Halloween light show raises money for charity

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TAMPA, Fla – A line of cars pulls up at 7:45 p.m. on a recent Friday night in South Tampa. They park on the tree-lined road and get out. Neighbors walk around, children already in their pajamas.

At 8 p.m., more than 50 people found a spot on the sidewalk or across the street for a dazzling 20-minute light and special effects show. There are music, videos, computerized dancing lights and even sparks and fireballs wowing the crowd. At the end, they applaud.

Sam Johnson, 22, was a teenager when he came up with an idea for entertaining and giving back. The largely self-taught technician puts on three shows a night every weekend during Halloween and in December for Christmas to raise money for charity.

He mounted light shows for five years. Last year, between the Halloween and Christmas events, he managed to raise over $ 10,000 in total for several charities.

His parents, Bruce and Lisa Johnson, are retired IBM executives. Bruce was in sales and marketing and Lisa was a project manager so they transferred those skills to support their son’s project. “But he’s the one who takes care of the programming,” his father said. “He’s the guru behind it all.”

Sam was in college at Tampa Day School when he first imagined an elaborate Christmas light show for the school cafeteria.

“I couldn’t believe they let me do it,” he said. “It was probably 20 extension cords with a ton of lights in the cafeteria.”

As a child, he tore up CB radios to see how they worked. After convincing his father to buy him a computerized lighting program for college display, he immersed himself in the world of light displays and special effects.

At age 12, he began volunteering in the audiovisual department at Skycrest United Methodist Church in Clearwater. He learned the ropes from Facebook groups and ordered special displays from China and an Arizona company that supplies theme parks.

He came up with some elaborate haunted houses and pulled out a donation box for charity. Then he suggested the light shows at home. His parents, he said, liked the idea, “especially since the haunted house had grown so much, it meant they wouldn’t have any strangers on our property anymore.”

He funded the idea himself, with money raised through his 3D printing business. He spends about $ 6,000 each year to modernize his equipment and special effects.

He currently has nearly 16,000 LED lights that are managed by a light sequencer program called xLights, “and it all works with a $ 30 Raspberry Pi computer the size of a cell phone,” he said. .

There are 16 projectors, some of which move to make the display dance. There are also “cold spark” machines on the roof that make it look like fireworks are shooting up into the sky and flames are bursting out of dots on the porch.

He added extra lights this year to what he calls the “mega tree,” which looks like a spider web for Halloween and a Christmas tree in December. The added pixels make it easier to animate the tree, creating images like the face of Oogie Boogie, the boogeyman from Nightmare Before Christmas. And the lighted pumpkin above the front door has mouth movements that follow the songs. This is accomplished with a tedious process of lip-sync, he said, which uses the computer to match mouth positions to key phrases.

The Johnsons want to be good neighbors, so they run the light show only on Fridays and Saturdays, and then every day during Halloween week, with the last show still at 9 p.m. They set up a Sylvan Ramble Light Show page on Eventbrite.com to try and limit the crowds. The first year, they walked a five-block radius distributing letters to neighbors, with a bag of candy and Sam’s cell phone number to call if they thought the music was too loud.

“I walked around thinking it would be just beautiful lights, but it’s phenomenal,” neighbor Theresa Baxter said after seeing her for the first time.

Social media has helped spread the word, and lately more people are donating online at sylvanramblelights.com instead of depositing dollars in the safe in the aisle. Almost $ 3,000 has already been raised online in mid-October for Clothes To Kids, a non-profit organization that provides school clothes to eligible children for free lunches.

“It was a pretty neat way to support a cause,” said Jennifer Jacobs, executive director of Clothes To Kids, which also runs a storefront where children in need can shop for free.

Jacobs said that over the past five years, Johnson’s efforts have brought in more than $ 7,000 for his organization. “He has dressed over 150 children using his talents in a pretty neat way. “

“Kudos to him,” Jacobs said. “He literally lights up the world. “

Dozens of people gather to watch the Sylvan Ramble Light show on October 8 in Tampa, Florida. Created by Sam Johnson, the computerized light show features special effects, such as flames and dancing lights synchronized with the music, and lasts 20 minutes.

Sam Johnson watches with his parents Lisa and Bruce Johnson as guests line up to see their popular light show.

David Restall brings Frankie Ferguson, 3, to the donation box after watching the Sylvan Ramble Light show on October 8 in Tampa, Florida.

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