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Who's Behind The Kansas City Marriott's Holiday Lights? One Man And A Laptop

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Cody Newill
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KCUR 89.3
The Marriott's light display takes up the entire southern facing facade of the building in downtown Kansas City.

 This post was first published in December, 2015.

For more than a decade, the downtown Marriott Hotel's lighting display has played a key role in brightening up the Kansas City skyline — especially during the holidays.

But who controls those iconic lights? Just one man named Mike Davis. 

Davis is a computer lighting specialist and software designer. He's been in charge of the lights for 12 years now. From Santa Clauses to candy canes, Royals logos during games and even tributes to recent events, Davis controls the 22-story display with just a few keystrokes.

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Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Mike Davis has handled the programming for the Marriott's lights for about 12 years now. He does all his work from his laptop, and can upload images wherever he can get a WiFi connection.

"I do it all from my laptop," Davis said. "There's some software I have that allows me to create artwork, and I can do that anywhere I can get a WiFi connection."

That means that Davis often runs the lights from the comfort of his home, but it has led to situations where he's had to improvise.

"Two years ago when the Royals made it to the World Series, I was on the road doing a job," Davis said. "So I started thinking about where I could get a connection and realized all McDonalds' have one. So, somewhere in central Missouri I pulled off, had a Big Mac and uploaded 'Royals Win!'"

The tech

The Marriott's display spans the entire southern facing facade of the building, but it's actually a fairly simple system.

Think of it as just a big TV screen or computer monitor, but with much lower resolution. The grid has 800 LEDs, which you can think of as pixels. By comparison, your average HDTV or computer monitor has more than 2 million pixels to work with.

"The little icons that you have on your desktop to show your programs have more resolution than what the Marriott can actually display," Davis said. "It actually looks better the farther back away you get because your eyes, or really your brain, fill in the gaps."

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Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Davis shows a Kansas City Fire Department logo that he used for after two firefighters were killed in Oct. Davis also put the French flag colors on the Marriott after terrorist attacks in Nov.

Downtown revitalization

The display came about when entrepreneur and lighting specialist Mark Callegari went, fittingly enough, to a Christmas party at then DST Systems CEO Thomas McDonnell's house.

DST owned or co-owned several buildings downtown, and McDonnell thought putting up holiday lights would be a good way to attract people back to the city.

"Downtown used to be this place for big Christmas displays, and it kind of went away over the years," Callegari said. "Somewhere along the line, I guess as the population moved away, they felt it wasn't important to do anymore."

This was back in 2002 and 2003, when LED technology had just emerged as a major force in the lighting industry. 

"The Marriott was the first [building] we tried LEDs on," Callegari said. "They're still there, they're still working and, like all LEDs, they have very low power draw. Compared to another building that might [use] incandescent lights, it might be 1/10 the cost or less."

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Credit Tessa Williams
Tessa Williams, 7th grade student at Delta Woods, made a candy cane heart for her contribution to the Marriott's holiday lights.

Think of the children

Davis changes up the artwork for the display about twice per week, but he admits creating those images is a challenge for him. So he came up with an idea to showcase local artists.

"I'm a stick figure kind of guy," Davis said. "After the first couple of years, it came to me that it'd be really cool to get kids' art somehow involved."

So Davis approached Jim Miller at DST about the idea. Miller's daughter, Erin Johnson, was a teacher at Raymore-Peculiar at the time, and loved the idea.

Johnson now teaches at Delta Woods Middle School in Blue Springs where the project has become a yearly tradition. The kids make simple 20 by 40 pixel art in Paint, and Davis transfers it all onto the grid.

The art debuts every year on Dec. 2 to music played by Delta Woods students. This year, the school's jazz band played holiday tunes to kick off the lights.

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Credit Carter Brown
Carter Brown, also in 7th grade at Delta Woods, said that he tried to draw Santa Claus, but the details were too much. The kids' original art is only 20 by 40 pixels.

"When I got the call from Mike, I was really excited because we actually get to show the kids other things you can do with art other than teach or simply paint," Johnson said. "You can do things on the computer and you can have a job where you put images up in lights."

Delta Woods 8th grader Gavin Schaefer drew a cup of hot chocolate for this year's holiday show. He said seeing his art displayed on a huge building was a treat.

"It was so weird seeing it go from a 20 by 40 pixel art thing to on the Marriott," Schaefer said. "It kind of blows your mind a little bit."

Tessa Williams is in 7th grade at Delta Woods. She participated in the project for the first time this year.

"I had a lot of questions," Williams said. "They said they basically just take it and blow it up, but we did all the work for it. It was just really fun."

And even for Davis, the display has some personal significance. 

"This is something that I do that my daughter actually gets," Davis said, stifling laughter. "Most of stuff I work on it's, 'Oh, yeah, that's interesting, dad,' but this is actually something she can enjoy."

Callegari says he's thrilled that the Marriott has managed to become such a big part of downtown's identity.

"When you see a lot of cityscapes that people use in logos or pictures, even on the news every night in the background, you see [the Marriott]," Callegari said. "It's kind of become part of the Kansas City landscape."

Whether it's showing off hometown pride, celebrating two amazing years for the Royals or helping foster the holiday spirit, the Marriott's lights are meant to showcase the city above all else. And all of it happens with just a few clicks on Mike Davis' laptop.

Cody Newill is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @CodyNewill or send him an email at cody@kcur.org. 

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