Macy's Christmas Light Show

A Philadelphia tradition since 1956

A source of awe and wonder for children of all ages.

 
Ready - Set - Glow! 

Macy's Christmas Light Show
runs daily every day of the week, including Sundays, on every even hour from 10 am through  8 pm through December 31. That would be at 10am, noon, 2pm, 4pm, 6pm and 8pm. There is a two-hour gap between shows.

Shoppers waiting f
or the next show might want to take in the Dickens Christmas Village on the Third Floor, Market Street, which is also free and is open on a continuous basis. The Light Show itself lasts about eleven minutes.

The Macy's presentations are the grandest of Philadelphia traditions, and many customers' Yule celebrations would not be complete without taking in the Delaware Valley spectacle.

Macy's beautiful Market Street Windows for 2014, created by the Parade Studio, were unveiled Saturday November 22 and should not be missed. They feature the Organ, the Eagle and the Light Show prominently.

Those interested in the old Wanamaker Store tradition of
Brunch with Santa and the experience of dining in the Great Crystal Tea Room Dec. 20 should call Finley Catering at (215) 640-8842.

At the Dickens Christmas Village (Third Floor Market Street) there is also a concession for photos with Santa, a studio to design a personalized teddy bear, and a Christmas gift shop ("Holiday Lane") nearby. There is covered public parking under the Wanamaker Building.
 
THE WANAMAKER ORGAN is used for the finale of the noon Light Show (except Sundays), and at the end of the 6pm Light Shows (except Wednesday, Friday and Sunday), and some presentations during last year's season climaxed with our new Giant Chinese Gong on the Seventh Floor added in.
 
Year in and year out, the Wanamaker Organ is played daily (except Sundays) at noon. It is also played on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5:30 pm, and on Wednesday and Friday at 7pm.
 
When the Wanamaker Organ is included, it features the Grand Finale ("Deck the Halls") of the Light Show, then the daily recital continues. Other Light Show endings feature a taped finale by the Wanamaker Organ. All recitals are 45 minutes long. The Wanamaker Organ is the largest playing pipe organ in the world and has more than 28,677 pipes.
 
VIEW THE original Light Show here, and here, and see a vintage TV segment with organ here.
 
CHECK OUT our  Yuletide webstore.
 
Please note: the late afternoon Wanamaker Organ concerts on Christmas Eve Day and New Year's Eve day are often cancelled due to potential curtailed store hours.
 
Light Show Music
Greg Sonsini has compiled a list below of music used in the Light Show. Help is requested in finding the artists of those works not yet identified. Please e-mail us at execdirec@wanamakerorgan.com if you can add details.
 
1. Opening fanfare during John Facenda's/Julie Andrews' introduction: Provenance unknown.
2. Selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite-specifically "Overture," "Waltz of the Flowers," and "Closing Waltz," played during the Nutcracker storyline. Album unknown.
3. "In The Clock Store" by Charles Orth (1893), which is played during the Clock segment.  The version used in the Light Show comes from an album titled "The Sound Of Musical Pictures" (1960).  It was arranged by Ralph Hermann and played by the Medallion Concert Band. Walt Disney adapted the piece for one of his Silly Symphonies in 1931. You may here it on YouTube here.
 4. "Alpine Sleigh Ride" by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra, played during the Snowflake sequence.
5. "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer," by the Ray Conniff Singers.
6. "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms, later replaced by "The Rudi Bear Song" (part of a Teddy Bear promotion), played during the candy cane, toy soldier and toy drum segment.
7. "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by an unknown artist played during the Santa Express Train segment.
8. "Frosty the Snowman," by the Ray Conniff Singers.
9. A snippet of "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music" movie soundtrack, played during the fading of the snowmen.
10. "O Tannenbaum" by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, played during the final lighting of the entire board. This was replaced in 1988 by "Deck the Halls" by an artist that I have not been able to identify. The arrangement is by Carmen Dragon and has been adopted for the Wanamaker Organ (with grateful assistance from Mr. Dragon's daughter) by Peter Richard Conte.
 
More Store and Light Show Information
  • Covered parking is available under the Wanamaker Building, but additional options are here.
  • Read the fascinating story of Bert Medland, father of the Magic Christmas Tree here.
  • An annotated bibliography by Adrianna Riccioni tracing the history of the Light Show is here.
  • Our Philadelphia Visitors Guide is here.
  • A story on Macy's windows is here.
  • An amusing retrospective on the Philadelphia Yuletide scene is found at this site.
Escalators are located at both ends of the Grand Court. The Information Desk is on the Main Floor, Market Street. Wanamaker Organ CDs and DVDs and store heritage products are available there.
 
Elevators are also at the Market Street side of the Store. The Executive Offices are on the Third Floor, Market Street.
 
Restrooms are on the Third Floor, Central, at 13th Street.
 
The Daily Organ Concert schedule is here. Noon Wanamaker Organ concerts generally start after the Light Show runs its course, and feature the finale of the show played on the Organ. Taped recordings of the organ conclude other finales.
 
   

 

Visit Our Christmas Store!

The information on this website is provided as a courtesy
by the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ.
Persons traveling a great distance
may wish to call ahead to verify details.

A History of the Light Show and
Macy’s Revitalization of a
Great Philadelphia Tradition

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.  

Macy's "Millennium" Edition

 

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


As far as the Wanamaker Organ was concerned, the main problem with past Christmas shows was that the instrument was  covered by a huge theater curtain, muffling the Organ’s sound and robbing the hall of reverberation. Until the Grand Court was repainted for the American Bicentennial in 1976, this sound-deadening continued throughout the year as plush curtains hid side-wall seasonal tableaux of the Nativity and blanketed the towering Christmas Cathedral opposite the Organ. Those features were permanently removed about 1975.

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.

 

Return to the Top

The Holiday Light Show:
Fun Facts and Figures
Past and Present

 

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.

Beginnings

 

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


During the 1960s various panels of figures set on plywood panels, were added, based on a narrative similar to that used today. Mrs. Yost’s voice was used for the Sugar Plum Fairy. The stentorian voice of legendary Philadelphia WCAU-TV newsman John Facenda, voice of NFL Films, added a powerful note of authority.

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.

Return to the Top

Macy's Dickens Christmas Village

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.

Return to the Top

Wanamaker's Toy Department

 

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.

 

 

Historic Grand Court Displays


John Wanamaker was a leading Christian layman and founder of Bethany Presbyterian Church, and his family built on that heritage. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s the Grand Court included a Christmas Cathedral at the rear (also with a thick blue-green drapery behind it) that had a Nativity scene as its focus and saints and bells in its towers. Cathedral-like arcades on the second floor held statuary showing Biblical stories including the Annunciation and Flight into Egypt, and the Main Floor had a series of Gothic pavilions atop each sales counter that were likewise lighted to give an air of enchantment to the entire Grand Court. Side aisles were draped in repeated festoons of greenery with wreaths at each top corner. In the first half of the 20th century it was a famous John Wanamaker tradition to have a Christmas Carol sing-along on Christmas Eve, and songbooks were regularly given to customers. Organist Mary Vogt would push buttons from a device at the console and the page number of each Carol would be projected.

Easter Decorations


During Lent and Easter paintings of the Passion of Christ by the celebrated Hungarian painter Michael de Munkacsy were hung in the Grand Court.  These paintings had been sent on an international tour following their completion and thousands paid admission to see them. Leading newspapers and clergy were profuse in their praise of the characterizations. So precious were these paintings to John Wanamaker that he paid the highest price received by any living artist to date (estimates vary from $100,000 to .$175,000 each). Before 1908 they hung in his country home Lindenhurst. When that home burned to the ground in 1907, neighbors cut them from their frames and rescued them. After Mr. Wanamaker’s death the paintings were hung in the Grand Court annually and were displayed at the New York 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, before being sold in 1988. Choirs and orchestras frequently played special programs of sacred music during this period.

 

Return to the Top

 

Photo Album

The Wanamaker Organ Case with the
Enchanted Fountains
The John Wanamaker Grand
Court at Christmas with a view of
the Christmas Cathedral
   
The John Wanamaker Christmas Cathedral, Philadelphia. Inspired by the beauty of famous churches and religious art throughout the world, this Christmas presentation is located in the Grand Court of the Philadelphia store. The Nativity tableau is placed in the central portal above which are stained glass windows portraying The Annunciation and The Flight Into Egypt. Figures of the Disciples and Prophets are set into the Cathedral front.
Towering high above the Wanamaker Grand Court, facing the Christmas Cathedral, the Magic Christmas Tree of a Million Lights adds brilliance to the holiday season. As though touched by a magic wand, the colors flash and change before your eyes while the Enchanted Fountains rise and fall to the accompaniment of Christmas music.
 
Macy's Flower Show
   

Visit Our Christmas Store!

 

Return to the Top

 

©2011 Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, Inc.         Site Design and Hosting: www.sherwoodweb.com