The Wanamaker Organ: Hero Of Macy’s Light Show In Center City Hides In Plain Sight

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It would not be a Philadelphia Christmas without the iconic Macy’s Light Show and the sounds of the Wanamaker Organ. Thousands will come and go over the holidays, stopping for 12-minute intervals to take in the high-flying, soaring, sparkling lights of this quintessential Philly tradition.

But the hero of the program hides in plain sight — a pipe organ so massive.

Those who work on the instrument say “Baby” — yes, that’s what they call her — spreads about numerous floors of the department store like a monster octopus.

“I think it holds a very high bar in the world of music,” Matt Taft said.

Taft and a fleet of workers and volunteers keep “Baby” and her 30,000 pipes in shape and in tune.

It’s said to be the world’s largest playable organ.

So, in an off-the-beaten-path area of women’s blouses, a pair of unassuming doors leads to the heart of this living, breathing instrument.

We step and climb and dodge around the many pipes and internal systems of the organ, weaving about the floors on the other side of the light show and three-story Christmas tree.

“We’re inside a musical instrument. I don’t just get to work on one, I get to work in a musical instrument and it is something that gets shared with the world,” Taft said.

Principal Organist Peter Conte is marking 30 years at the controls — or “stops” — of the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s.

“So I’m the fourth person to have the job since 1911 pretty cool, it’s a cool gig in the business,” Conte said.

Conte’s fingers dance about the keys in rapid motion, his feet rhythmically motor around a pedalboard. Both actions fire off signals at the speed of a 16th-of-a-second to the chambers, sounding a diverse harmony of pipes.

“It has the ability to completely overwhelm the space, and we don’t do that very often during store hours, obviously. We don’t want to scare the people in women’s shoes,” Conte said.

Filed under “those things you only dream about” I got to test-drive this six-keyboard, historic instrument.

It was quite a moment to experience, in such a special space.

“Most people don’t even know there’s an organ in here, and so they’re here and they hear this instrument and you see people’s faces just light up because they don’t expect to hear an organ in a department store, not one like this,” Conte said.