create the harness using one common wire and sixteen hots. This takes some electrical know-how and will not be covered in this how-to.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Christmas has always been a special time of the year for my family. I can still remember the glow outside the living room window as I ran to the tree to open my gifts on Christmas morning. The house was always magically decorated inside and out. My mom took care of the inside decorations, while my dad filled the yard with handmade items, fashioned from wood and whatever else he could find. He created motorized displays of the Little Drummer Boy, drumming away at the manger, Santa playing a pipe organ and a workshop fully staffed by Santa and his elves.

His displays were always a must see for the small town of Saint John Indiana. As I grew up, I knew I had to continue the tradition, and by my freshman year of high school, I took the decorating over.
Occasionally my father would lend a hand, but mostly I was on my own. The display continued to grow as I added more and more lights and decorations of my own creation. I began to build my own animated figures when I realized I couldn't afford what I saw in the malls or the department store windows of Chicago. So each evening after school and on weekends, I would make my own animated figures fashioned from plywood, chicken wire, fabric and vending machine motors. I kept adding to the display for years until my job took most of my free time. I can still remember the rush to get the display up and running over the Thanksgiving holiday in the cold Indiana weather.

Years later, I moved to Los Angeles, where I’m currently residing in the small community of Sherman Oaks. The house and yard are much smaller, and the animated figures I created have been left behind with relatives in Indiana. Decorating in a parka and gloves have been replaced with shorts and a t-shirt. The older I get, the more I appreciate this as I decorate in the warm Novembers of California, but I still miss the snow.

Computer control was added to my display in 2003. It gave me the ability to animate lights to music, and was a welcome addition to my display. As I fired up the PC, a long time dream of computer controlled lighting was realized. Weeks of programming had paid off, as my lights changed to the beat of the music. In my line of work, computers and technology are commonplace, but that evening was truly magical and I wished my dad could have seen the display.

Currently I work as video editor, creating theatrical and television commercials and presentations. The works of my creativity are displayed on a flat screen, and each Christmas, the display allows me to break out of the tube and put on a show in the three dimensional world. In my off hours, I’ve been able to turn my love of decorating and video career into a side business venture. A friend and I developed a Halloween product called "Big Scream TV," a series of entertainment videos that can be used to decorate and entertain trick-or-treaters and Halloween party guests. Halloween 2004 was its national distribution premiere as it became a unique addition to the Halloween decorating market and a big hit with consumers. Recently we released "Santa's Symphonies," a DVD that was inspired by one of my past displays. One of the music videos was used last year to open my show.

As a result of the attention my display received on the net in 2005, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden hired me to bring my show to them for the 2006 holiday season. I was back in the Midwest where it all began, doing the thing I loved to do, and getting paid for it. The show was well received and a hit at the zoo. This was one of the many things that filled my busy 2006 holiday schedule. I returned home to get my personal display ready to be featured on The History Channel's Modern Marvels “Christmas Tech” show. It was an exciting end to a great year!

In the following years, I added a bit more technology and "show" to my display. I wanted to break away from just lights, and create a show to entertain the visitors. In 2006 I introduced synchronized video projection to the display, followed in 2007 with a character named "DJ Jingles," the emcee of the show. The next year, a crooning animatronic snowman was created to bring an almost live performance to the show. This past year, the show became more complete with a pair of tap dancing animatronic elves tapping out the tunes. Each year's additions have been a big hit with the guests, and it's really fun to watch the young and old alike, dancing and singing along with the elves. Each year I start from scratch, introducing a new collection of songs, edited into a 9-10 minute show and programmed to a new sequence of lights. A new video is created, and the animatronics are programmed to once again sing and dance along with the music.

So why do I have this crazy obsession with decorating and Christmas? Each year as I stand in the front yard and watch the display, a flood of wonderful childhood memories of Christmases past resurface. My parents always made the holidays so special and I love to be able to share a little bit of the magic they instilled in me. I guess traditions like these and the memories they rekindle are one of most special things we have, and one of the greatest joys of Christmas.

 - Mike Ziemkowski