Philadelphia has about 1/7 the population of NYC, and so (speaking now as a snobby NY'er) it made a good "starter" city for me, since, although I grew up in rural Maryland, I had many a teen adventure in Philly (including missing the last bus after a Blue Oyster Cult concert at the Spectrum and walking all night and sleeping on a park bench, but that's a story for another time/venue). But somehow, even though I've loved sound and light shows as long as I can remember, I missed the fact that Philly also has a history of holiday light shows going back to at least the mid-fifties. So when an ex-girlfriend, who grew up in south Jersey, told me about the Macy's Holiday Light show, I was intrigued, and so this year I stopped by to see the show on the day after Christmas (I also went to see the just-opened, amazing Comcast Experience and the show at the Franklin Institute). The light show was apparently part of a long line of innovations from Wanamaker's, documented by The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ here.
The building is amazing, and the show still draws good crowds:
And it has a kitschy charm:
Unfortunately, though, while Macy's updated the lighting to LED's in recent years, the sound was awful, and the show had a lot of speech segments that were completely unintelligible, at least on the upper level from which I watched the show. In addition, the show has the saddest finale I've ever seen in any holiday show, with snowmen melting and the narrator saying, "bye bye" (I think):
After that, the live organ comes in (funeral for the snowmen?) and that, at least, sounds great:
So if you're in the area, it's worth checking out, and if you're a true control geek, you should check out the historic controls info featuring Larry Kerecman of Control Dimensions on this page. Apparently, it's controlled by a Horizon system? Oh, and reading that, I just realized that the unintelligible narration is by Julie Andrews!
And, I definitely have to give credit to Macy's for the most surreal holiday window I've seen. Yes, it's a monkey riding an elephant to the north pole with a letter to Santa. Does anyone know what this means?
Saw these window washers outside too:
More photos and videos here.
Mr. Kerecman wrote in with some great additional details about this show!
Subject: Macy's Light Show in Philadelphia
Message: Hi John,
A friend alerted me to your review of the Light Show at the Macy's store in Philadelphia. Glad you got to see it in person! I'm sure you won't recall this, but I talked to you and bought your book when I first started working on the new control system for the Light Show in 2000.
Philadelphia is, if nothing else, a city of traditions. Just try to change one and listen to the outcry. Lord & Taylor discovered that when they started making changes to the venerable Light Show and were excoriated by the press and public. The kitsch of the old show is part of what brings the 4th generation of viewers from a 9-state area to see it as a family tradition. Upwards of 200,000 people visit the store each year to see the Light Show. Not everything has to have lasers and video projections to be popular these days.
The traditions of the Light Show and the restored Wanamaker organ are what keep this center city retail store at the top of the sales charts for Macy's - even at a time when mall stores have declining revenue.
As a child in the 1950s, I saw the Light Show and Dancing Waters fountains in their formative years and I must admit that one of the great rewards of designing the new control system for this project was watching the youngsters sitting on the floor of the Grand Court jumping with excitement.
As you saw in the pictures on the Wanamaker Organ web site, the old control system was an accumulation of 45 years of equipment - 4 distinct generations of gear cascaded together. I installed the Horizon system in 2000, along with all new switching and dimming equipment, but using all the old figures and tree (and sound track.) The Dancing Waters fountain show was discontinued that year due to the cost of rebuilding it and the need to have personnel on hand at all times to monitor the water.
In 2001 the Magic Christmas Tree (powered by 18 100-Amp circuits) was eliminated from the show and a giant American flag was substituted as a reaction to the events of 9/11. In 2002 several other elements of the Light Show were removed.
After working for L&T on the show for the 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons, I discontinued my relationship with them in mid-2003 as they asked me to delete even more of the original show to save money.
Fortunately Macy's came along to replace L&T as the operator of the store and things have been improving each year as the Parade Studio in New Jersey took over the responsibility for the show. Last year I worked with their great crew on the wiring and installation of all new figures. They were mounted on a modern truss system that facilitates the setup and removal of the show from in front of the famous pipe organ. LED lamps reduced the power consumption of the show dramatically while increasing the brightness.
An ETC sine-wave dimmer rack was added to the (circa 2000) switching cabinets and standard ETC dimmer rack to operate the circuits with LEDs that required dimming.
In 2008 a new Magic Christmas Tree was built, bringing back a tradition that started in 1960. The Horizon system was replaced with a Strand Rack Palette control system using a conversion of the cue sheets and thousands of cues to a new control platform without starting from scratch. All of the wiring and interfaces to the building systems (lights, Muzak, organ console, energy management system, etc.) remained as built in 2000 with a simple upgrade to Ethernet brains in the Opto-22 module racks.
The sound track and sound system have always been a problem. The original sound track was done in the 1960s using transfers from LP records to open reel tape. Some of those tracks have endured to this day, albeit in a digital storage format. The sound system dates from the early 1990s and was never successful. The conversion of the upper floors of the building surrounding the Grand Court to office space and the installation of the glass panels over the openings further compounded the acoustic problems for the Light Show (but they were good for the organ, adding reverberation for the first time.)
I suspect that 2009 will be the year that Macy's tackles both issues with the sound in the Grand Court. Julie Andrews was a Macy's addition in 2007, not to universal acclaim. Some folks in Philly still want to hear the local TV announcer who was the narrator of the show during the Wanamaker years. That is not possible, but it does give you a sense of how hard it is to change too much at one time in this project.
So the trick will be to improve the intelligibility and coverage in the room with new equipment, especially above the first floor, and then somehow upgrade the music tracks without ruffling too many feathers in the collective public perception of the show. Macy's is a class act and I have been quite pleased with their desire to upgrade the Light Show but still keep it a beloved Philly tradition.
More details on updates to the system for 2009 here.
Behind the scenes photos and story here!