A few days ago, I went downtown with Brother David and family to check out the Christmas lights. We started at Wanamaker’s, one of the first department stores in the US. The store was founded by John Wanamaker in 1861; poor guy was at a loose end having been rejected by the Union Army due to a niggling cough. John was quite the innovator: he invented the price tag and Wanamaker’s was the first US department store to feature a restaurant, electric lights, telephones and those pneumatic tube things that department stores once used (and still do in many parts of Asia) to move around money and documents. At one stage, Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room could serve 1 200 people and roast 75 turkeys at a time. Other fun facts about John Wanamaker: he financed the campaign to have Mother’s Day recognized as an official holiday, a contribution that is recognized by a plaque across the street from the store. And during World War I, he publicly proposed that the United States buy Belgium from Germany for the sum of one-hundred billion dollars as an alternative to continuing the war. Hee.
On December 30, 1911, John Wanamaker & Co. opened its flagship store just around the corner from Philly’s flamboyant City Hall. The 12 story, 1.89 million square foot building was dedicated by then-president William Howard Taft, an indication of what a big deal it was. Wanamaker’s was built in the “Florentine style” with galleries and murals and a 2 500 lb bronze eagle acquired from the St Louis World’s Fair. For years, “Meet me at the Eagle” was the social equivalent of “Let’s do lunch.” Wanamaker’s also installed the pipe organ from the World’s Fair, at the time one of the world’s largest. But it wasn’t grand enough so the store hired some organ builders and expanded it until it was the largest operational pipe organ in the world with 28 000 pipes. The stories-high atrium display of Christmas lights was first unveiled in 1957 and it’s been running every year since then. We used to go every year when I was little and it hasn’t changed much. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Frosty always make an appearance as does Santa in his toy train. The whole show, which lasts maybe 15 minutes, ends up with some rousing Christmas music courtesy of the world’s largest pipe organ. For decades, the narrator was well-known Philly newscaster John Facenda. He was supplanted by Julie Andrews in 2005, the upstart.
Wanamaker’s closed in the 1990s and was replaced by various other stores — Hecht’s Strawbridges, Lord and Taylor’s and, finally, by Macy’s in 2006.
Our next stop was Dickens’ Village on the third floor of Wanamaker’s. This set piece, which tells the story of the Christmas Carol, dates to 1985 and originally belonged to Wanamaker’s archrival Strawbridge & Clothier’s. Like Wanamaker’s, Strawbridge’s was taken over by NYC interloper Macy’s in the mid-2000s. Boo.
The Comcast Holiday Spectacular dates to 2008. It’s shown on the largest 4mm-LED screen to be found in the world. I have no idea what that means. I just know that it takes up a whole wall of the Comcast Center’s atrium at 1701 JFK and it looks to be in 3-D. The 15 minute show runs from Thanksgiving until New Year’s and includes bits from the Nutcracker, performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet, a dizzying sleigh ride through the snow, some boogie woogie tap dancing and a bunch of cute kids singing. And then it snows inside.
The Mural Arts Project started in 1984 as a part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The purpose was to get graffiti gangs to use their talents for good instead of stupid. Mural Arts offers programmes for prison inmates who receive a stipend to create murals for schools and community centres around Philadelphia. It also offers opportunities for individuals recently released from prison through a re-entry programme. Mural Arts has produced 3 000 murals so far. We saw a handful and they are marvelous. Topics are pretty wide-ranging as you can see below. They do a trolley tour of the highlights in the warmer months and I plan to do that the next time I’m here.