TAMPA, Fla. — A line of cars pull 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 amble over, kids already in pajamas.
By 8 p.m., more than 50 people have found a spot on the sidewalk or across the street to watch a dazzling 20-minute light and special effects show. There is music, video, computerized dancing lights and even sparks and fireballs that wow the crowd. At the end, they cheer.
Sam Johnson, 22, was a teenager when he came up with an idea to entertain and give back. The largely self-taught techie puts on three shows a night every weekend during Halloween and in December for Christmas to raise money for charity.
He has put on the light shows for five years. Last year, between the Halloween and Christmas events, he was able to raise more than $10,000 in total for multiple 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 have transferred those skills to support their son’s project. “But he’s the guy who does the programming,” his father said. “He is the guru behind it.”
Sam was in middle school at Tampa Day School when he first came up with an elaborate light show at Christmastime for the school’s 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 toddler, he tore apart CB radios to see how they worked. After talking his dad into buying him a computerized light program for the middle school display, he dove into the world of light displays and special effects.
At 12, he started volunteering in the audiovisual department at Skycrest United Methodist Church in Clearwater. He learned tricks of the trade from Facebook groups and ordered special displays from China and a company in Arizona that supplies theme parks.
He came up with elaborate haunted houses and put out a donation box for charity. Then he suggested the home light shows. His parents, he said, liked the idea, “especially since the haunted house had grown so much, that meant they wouldn’t have strangers on our property anymore.”
He bankrolled the idea himself, with money raised through his 3D printing business. He spends about $6,000 every year upgrading his equipment and special effects.
He currently has almost 16,000 LED lights that are run by a light sequencer program called xLights, “and it all runs off a $30 Raspberry Pi computer about the size of a cellphone,” he said.
There are 16 floodlights, including some that move to make the display dance. There are also “cold spark” machines on the roof that make it look like fireworks are shooting into the sky and flames that burst from spots 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 lit pumpkin over the front door has mouth movements that track with the songs. That’s accomplished with a tedious process of lip-syncing, he said, which uses the computer to match mouth positions to key phrases.
The Johnsons want to be good neighbors, so they only run the light show on Fridays and Saturdays, then daily during Halloween week, with the last show always at 9 p.m. They set up a Sylvan Ramble Light Show page on Eventbrite.com to try to limit crowds. The first year, they walked a five-block radius handing out 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 over figuring this would just be some nice lights, but this is phenomenal,” neighbor Theresa Baxter said after seeing it for the first time.
Social media has helped spread the word, and lately more people are donating online at sylvanramblelights.com instead of dropping dollars into the lockbox set up in the driveway. Almost $3,000 has already been raised online by mid-October for Clothes To Kids, a nonprofit that supplies school clothes for children who qualify for free lunches.
“It was a pretty ingenious way to support a cause,” said Jennifer Jacobs, executive director of Clothes To Kids, which also runs a storefront where kids in need can shop for free.
Jacobs said that in the past five years, Johnson’s effort has brought in more than $7,000 for her organization. “He has clothed more than 150 children by using his talents in a pretty neat way.”
“Kudos to him,” Jacobs said. “He is literally lighting up the world.”