For Mike Ziemkowski, the Christmas season begins even before the official arrival of spring. Just a few months into the year, the Sherman Oaks resident begins brainstorming ideas for an annual home light and animatronics show that he’s been putting on every year for four decades.
The show has been featured on several local news stations and has won awards, including last year’s grand prize on ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight. But seeing it in these contexts doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the presentation.
Every year, Ziemkowski, a film editor, programs the 10-minute show by hand, incorporating original video and homemade robotic characters who move and sing in perfect rhythm with a holiday-themed playlist that Ziemkowski begins planning in April. By fall, Ziemkowski says he regularly gets up at four in the morning to finish off the project's final details.
“I try to mix it up so it’s fun songs and, like, one meaningful song, and a snow-related song,” he says.
That last number is important, because like any great holiday display, Ziemkowski’s includes showers of fake snow that rain down upon the many onlookers that can be found outside of his family’s home from 5 and 10 p.m. on the 30 days leading up to Christmas.
Inspired by his father, who constructed animated nativity scenes and miniature depictions of Santa’s workshop, Ziemkowski took over designing holiday decorations for the home as a high school student. A native of Indiana, he moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and brought his annual light show with him.
“I love putting on a show, I guess,” Ziemkowski says, downplaying his efforts with distinctly Midwestern modesty. “You see the kids that come and enjoy it and that’s the payoff, because it’s a lot of work and a lot of time that goes into it.”
That’s an understatement. Simply setting up the components of the show, which includes more than 50,000 LED lights, takes at least two weeks. Each movement of the characters—and every blinking light—must be individually programmed. It’s a process that takes months.
To really give the singing characters a lifelike appearance, Ziemkowski uses a motion-capture system that syncs their movements to his own. During the hottest months of the year, you might very well find him in his home office, wearing a sensor-equipped baseball hat and moving around to the strains of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
The homeowner takes his display so seriously, in fact, that he frequently attends the annual Christmas Expo, a very real event at which obsessive decorators and holiday enthusiasts gather to get the lowdown on all the newest decorating trends and, of course, network. Ziemkowski says he’s met a few other people from Southern California at the Expo, but most hail from the northern states, where holiday light displays can be something of a survival mechanism as the dark, icy days of winter begin in earnest.
But that just means less competition for Ziemkowski.
On his quiet block, just off Beverly Glen Boulevard, his house literally cannot be missed. Onlookers stand around, somewhat dazed by the very frenetic and high-energy show. Every once in a while, Ziemkowski says hello to new arrivals and engages them in casual conversation—a proud, but humble showman.