Philly’s Wanamaker Organ has survived 2 pandemics

The Wanamaker Organ, still spreading holiday joy at Macy's in Philadelphia, has endured and entertained through the 1918 Spanish Flu and 2020 coronavirus pandemics.

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Macy's department store in Center City, Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Macy's department store in Center City, Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For many in the Philadelphia area, the holidays mean taking a trip to Macy’s in Center City to see its famous light show and listen to the symphonic sounds of the Wanamaker Organ. 

This year, because of the pandemic, Macy’s is putting most of their holiday traditions online in their interactive Santaland experience.

But department stores haven’t always changed their celebrations for the sake of public health. In 1918, when the Spanish Flu was spreading, Wanamaker’s — the store that later became Macy’s in Center City Philadelphia — put on a parade where people stood shoulder to shoulder,  a sing-along organ concert inside the store. 

Department store historian Michael Lisicky explains what changed between 1918 and now, and how Macy’s can keep the holiday spirit alive in a Christmas season like no other. 

Interview highlights

Michael Lisicky on the Macy’s holiday show featuring the Wanamaker organ. 

 I always felt a certain sense of anticipation whenever I went into the store because we always went in through Market Street and you go in those doors and it’s just a regular store, a nice-looking store, and then you go to the center part and that is where you really experience that whole Wanamaker building. I mean, that’s the whole seven-story atrium, all made of marble. You’re looking at that organ, which is two stories tall. And you have this expansive screen. You could see where all the lights for the show were going to be. And I just always loved how everybody gathers there. And there’s like kids climbing on that beautiful eagle. And there’s always that sign that says “next show,” which builds to the anticipation, and then all of a sudden the lights go down.

And then you could just feel the energy happening within that grand court. It just became this massive display of lights, 100,000 LED lights and around 35,000 just in that tree alone, also having those amazing musical presentations with that organ.

 I always loved the end of the light show when it says,  “John Wanamaker presents Christmas in the grand tradition, a holiday greeting card unfolding before your eyes as we wish you a very happy holiday season.” And then everything just goes dark and it’s almost, as a kid, it’s like a dream.

On why Wanamaker’s held a parade during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic

They didn’t really have a response. There was this thing when influenza was happening where we had to keep quiet. World War I was coming to an end. We couldn’t show our weakness. And the pandemic would kind of bring out that to the enemy. 

Department stores around the country really took on the responsibility of funding the war efforts And Liberty loans were so important. … John Wanamaker ran his business, needed to use his ability and might to sell these loans that could create funds so they could defeat the enemy.  Wanamaker, as a citizen of the area and a very political person, held that Liberty Loan parade on Sept. 28. Two hundred thousand people attended that parade. That was part of John Wanamaker’s organization. Three days later, you had 117 people dead.

What the department store reaction is different this time

I think we know a lot more. I mean, now we can have things ordered to the house. The day Macy’s reopened in Center City,  the organ recitals resumed. In Philadelphia, just this land of music and culture, the one thing that’s kept going is the Wanamaker organ. We can fault maybe John Wanamaker for not shutting down the store if we want to back when the flu went through in 1918. But what’s the one live part of music that’s still going on in Philadelphia? It’s that organ and that’s really cool.

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