Macy’s Wanamaker Organ Christmas Light Show at Macy's
Posted on: December 13, 2009
- Phone: (215) 241-9000
- Website: http://www.wanamakerorgan.com/xmas.php
Thanks go out to a swell co-worker who reminded me of a wonderful holiday tradition in the Philly area – The Wanamaker Organ and Christmas Light Show in the Wanamaker Department Store ( now Macy’s ) in downtown Philadelphia, PA.
The old Wanamaker department store (now Macy’s) in downtown Philadelphia has a very interesting history, including at one point having a in house radio station, kiddie mono-rail and the first department store to be lighted by electricity. My personal fave thing is that that it houses The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ – the largest operational pipe organ in the world!
The organ was built for the 1904 St. Louis Word’s Fair, and now a National Historic Landmark and has been entertaining shoppers for over 100 years. I encourage anyone with even a little bit of curiosity about what once was a magnificent department store to visit the informative website of The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, who have done a great job of collecting information about the organ and the store itself. Job well done, folks.
Even though department store chain Macy’s now does business in the Wanamaker building they have upheld the Christmas Light Show tradition that was started in 1956. From the day after Thanksgiving until New Years Eve you can walk through the grand hall of the store and not only hear music being played on the organ, but see the giant Christmas tree and 15 minute light show every hour on the hour. ( During the year there are more lengthy organ recitals, don’t miss those either.)
(Apologies for the soft focus photo above, but my little point-n-shoot camera was overwhelmed by the scale of the grand hall which goes up 9 stories! What I did want to illustrate with this fuzzy photo is the lit up section to the left of the tree, which is where the organist sits. Behind the tree itself is where all of the pipes for the organ are- you can just catch a glimpse of some of them behind the massive 2 story tree.)
Retro Roadhusband and I went to check out the light show last Monday evening. This was a nice time to catch the show rather than in the hustle and bustle of weekend shoppers. While I was bummed out that there is no easy way to see the organist playing close up, I have to hand it to modern technology for giving us the ability to view the organist as he played some music before the show:
We stood on the 2nd floor to see the show but many folks like to be on the ground floor looking up at the massive display of lights. Kids in fancy dress sprawl on the carpet and gather around the giant Eagle sculpture which, like the organ, also came from the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The Eagle sculpture weighs 2,500 pounds and sits on a granite base – the floor of the Grand Court had to be strengthened with girders to accommodate it! When brought to Wanamaker’s it became the John Wanamaker chain’s corporate trademark. (I have no idea if it has to do with the local sports team, sorry!)
Like trying to take a picture of a sunset, even a moving snapshot of the Light Show doesn’t capture the experience of being there surrounded by it all. Feeling the bass notes rumble through your core, craning your neck to take in the grand and beautiful architecture from the golden era of department stores, you’re becoming a part of its history just by being there.
Even the somewhat hokey light show,aimed more at kids than grown ups, isn’t as tacky when you realize that just down below, sprawled out on the red carpet, holiday memories are being formed in a little kid’s brain, or being relived in the mind of an oldster – hopefully fond memories that last a lifetime.
One thing that I love about the this Philadelphia holiday tradition is its ability for the music to connect a random group of people into a group of folks sharing the same experience. One minute you’re shopping for gloves and scarves after work, or trying on shoes. Or perhaps you’ve planned all day to come to the city for this annual holiday event. But as soon as that giant organ booms its music out, everyone who hears it is connected, and in that same moment we’re all together on a certain level, whether we fully realize it or not.
For those of you who want to wander down more Philadelphia Department Store Memory Lane, you can also now see the Dickens Christmas Village from Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier Department store – within what used to be the Egyptian Hall in Wanamakers.
This is definitely more child oriented than for grown ups, but I hope kids will be charmed by the story and the animated characters, even if they look even more old fashioned now than they were meant to when they were first displayed.
I raced through here with Retro Roadhusband, who shared with me that he had played Fezziwig in the school play. ( Though this Fezziwig looks more like Harry Shearer to me!)
We had a busy night in the city planned and RRH was relieved when I declined the offer to see Santa at the end of our journey. But if you do happen sit on Santa’s lap, let him know my Christmas wish is that the Wanamaker Organ continues to play and remind us of a bygone era for years and years to come!
RETRO ROADMAP RECOMMENDATION- If you drive into the city don’t park in the underground parking lot – which used to house a post office, lost and found, shoe repair, and the Dairy restaurant – which can be quite expensive! We found affordable parking in the garage at the corner of Sansom and 12th.