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Tripping the light show fantastic

Valencia man creates spectacular Christmas displays; credits love of electronics, pinball

Posted: December 24, 2008 6:44 p.m.
Updated: December 25, 2008 4:55 a.m.

The home of Ric Turner, located on Philbrook Avenue in Valencia, is replete with beautiful, flashing electronic seasonal displays to highlight the 2008 Christmas festivities. Turner's display is also synchronized to music and features hundreds of individual lights.

 

I recently parked my car across the street from Ric Turner's house at 23917 Philbrook Ave. in Valencia. I tuned the radio to 99.1 FM, as instructed by a sign planted in the yard.

Moments later the night was obliterated by thousands of multi-colored lights that danced for the next three minutes to the happy synthesized sounds of "Barn Dance on Saturn" by Dana Countryman and Jean-Jacques Perrey.

This is not your daddy's Christmas display.

Turner, formerly a Walt Disney audio and video effects expert, is a member of a select and dedicated group of talented multimedia enthusiasts around the country who turn the annual chore of stringing Christmas lights into a vibrant and exciting labor of love.

He was first inspired to create his light show a couple of years ago after seeing a YouTube.com clip of an Ohio house that had its Christmas display synched up to the powerful strains of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizards of Winter."

"I kept getting links to the clip sent to me from people all over the place saying that I should do something like this," said Turner. "I finally said, ‘OK, I'll do it.'"

Since then he has created several light shows for Christmas and many fantastic Halloween shows that featured a 10-foot jack-o-lantern that mouthed the lyrics to Oingo Boingo songs.

Each of Turner's light shows is an enormous undertaking. The current show uses 64 channels of lights to bring the house, garage and shrubbery to life. It includes 18-foot imitation snowflakes fashioned out of rebar and PVC pipe, which are stationed in the yard, on the roof and on a large wooden tower near the driveway.

Turner used a Macintosh and MIDI-controlled light dimmers to create the effects for the first shows, which was a meticulous, time-consuming process. Later he was able to obtain a light-controller kit from a company in New York and "MacGyver-ed" it with some pinball parts to aid switching between the banks of lights. This sped up the process, but each show still takes about six months of planning, plus an additional month of construction.

There is a small FM transmitter that broadcasts the show for radio listeners; speakers are set up for the people who want to watch the show from the sidewalk. The display is on a timer beginning nightly at 5 p.m. and runs continuously until 11 p.m. Out of consideration for his neighbors, the outdoor speakers conclude their broadcast 90 minutes earlier.

The show requires four controllers, including one that is mounted on the inside of the garage door. Turner half-jokingly estimates the entire setup required a half-mile of extension cords and claims he uses no additional sources of power for the display. He insists he has never blown a single fuse or circuit breaker, but does admit that he has asked his wife Mia not to run the washer or dryer when the display is on, just to be on the safe side.

"Surprisingly, my electricity bill has actually gone down compared to some previous years, because most of the lights are off at any given moment and only use electricity when they turn on in the show," adds Turner.

Turner has no idea what it costs to put on one of his shows and truly doesn't want to know, choosing ignorance for the sake of art.

Turner's light display is just part of the reason Philbrook Avenue has become a popular destination for holiday decoration fans.

For the past several Christmases, the houses that line the street have been connected by white icicle-lights. It is an inspiring example of neighborhood cooperation, as each homeowner pays for their part of the lighting bill.

"Before we started doing this, we didn't know anyone in the neighborhood," said Glendale firefighter Craig Skidmore, whose house is opposite Turner's and also sports an impressive Christmas display. "And now we know everyone."

For the past two years, the icicle-lights have stretched to the intersecting cul-de-sac of Belmont Court. The houses there have lower roofs than the ones on Philbrook, which presented a problem, since the lights needed to be at least 14 feet above the street to allow for the passage of sanitation trucks. Turner was able to get over this hurdle by constructing a 28-foot wooden tower in his neighbor's yard to raise the lights to the required height.

When I stopped by his place on a recent Saturday morning he was busy tinkering with one of the 10 pinball machines that have taken over his garage. Outside, his two adorable sons, Kai and Zak, played with RC cars on the driveway.

"It all started back in Torrance in high school in the 1970s when my electronics teacher Rob Hawkins turned me on to pinball machines. They had only recently been legalized in L.A. County at that time, having been outlawed in the 1920s as gambling devices," said Turner.

Hawkins owned one of the rare machines and taught Turner how to work on it. All the high school students were allowed to play on the machine during lunch and recess for a nickel a game, which proved so popular that by the time Turner graduated, the electronics club had purchased an additional 17 pinball machines from the proceeds.

Later Turner worked on pinball machines to help pay his way through Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he spent a year as "Weird" Al Yankovic's roommate.

Turner and Yankovic were working together at the campus radio station when Yankovic launched his parody career with "My Bologna," which was recorded in the station's bathroom. Turner actually has the distinction of burping on a "Weird" Al composition called "Baby Likes Burping," which was a take-off on The Knack's "Baby Talks Dirty."

It's not surprising to anyone who knows Turner that he lives in the shadow of Magic Mountain, because another of his great passions is riding roller coasters. He is one of the world's foremost experts on coasters, and whenever he goes on vacation, he schedules time to sample the local fare. He claims to have ridden more than half of the estimated 1,500 major coasters on earth.

But Turner doesn't just visit theme parks. He has also helped build them. For most of the past two decades he has often been found behind the scenes at the Disney theme parks where he worked on the Finding Nemo submarine attraction in Disneyland in Anaheim and added visual effects to a Halloween show for the Space Mountain attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Soon the homeowners of Philbrook Avenue and Belmont Court will gather for a party under the lights that have literally tied their neighborhood together. Sometime after New Year's Day the lights will come down, the radio broadcast will go silent and the decorations will be boxed and placed into storage. And only a few short months later it will be time to start work on next year's display.

Ric Turner's Christmas light show can be seen online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zhki6IAurxg.

E.J. Stephens can be reached at deadwrite@yahoo.com.

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