A Philadelphia tradition since 1956
A source of awe and wonder for children of all ages.
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A History of the Light Show and
The following features trace the history of the Macy's Light Show from its earliest days at the John Wanamaker department store in the 1950s to the present. Each year brings new improvements to the show, with an abiding respect for tradition.
Retailers have always kept the Light Show up-to-date, and the latest version, produced by Macy's, is no exception. While retaining all the beloved elements of the John Wanamaker original, the revamped production — dubbed the Millennium Edition by designer Larry Kerecman — modernizes the equipment while allowing the Grand Organ to cast its holiday spell. Back in the 1950s “Light Show Larry” was fascinated by the Magic Christmas Tree as were many other boomers. He built a model of it at home and that helped launch him on a career as an electrical engineer. His recent projects include the restoration of the historic Electric Fountain in Denver.
Macy's famous Parade Studio in New York has manufactured new "flats" bearing the light-bulb-outlines of each traditional character. Large circles are cut through the panels to allow more of the beautiful Wanamaker Organ sound to get through. Colored LED lights have replaced the traditional incandescent bulbs at great savings of electricity. In 2008 the Magic Christmas Tree made a glorious return after several years' absence. Macy's built a new and larger version capable of displaying all the colors of the rainbow. It has the capacity for numerous special effects.
Julie Andrews, Macy’s new narrator, closely follows a script very much like the original. The scrim backdrop allows much more of the Organ's glorious sound to get through than did the original heavy plush drapes. Many Philadelphians consider the Yuletide season incomplete without a trip to the Grand Court to hear the Wanamaker Organ and see the Holiday Pageant of Lights. Today many light-show performances conclude with live organ music, especially around regular organ-concert times.
More on the Makeover
Recently the organ case itself has been left uncovered, with the Magic Christmas Tree standing before it. Spotlights now illuminate the case in brilliant shifting holiday colors and patterns. Much of this re-design was spearheaded by Wanamaker Organ curator Curt Mangel. By placing the Organ in the forefront of the show, Curt allowed the Reigning Monarch of All Instruments to weave its spell in special productions that join the Tree and organ with imaginative lighting effects as Peter Richard Conte plays festive Yuletide music. The result is a popular sensation that rivals those in other cities, including the New York Radio City show and the great Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree.
The Macy’s Parade Studio redesign has also helped lessen the common retail criticism that Christmas comes earlier each year, because the show is able to be put up much more quickly. In days of yore the curtain was installed in late September and removed by early February after the last characters had been removed. Each character was individually hoisted and connected. Because of its complexity, the Wanamaker show took the efforts of at least three men to install it. The prolonged after-hours schedule was partly due to its being done as overtime after employees’ daily shift, and also for the safety of customers. Al Goessler of the Wanamaker staff supervised the work and the show’s operation. Just hauling up Santa’s train to the very top of the Court could take from closing ’til opening the following morning.
The Show itself was computerized in the 1970s but nonetheless required two operators to run it. Since the Macy’s rebuild, the show is entirely automated. Macy's installed winches in the ceiling and began hanging the lighted figures on horizontal trusses that can easily be raised as a unit, enabling sections to be set up and removed in considerably less time.
There are 34,500 LED lights on the Macy’s Magic Christmas Tree in six colors: red, yellow, green, blue, purple, and cool white, which breaks down to about 5,750 lights in each color. It is topped by a red Moravian (or Advent) star. The lights on the tree, the snowflakes, and the snowmen are dimmable.
The rest of the light show has about 65,000 LED lights (the Parade studio attempted to do an actual count, but found it impractical to finish). Colors include red, yellow, orange, green, blue, pink, purple, warm white, and cool white. The LEDs use 90 percent less electricity than standard incandescent bulbs (which were from 5 to 7 watts per bulb in the old show). LED colors are purer than incandescent colors, and cameras sometimes have difficulty capturing the violet and white shades.
The vertical strands have four steady LED colors: red, purple, blue and green. They also have two incandescent blinking colors: blue and white. These blinkers are still incandescent because the blink is in the bulb and is not controlled by the computer. LEDs are not developed enough yet to handle blinking.
The old Wanamaker tree contained an estimated 23,500 lights, many custom-tinted just for the Show in shades of pink and purple, and the figures contained 29,000 bulbs. The show was fed by 1200 amps.
When it was in use, the Dancing Waters (TM) Enchanted Fountain system used 3000 gallons of water. There was really no tank for the water. Rather, a heavy rubber sheet was placed in the balcony orchestra pit. It is fortunate that that sheet never developed any leaks in its long history of use. Restoration of the accompanying Fountain-and-Colored-Light Show on the balcony in front of the Organ case is not being considered at present because a redesign would be needed to protect the Organ and low-lying light and plug-in power strips that illuminate the case. Also Macy’s new Christmas tree is wider than its predecessor.
The original Santa Express train engine weighed 700 pounds and the two cars weighed 500 pounds apiece. The entire Wanamaker light show—minus the tree—weighed three and a half tons.
The original Magic Christmas Tree had 85 individual tree branches, topped by a cone-shaped section and crowned with a five-pointed star. That star had white, amber and blue lights. The figures had 23,635 individual 7-watt light bulbs. The vertical strings of lights contained 5906 bulbs, powered by 40 circuits so that the lights could be programmed to “chase” back and forth.
The total electrical consumption during the 21 climactic seconds when the entire Wanamaker show was lit was a staggering 288,000 watts. Not everything could be turned on at the same time during the Grand Finale—the power surge would exceed the rated capacity of the feeder cables coming from the transformer vaults in the basement. Although this was a lot of incandescent energy, it was not wasted. The resulting heat helped warm the Grand Court.
The Store’s famous light show has always been one of Philadelphia’s most hallowed traditions since its inception in November 1955. It was devised by Frederick Yost, a Yale University theatre-lighting graduate who came to John Wanamaker and pioneered many of the beautiful Grand Court displays that kept the store in the forefront of retailing.
Yost was following a long tradition. Previous years, stretching back to the era of John and Rodman Wanamaker, featured grandiose Christmas and Easter displays that ran the full height of the Grand Court. Stage-carpentry schemes right out of Hollywood covered the Wanamaker Organ wall with staircases, balconies, draperies, “stained glass,” greenery, paintings and rich tapestries. By the time of World War II a relative austerity set in. The exposed organ case was backed by colored curtains and giant lit candles were placed atop it. The Enchanted Fountains were added, dancing to music.
By the 1950s Baby Boomers were poised to fall in love with the Organ and Christmas decorations. Yost took the show in a new direction by draping the Organ entirely in blue-green curtains that conformed to the curves of the case, and by adding the Magic Christmas Tree to the fountain display. Like the fountains, the huge tree could be lit in any color or mix of colors, and could even be lit in different colors in thirds from the top down. The trunk of the tree, actually a huge electrical strip with color-coded plugs, was held up by girders inside the central tower of the organ’s pipe screen and by a boom reaching over the Herald Angel, and the front pipes were removed to secure the tree. Between shows, the tree patterns changed at random during the shopping day. Large golden bells hung in an arc around the tree.
Mirror balls were used to create artificial snowflakes. Reportedly at one time water was also directed out of the balcony and into a main-floor receptacle, but this feature literally dampened customers’ spirits.
The Show Evolves
Over the years various figures were added, including trumpet-blowing Wanamaker Eagles, Sleighs, a Volkswagen Beetle, Stockings, and Trumpet-bearing Bears, which were included in the early ‘80s to support a store promotion of Rudi Bear stuffed cubbies. Wanamaker’s gradually extended its decorations to the exterior of the store, and huge lighted pendants and festoons hung at the central entrances on Market and Juniper Streets. Wanamaker’s also marketed light-show merchandise more than retailers that have followed, and had a light-show coloring book in its Crystal Tea Room restaurant, a light-show necktie, a video and other popular tourist merchandise. The fountain show became too old to be used and was discontinued around the turn of the present century. For a number of years following September 11, the raising of a huge American flag concluded the show as the Organ played “God Bless America.” More recently, Macy’s has sent spotlights careening across the vaults of the Grand Court, projecting giant stars, Christmas trees, snowflakes and reindeer between shows.
Characters in Use Today
Characters in use today include two Bears, four Frostys, eight Reindeer, 50 Snowflakes, two Toy Soldiers, three Clocks, five Ballerinas, one Nutcracker, one Girl, one Prince, one Princess, two Candy Canes, Santa and the Conductor on the Santa Express Train.
Macy’s acquired the celebrated Dickens Christmas Village from Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier Department Store. Numerous animated figures depict scenes in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843). While not as popular as the Wanamaker Light Show, the village drew customers to the fourth floor Strawbridge’s, and on one occasion a Dickens descendant presided at the season opening. After Strawbridge's closed, Macy’s installed a drop ceiling in Egyptian Hall in the Fall of 2006 and placed the show there during its move into the John Wanamaker Building. Macy’s also attires attendants in period garb and sometimes has carolers sing from the organ console loft. Children have an opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap and share Christmas wishes. Lit Brothers department store (“Hats Trimmed Free of Charge”) had a Colonial Christmas Village, which is now at the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park. Roy Insley’s fanciful model “Wanamaker’s at Christmas” is also displayed there.
Macy's Animated Windows
Macy’s has also enlivened Market Street with a series of fanciful windows spreading holiday cheer to the sidewalks.
Light Show Storage
During the off-season the show is stored in the passageways around the Organ, making the area look like Santa’s workshop. The Magic Christmas Tree is kept on the second floor, Chestnut Street, behind the ladies suit department. The branches are hung from trusses in the ceiling and the endpoints are color-coded for easy installation on the center trunk and connection to the electrical outlets. The rest of the light-show panels and trusses are stored on the second floor around and behind the Main Organ chambers. The sections are arranged in order from top to bottom as one travels from the control room, affectionately known as Frosty Central around the organ to the Thirteenth Street side of the second floor.
Wanamaker’s maintained a large Toy Department at the south end of the Eighth floor. It included a real monorail for kids that made a circuit around the department from 1946 to 1984, and a sprawling electric-train layout. The rocket monorail cars have been moved to the Please Touch Museum.