Wondrous Wanamaker's: Magical Moments and Milestones
by jan whitaker
For holidays the store pulled out all the stops, presenting special events, elaborate decorations, and music. Wanamaker’s brought patriotic holidays such as Lincoln’s birthday into the spotlight and supported the creation of new holidays such as Mothers’ Day: To assist Anna Jarvis in promoting the national holiday, he sponsored a Mothers’ Day service in the store in May 1908. More than 15,000 people showed up.
|A little 1970s holiday décor flair...|
The store was known especially for its musical performances, including a famous concert in 1919 at which another enormous crowd packed into the Grand Court to hear Charles M. Courboin play the organ with Leopold Stokowski conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Composers often performed original works in the store, but most musical events in the early days involved employees, particularly teenage boys who attended the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute, where they studied the three Rs and music. An anniversary celebration in 1907 was filled with fanfares by the store’s drum and bugle corps, anthems by the Institute’s uniformed military band, and songs by the store’s choral society.
Christmas, however, was Wanamaker’s ultimate occasion for pageantry. In 1912 daily parades took place inside the new store, where, with the lights turned off, an employee band accompanied by storybook characters marched to Santa Town. Throughout the 20th century, all kinds of holiday attractions were introduced: animated circuses, walk-through villages such as Candy Stick Land in the Land of Make Believe and the Enchanted Forest, a much-used monorail mounted on the toy department’s ceiling, and the light show’s animated figures, tree, and colorful “dancing waters.” Michael Lisicky, author of Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle, says he has never skipped a holiday celebration and still feels that announcer John Facenda was “the voice of the light show.”
Above all else, you could trust John Wanamaker to be out in front on innovation. The dancing water fountains, it turns out, did not begin in the 1950s: What was most likely the store’s first light show actually took place at a Winter Festival in 1894. A fountain with 242 jets shot plumes of water 20 feet into the air and was illuminated by red, green, blue, and yellow electric lights. Although it is hard to beat John Wanamaker’s holiday spirit, it is the very least we can do to carry on his trailblazing traditions.
photography by wanamakerorgan.com