This is the story of a computer geek, a New York City guerilla sculptor and a big shot marketing executive who were brought together by an obsession with Christmas lights, a passion for art and a need to promote holiday shopping. When shoppers visit the newly opened Shops at Wiregrass, they'll see a spectacular display: Symphony in Lights, 250,000 lights choreographed to blink and fade to the high-energy sounds of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Eleven Christmas trees of varying sizes in center court will light up in a host of colors to the songs, with giant images of snowflakes beamed onto the outside walls of the stores.
Just as interesting as the lights are the people who made it happen. Here's how it all came together.
• • •
It all started with the nagging.
"Get off that couch and put me up some Christmas lights," she said, or at least something to that effect.
Like any man who lives to please his wife, or at least keep the peace, Carson Williams obliged.
Only he took it a step further.
That Christmas, the Williams house had more than lights. It had lights, lights and more lights that blinked and faded to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Williams' home was a shoo-in winner at his neighborhood's 2003 decorating contest. Word spread, and people flocked to his home in southern Ohio to see the house with the light show that rivaled Clark Griswold's of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation fame.
By 2005, the sheriff shut him down. The traffic kept deputies from reaching a car accident that happened on account of the congestion.
But his computer-controlled display had gone viral on the Internet, and Williams became a celebrity. His story and videos of his two-story home landed him on NBC's Today show, the CBS Evening News, Inside Edition and even on a Miller Lite commercial.
"There was no way to get the toothpaste back in the tube," said Williams, 43.
His phone rang constantly. One day, a woman knocked on his door.
She wanted to know: Could he do this for a mall?
• • •
Jane Lisy is a senior vice president of marketing for Forest City Enterprises, a $10.9-billion publicly traded real estate company based in Cleveland.
Listed on the New York Stock Exchange, its portfolio includes interests in retail centers, apartment communities, office buildings and hotels throughout the United States.
Lisy was checking her in-box one day when she came across a video from a friend whose mother had sent it to her. It was Williams' house.
"It was totally fabulous," Lisy said. At the time, Forest City was starting to develop outdoor venues called "lifestyle centers," which pose challenges when it comes to Christmas decor. Williams' concept was ideal. Lisy had no idea where he lived. A staffer spent a whole day tracking him down to Mason, Ohio.
"I cold-called him," Lisy said. She recalled Williams' attitude being one of disbelief.
Could she come see his house in person?
Williams explained that the sheriff had just shut him down.
"But," he said, "I'll run it for you."
Lisy arrived in Mason and was duly impressed. She asked Williams if he could replicate this on a larger scale for a mall the company owned in Denver.
Williams, a computer networker, said he could do it, but would need some help from a designer.
Lisy had the perfect partner in mind. She set up a meeting.
Carson Williams, meet John Carter.
• • •
John Carter, 44, was the kid who always took apart his toys but knew how to put them back together.
He grew up to become a sculptor. During the early 1990s he was a part of a team of guerilla artists who under cover of night created anonymous, irreverent street art. Yes, it's illegal, and he admits to getting busted once.
Today he's the design director for Parker 3D.com, a technology-driven holiday design company that creates event-based programs. Prominent clients include Sony, Madison Square Garden, World Financial Center, the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City and most of Trump's properties. A chair he created from a "walk, don't walk" street sign sells for $3,500.
Carter got his start doing windows after seeing an ad seeking designers for holiday displays at New York City department stores.
In his first effort he drew his inspiration from the Disney movie Toy Story.
"I thought it was a beautiful movie," he said. The Lord & Taylor window he created featured gigantic toys and was interactive. People could touch the glass and play a "jin-gle all the way." As each note played, a toy nutcracker raised a bell. In the same display was a section called "Through the Shopping Glass," which featured Raggedy Ann and Andy moving on a conveyer belt and looking at a store windows.
Carter's company is also under contract with Forest City to do its Christmas displays.
The process starts early in the year with design proposals. It kicks into high gear around Halloween. The biggest challenge is creating displays for new centers that are yet to be built.
"When I was here, this was a mud pit," Carter said of the Shops at Wiregrass.
He and Williams try to create a vision based on drawings. Sometimes the ideas end up jotted down on napkins.
Then, when the mall is built, something changes. A sign gets moved. A small change requires a lot of juggling. The team once had to make a run to Home Depot and buy up countless extension cords.
"It's a little bit like Junkyard Wars," said Carter, who has actually been on the show where teams create machines out of items found in a junkyard. "We have to do a lot of design on the fly." A team of about 40 assists them.
So what do Williams' and Carter's own homes look like now during the holidays?
"I'm pretty traditional," Carter said. "I just have a wreath that's bigger than everyone else."
"Last year I had icicles so at least my wife had lights," Williams said sheepishly. They still sometimes have a hard time believing his efforts became such a big deal.
"She said, 'All I wanted was lights on the house.' "
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.