The Light Show
Want to take your holiday lighting to the next level? Joe Novak, the homeowner behind the most famous lighting display in the Mesilla Valley, shares his tips and tricks.
Written by cheryl A. Fallstead
Photography by cheryl A. Fallstead and courtesy of the novak family
Joe Novak and his wife, Laurie, love Christmas and their annual holiday gift to the community is an extravagant light show set to music which takes over their cul-de-sac. Fortunately, their neighbor, Doug Andrews, enjoys the show, too, and lets Joe also decorate his home and yard because Joe certainly needs the extra space!
The Novak’s first home display in 1987 was a plywood train, which Joe built and lit and Laurie painted. They later created other animated displays and people from throughout the area would come to enjoy the show. But then Joe was introduced to what could be done with a computer, music, and lights and nothing was ever the same again. “When I could put lights to music, it just changed my whole world,” Joe enthuses.
For his display, Joe uses a computer, multiple light controllers, dozens of strands of lights, a low-frequency FM transmitter and antennae to broadcast music to visitors’ cars, and a stereo with speakers so those strolling by can hear it as well. Since 2007, he’s been using light controllers and a program from a company called Light-O-Rama. The program allows him to tell which strand to turn on at each moment in order to pulse with the beat of the music, or in the case of songs like “Mr. Grinch,” to illustrate the story with ribbons of LED lights on a huge “tree.” As the song describes the Grinch’s bad traits, the tree shows the Grinch himself, a seasick crocodile, unwashed socks, and everything else the Grinch represents.
That’s the power of the programs and lights that are now available for the home hobbyist. Joe spends up to 20 hours programming the components of a new song. Keep in mind, he’s programming lights for two yards with many elements, plus the road leading to the houses. He points out that once you have a series of commands set up that you want to repeat, you can copy and paste as you would with a word processing document.
Joe, like a kid in a candy store, is excited about the latest developments. To get more than a single color on an element, the basic way is to run three strands, each with its own color, and vary which color turns on. That’s old school. The latest LED lights come with a single bulb that uses RGB technology, like a computer display or television, that uses red, green, and blue to create an infinite number of colors. He can program each individual light to go off and on and select a color for it. RGB ribbons are also available, like he uses on his large tree, with animated sequences.
The new, more energy-efficient LED lights have also saved a bundle in electricity. Joe has a separate electrical account set up for his holiday lights so he knows exactly how much he spends each year. With the new lights, his electricity costs went from about $400 to $60.
When you have a display as elaborate as Joe’s, it does take time to physically set up the lights. He begins in mid-October and is ready for visitors by the first weekend in December. To save time—and tree climbing—he leaves the basic LED lights up year-round.
Want to set up your own holiday light display? Joe recommends beginners purchase pre-made decorations that come with the programming already done. Then you simply install your own lights to the shape you’ve purchased (basic systems work with the lights you can buy at any store), install the program on your computer, hook up speakers, plug it all in, and you can amaze your neighbors with your technical know-how. When you’re ready to jump in with both feet, there are numerous tutorials on websites that can show you how to program your light displays and forums to get ideas from other enthusiasts.
A basic controller sells for about $250. With this, you can use lights from a local store. If you upgrade to RGB LED lights, which must be purchased from a specialty vendor, Joe warns that you should buy your lights and controllers from the same source to ensure that the cables are compatible. He’s a big fan of Light-O-Rama for his materials, but he shops a variety of online stores and also suggests checking out shape frames and pre-programmed songs from holidaycoro.com. You can also download a song and program for the lights and set up your house display without buying special shapes.
When you watch a display like Joe’s, your first thought is likely that you could never do that. But, he says, “It’s not as complicated as people think. It just takes time and money.”
Some tips from an expert may help, and Joe is happy to pass on what he has learned. You can reach him at his company, Interstate Batteries, and he’ll be happy to arrange a time to show you the ropes, err, light strands.