World’s largest working pipe organ is in ... Macy’s
Before there was Muzak, there was the Wanamaker. Newly restored, it restores the shopper’s mood.
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The Wanamaker is a symphonic organ famous for its ability to sound like an orchestra. Indeed, last month, when they played together and the organ could be mistaken for the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was taken as validation that the organist, curators, technicians, and owners had succeeded in bringing the instrument to a potential never before achieved in the Grand Court.Skip to next paragraph
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The court itself is a mecca to music lovers from around the world, who’ve been known to dash directly there from the airport to avoid missing a concert. And the locals? They might be more likely to consider the organ background noise as they head for the court’s huge eagle statue, the customary center-city meeting place for Philadelphians.
More than one shoe salesman has been known to yell up to the organist at the second floor console to lower the volume, and one organist is said to have played the tune to “Keystone Cops” when he spotted security chasing a shoplifter on the floor below. “The kid had the dramatic timing to run the other way” when the whistle blew, recalls Ray Biswanger, of the nonprofit Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, which is dedicated to its preservation.
Organist Peter Richard Conte confesses to using the instrument as a musical weapon once when store security asked him to play “very, very loudly” when a noisy group of protesters arrived intent on unfurling nasty banners in the Grand Court. “I blasted them out,” he recalls, smiling.
Wrapped in the gleaming mahogany console for one of his two daily concerts, Mr. Conte indulges the organ’s ability to sound like an orchestra as he plays music he has transcribed for the organ from orchestral compositions – the better to take advantage of its famous sound palette: Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Wagner’s “Liebestod,” Bernstein’s overture to Candide.
“Why not give her what she likes?” he asks of the organ he calls “Baby.” Each concert includes some crowd-pleasers, and he recalls fondly looking over the rail once and seeing a woman dancing to his Strauss waltz in the the court below.
Curator Curt Mangel recalls another shopper happily singing along with music from “West Side Story” while she browsed.
At Christmas, the organ takes center stage for the store’s famous light show, which also had fallen on hard times of late. So the tradition-loving Macy’s refurbished the light show as well, hiring Julie Andrews to redo the narration. And Macy’s brought in a beloved life-size Dickens village that disappeared from the city’s holiday tradition scene when its home at the Strawbridge & Clothier store down the street closed.
“We are entertainment. Shopping is theater,” says Bill Schermerhorn, creative director of Macy’s parade and entertainment arm. “John Wanamaker was a showman. I think he would very much approve.”
The economics of retail have repeatedly shrunk John Wanamaker’s grand store (the nine original shopping floors are now three), but the organ’s popularity continues to expand. Conductor Milanov, a center city resident, makes it a point to walk through the court to hear “one of the few instruments in the world with the capability for playing so many different sound colors.” Another music lover, Edward Real, a hurricane Katrina refugee who happened upon the organ while shopping one day, calls it “wonderful.”
For Mr. Biswanger, the preservationist, the instrument’s true glory emerges when the store is closed and the background noise gone. “It’s one of those rare things that makes a lifetime impression.” Conte, only the fourth Grand Court organist in the store’s history, doesn’t mind the imperfection of the everyday: “Part of the charm is the meeting of people from all over the world – folks from Europe making a pilgrimage [to hear the organ] and people who came in to buy women’s shoes.” That the organ he has played for 20 years should find such an adoring owner, he calls “the miracle on Chestnut Street.”