Meet the woman behind Midtown’s holiday lights

Midtown Alliance's Lauren Bohn said the neighborhood's holiday light display is "something that's available to everyone and can really have a powerful impact on how people feel about our public spaces." 
Courtesy of Midtown Alliance
Midtown Alliance's Lauren Bohn said the neighborhood's holiday light display is "something that's available to everyone and can really have a powerful impact on how people feel about our public spaces." Courtesy of Midtown Alliance

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Because of this octogenarian, Atlanta shines brightly every Christmas.

For Jackie Leiby, Christmas starts in July. That’s when, under her careful tutelage, crews first start stringing holiday lights on trees along Midtown’s Peachtree Street.

Now, Leiby and her team are in the thick of the busy season, when the workdays are long, and the planning they have done for months to spread some seasonal cheer in metro Atlanta will be put to the test.

For more than three decades, Leiby — whose coworkers describe as a grandmotherly figure who can, and does, outwork them all — has had a hand in creating some of the metro area’s most memorable light displays in her role as special projects manager at Magnum Lighting and Production.

The ornately wrapped trees and giant stars throughout Midtown? Leiby’s handiwork.

The giant wreath outside Georgia Pacific’s downtown headquarters? That’s hers too.

Then there are the grand displays of trees and lights at hospitals, office buildings and private residences across the city.

And while Leiby tends to stay out of the spotlight, her watchful eye and penchant for perfection make the displays she designs and oversees recognizable.

“There is an art to it,” Leiby, who is in her 80s, said recently. “People say to me, I know that you did such and such a place because I can tell your work.”

Peachtree at 15th Credit Midtown Alliance
The holiday light display in Midtown includes nearly 100 lit trees and more than 20 illuminated stars that range in size from 3-feet to 23-feet tall. 
Courtesy of Midtown Alliance
Peachtree at 15th Credit Midtown Alliance The holiday light display in Midtown includes nearly 100 lit trees and more than 20 illuminated stars that range in size from 3-feet to 23-feet tall. Courtesy of Midtown Alliance

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The key is consistency. If “you’re doing 10 trees, they all look the same,” Leiby said matter of factly. Each bulb is evenly spaced from its neighbors, each strand is neatly wrapped, each small white tag that comes on a string of lights is snipped off. In the light game, it’s the attention to detail that puts you a notch above the rest.

Leiby, who is quick to credit her team members, said she got her start orchestrating the installations “completely by accident.” When she started at Magnum 31 years ago, the company was a small operation with about a dozen employees. Today, the Atlanta-based family-owned business does everything from production of special events like weddings to renting and selling audio, video and theatrical equipment.

Leiby, who started in the marketing and advertising department, had a habit of saying “yes” first and figuring out the rest as she went, which led to eventually pulling in bigger clients and heading up larger jobs.

Leiby’s son, Gary Sebesta, who works alongside her said it’s sometimes still that way.

“Jackie thinks of great ideas and designs for things. She tells the client, ‘sure, we can do that.’ Then she asks me, ‘can we do that?’” Sebesta said of his mother. “Me and my guys figure out a way to get it done.”

That includes tasks like wrapping nearly 100 trees in Midtown and installing more than 20 illuminated stars that range in size from 3-feet to 23-feet tall.

The Midtown display, primarily concentrated along Peachtree, is perhaps Leiby and her team’s most prominent. For more than a decade, Leiby has worked with Midtown Alliance to make the district shine.

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“It’s something that’s available to everyone and can really have a powerful impact on how people feel about our public spaces and shared experiences along Peachtree Street,” said Lauren Bohn, a Midtown Alliance program manager who works on the holiday installation. “Our relationship with Jackie and her team is really critical to the success of our program.”

Leiby’s role is a job almost entirely consumed by logistics: finding and retaining clients, getting contracts signed, planning designs, overseeing teams who work in shifts sometimes late into the night. All with an intended outcome that’s rooted far more in emotion than logic: spreading joy.

In a year that seems to be severely lacking in joyful moments, that makes Leiby’s work all the more necessary. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted holiday celebrations and activities immensely, the sort Leiby specializes in, drive-by displays, seem to still be a viable option.

“People are waiting for Christmas. They need something to cheer them up and the lights do that,” she said.

Among her colleagues, Leiby is herself a bright spot.

“Jackie is absolutely one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met my whole entire life,” said Taylor Chandler, a chipper Magnum production manager who is 50 years Leiby’s junior. “She’s our grandmother. She is 100% Magnum’s grandmother, and I don’t think she would be mad at me for saying that.”

Jackie Leiby has worked at Magnum Lighting and Production in Atlanta for more than 30 years. In her role as special projects manager, she helps make some of Atlanta's most iconic holiday light displays come to life. 
Courtesy of Shaun McLane
Jackie Leiby has worked at Magnum Lighting and Production in Atlanta for more than 30 years. In her role as special projects manager, she helps make some of Atlanta's most iconic holiday light displays come to life. Courtesy of Shaun McLane

Credit: Shaun McLane

Credit: Shaun McLane

Despite being a bonafide hit among those who know her, it wasn’t until last year that Leiby got a bit of public attention.

In a picture posted to Reddit on Dec. 26, 2019, Leiby was seen sitting at her desk in a green puffy vest, her cell phone in one hand and the other operating her computer. Behind her, pictures of holiday lights, dogs and family members can be seen hanging on her office wall.

“This incredible woman is the reason we have Christmas lights in Midtown every year. She’s fully responsible for the installation and takedown of them,” the caption of the picture posted by Leiby’s colleague, Shaun McLane, reads. “Her name is Jackie, and she’s been with the company for over 30 years. She takes a lot of pride in what she does, but doesn’t get a lot of recognition for it. … I love her and just want her to know people appreciate what she does.”

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The post attracted comments like: “I had a loved one pass away this year, so it’s been a hard Christmas, however, these lights cheered me up on a day where I particularly felt down about it! Thank you so much, Jackie!!,” “The stars this year filled our hearts with Joy. Thank you!!!” and “Thank you, Jackie, for all your hard work.”

Reactions like that keep Leiby going. These days, she walks with the help of a cane, but she isn’t slowing down.

“I’ll keep doing it until I can’t do it,” Leiby said. “I can’t sit around. I am not a couch potato.”

By mid-February, the lights will all be down. Leiby and her team will work on other jobs, take inventory and reassess, but it won’t be long until Christmas comes again and when it does — she’ll be ready.

Peachtree at 3rd Credit Midtown Alliance. For more than a decade, Jackie Leiby has worked with client Midtown Alliance to bring the district's holiday light display to life. “There is an art to it,” Leiby, who is in her 80s, said recently.  Courtesy of Midtown Alliance
Peachtree at 3rd Credit Midtown Alliance. For more than a decade, Jackie Leiby has worked with client Midtown Alliance to bring the district's holiday light display to life. “There is an art to it,” Leiby, who is in her 80s, said recently. Courtesy of Midtown Alliance

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

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