Late one night, long after shoppers had left Macy’s in Center City, Matthew Romano watched as crews hoisted the store’s towering Christmas light show high above the second-story organ facade.
He pointed to a single dead lightbulb, out of more than 100,000. Romano was worried: Will others notice? Could it throw off the show?
And he’s not even the electrician.
Jim Sale, a lighting designer from Denver and the show’s longest continuous employee, explained that once the panels are hoisted up, the bulbs can’t be changed. About 20 die each year — which accounts for .02% of all the lights in the show.
Most people don’t notice when a single bulb is out. But Romano is not most people.
He loves the show so much that when his family goes to Center City in the summer, they have to stop at Macy’s just so he can look at the wall where the light show hangs; he loves it so much he draws renderings of it — from memory — and has written out the entire narration; he loves it so much he got a framed picture of it last year for Christmas — and was excited about it.
When a family friend wrote to Macy’s about the passion Romano, who is on the autism spectrum, has for its light show, the store invited him to watch the setup and to flip the light switch during a preview event Nov. 23.
“All year long he waits for this," his mom, Melanie, said of the show.
What Romano said he really loves about the show is how old it is and how the lights here seem just a little more colorful than anywhere else.
“When I actually kind of think about it ... it’s really just amazing," he said. “The show was started when my grandparents were kids.”
In an age when computer-animated graphics and technology are king, this kitschy, low-tech, lightbulb show comes without 3-D. It comes without VR. It comes without lasers, smartphones, or QR!
“The thing about this show is you’re not fooled about how we do it,” Sale said. “You’re not pulled out of the storytelling, wondering, ‘How did the magician pull out that card?’ ”
Over the holiday season, more than 175,000 people will squish among clothing racks on the store’s second- and third-floor balconies or gather around the Wanamaker Eagle statue on the first floor to watch the 11-minute show on the wall of the Grand Court of the Wanamaker building. Afterward, many families will tour the store’s Dickens’ Village and meet with Santa Claus.
During the light show, Julie Andrews’ voice narrates as holiday stories like the Nutcracker and Frosty are played out by figures outlined in lightbulbs affixed to large panels. It’s part waving sign on the Vegas strip, part Grandma’s ceramic Christmas tree, and part epic Philly nostalgia.
“I know that there are other department stores that do some kind of light show,” Sale said, "but there’s nothing like this in the world.”
With roots dating back to the mid-1950s, when the store was still Wanamakers, the light show is as entrenched in Philly culture as the Flyers, the LOVE sculpture, and Wawa — all of which it predates.
This spectacle of illumination is so much a part of the Philly experience that the clothing boutique South Fellini made an ugly Christmas sweatshirt of it.
Though the light show doesn’t officially begin its holiday run until the day after Thanksgiving, a crew of 16 people — including several staffers from Macy’s Parade Studio in Moonachie, N.J. — set it up over four nights in October after the store closed.
Logistics are handled by Matthew Taft, Macy’s organ shop coordinator. He’s one of two Macy’s employees dedicated to the store’s Wanamaker Grand Court Organ — the world’s largest functioning organ with 28,750 pipes — which is played live during the noon and 6 p.m. finales of the light show, with some exceptions.
Hidden behind the beautiful but nonfunctioning organ facade on the second level of the store’s Grand Court, the actual organ rises seven stories and acts as an anchor for the light show. Since cables must be run into the body of the organ to secure the tree and panels, Taft’s intimate knowledge of the massive instrument is key during setup.
And the fact that he takes on every task with the unflinching Christmas optimism of Buddy the Elf doesn’t hurt either.
“We get to build Christmas in a department store when it’s closed!” Taft said. “How awesome is that!”
The character panels — which range from 6 to 14 feet high — are stored in hallways directly to the right and behind the organ, since they are too massive to move through the store.
After Macy’s took over the store from Lord & Taylor’s in 2006, new panels were rebuilt at the Parade Studio and a modern truss system was created to make raising and lowering the panels easier. Setup time was reduced from four weeks to just four days.
Prior to a redesign of the lighting control system in 2000, each show was operated by hand, by people who were "backstage flipping switches, manually,” Sale said.
Now, the 5,000 light changes in the show are run by a computer, which Sale programs to sync with the music and narration track down to a 30th of a second.
“Trying to figure out how to do it was a very provocative assembly of engineering work and artistic work,” Sale said.
Old-school incandescent C7 and C9 Christmas bulb lights were still used in the show until Macy’s took over in 2006 and upgraded to LEDs.
Since the show — which is more than 100 feet tall — is built entirely from the top down, Sale tests each panel three times for electrical anomalies and dead bulbs before it’s hoisted up. Once in place, there’s no changing it, so issues have to be foreseen.
“It’s almost like playing chess,” Sale said. “You think three moves ahead and three moves behind.”
The panels go up first, then 40 strings of lights that cascade four stories from the top of the show to the bottom, and finally, a Christmas tree more than 50 feet high is erected in the center of the balcony.
Many people still remember the “Dancing Waters Enchanted Fountain” system, which accompanied the show on the balcony. There was no tank for the 3,000 gallons of water it used, according to the Friends of the Wannamaker Organ, just a rubber sheet placed in the pit of the balcony orchestra. (It was discontinued in 2000 over safety concerns.)
Other changes have occurred over the years, too: Wanamaker Eagle characters were replaced by Rudi teddy bears as part of a store promotion in the mid-’80s; a monorail for children was removed; and the beloved voice of Philadelphia broadcaster John Facenda, the original narrator of the show, has been replaced several times, most recently by Andrews.
Romano, the young man who lights up at the mention of the light show, knows all these stories. He’s taken the time to learn them because the light show is now a part of his story, too.
He and his family will go to see the show at least seven days this holiday season, three times each day, making sure to view it from a different floor every time.
“His whole Christmas holiday season revolves around here," his mom said. “You wait two hours for each show, but it’s worth the 11 minutes.”