South Charlotte

A celebration of lights, life, Christmas

Robert Franklin and his wife, Carolyn, have always loved Christmas.

They have a large dancing Santa in the front window and decorations in every room.

Two bouts with cancer have led Robert Franklin to give the area his biggest Christmas displays ever.

In September 2009, Franklin was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. At age 66, Franklin didn't think his prospects were good. Treatment would include major surgery and chemotherapy.

However, Franklin promised that if he survived, the following December he would put up a huge Christmas-light display in his yard, accompanied by music, for all to enjoy.

He did.

"So we displayed it all last year, and people came every night - kids and adults. But the children is what it is really all about," Franklin said.

Franklin has lived in the Charlotte area since 1996. During the Vietnam War, he worked with electronics in the Air Force.

Since 1994, he has worked as an independent contractor to help cover news events with the satellite TV trucks he owns. He has covered hurricanes with Dan Rather and met Dolly Parton, Billy Graham and several presidents.

In December 2010, Franklin learned his cancer had returned.

When his neighbors in Wiltshire Manor near Lake Wylie heard the news, they showed their support for the person they call the "light man."

"He got all sorts of cards and letters in our mailbox to 'The Light Man,' and when the Girl Scouts brought cookies we'd ordered, they wouldn't take any money," said Carolyn Franklin. "They said it was a gift."

Franklin decided that if he made it through this time, his display would be even bigger for 2011.

"I wanted to stay alive to have a second year," Franklin said.

He also wanted to do it for another group of children. "I saw so many young kids going through the same thing, and you really get some compassion," he said.

Franklin is again cancer free, so this year, the display has 60,000-70,000 lights. The display also includes laser lights and fog machines.

Franklin designs the operation on a computer, with hundreds of settings to accompany the music that plays through the front yard. He also broadcasts the songs on radio station 92.1 FM in the area surrounding his home so people can watch from their cars.

Franklin has choreography for 15 Christmas songs but will do a loop of fewer songs if traffic is really backed up. Franklin said his inspiration was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which he tries to see when it is in town.

While Franklin is the genius behind the display, he has a lot of help from family and friends, from putting up lights to purchasing decorations.

Every day for weeks, Franklin and company work on the display. Son-in-law Jon Ross and next-door neighbor Jimmy Paul are two of the biggest helpers this year.

Last year after Christmas, the Franklins and their family went out searching for lights. The display - which required a generator last year - is larger, but after switching to LEDs it no longer requires a generator.

"I have an excess of 50,000 lights I'm giving away," Franklin said. "I have so many that I bought and won't be able to use."

On Dec. 2, Franklin turned on the display. Kensel Green Drive was filled with cars and the street was full of families.

According to neighbors Victoria and John Palella, who came out to watch, the Franklins' love of Christmas decorations has started a neighborhood trend.

"There used to be a time when there were very few lights in the neighborhood, and then you get one house that had it and you almost shame other people into it," said John Palella, laughing. "But he's really gone above and beyond."

Scheili Deitch, who also lives in the neighborhood, said they've been counting down to the opening of the Franklin Christmas display. In her car, five little girls had their faces glued to the windows.

"My daughter is having her birthday sleepover, so this was on our agenda as a must-do," Deitch said.

As they watched, Carolyn Franklin came over to deliver candy canes.

"The objective now is to stay alive for next year," Franklin said. "I have ideas that I wanted to incorporate this year and I haven't gotten to do."