Thursday, March 31, 2011

'Baby' goes to the movies By Tirdad Derakhshani

The 1904 Wanamaker Organ puts the pedals to the "Metropolis" Saturday.


Mar. 19, 2011

On Saturday night in Center City, the world's greatest musical instrument will accompany the greatest silent film ever made.

Hyperbole? Perhaps.

The screening, at the Grand Court in Macy's at 13th and Market Streets, will feature Fritz Lang's 1927 feature Metropolis shown on a 15-by-20-foot screen to an improvised score performed on the Wanamaker Organ by chief organist Peter Richard Conte.

"It's the first time in [the organ's] history it'll be played with a film," says Ray Biswanger, executive director of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, which is cosponsoring the evening with the Philadelphia Film Society.

The sold-out show is part of a months-long series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the organ's Philly debut on June 22, 1911.

Widely recognized to be the world's largest working organ, the Wanamaker Organ boasts 28,543 pipes stretching from the second to the seventh floor of the historic department store, founded by John Wanamaker and now owned by Macy's.

(The Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City is in fact the largest organ in the world with 32,000 pipes, but it is nonfunctional.)

Biswanger is in his element when discussing the organ's history. He reels off facts, figures, and numbers with facility, and not a little pride.

The Wanamaker Organ was designed by architect George Ashdown Audsley for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, he recounts. Initially outfitted with 10,000 pipes, it was bought by John Wanamaker in 1909 and shipped east to his famed department store.

"It took a 13-car freight train to fit it all," says Biswanger, whose 1,000-member group helps with the organ's ongoing restoration.

In Biswanger's telling, John Wanamaker was unhappy with the organ's grandeur.

"It was grand-sounding but it wasn't really impressive once it was installed," he says. Over the next two decades, John and later his son, Rodman, expanded the organ to triple its original size.

"John Wanamaker loved music and felt [the organ] should be a part of Philadelphia's daily life," Biswanger says. True to his pledge, Wanamaker's organ "has played every business day," Mondays through Saturdays, "since 1911" at least once, usually twice a day.

"It's kind of the voice of Philadelphia, and the Grand Court is the meeting place of the city."

Conte has been Wanamaker's chief organist since 1989. ("It's one of the best gigs in the world for an organist to have," he says.)

He says Baby, as he and other insiders call the organ, is special because it has capacity to reproduce all the sounds, tones, and colors - strings, brass, percussion - of three symphony orchestras.

"It has 469 different voices, or 'ranks,' as we call them," he says. "Most organs will have up to 100 . . . usually church organs have 50 at the most."

It's the perfect instrument, he says, for an epic film as richly textured as Metropolis. Fritz Lang's sophisticated dystopian tale is about a city of the future so advanced and beautiful one almost forgets it is held aloft by near-destitute laborers tied, like cogs in a wheel, to industrial machines hidden beneath in a giant, ugly netherworld.

Saturday's screening will feature a new cut of Lang's film with 25 minutes of recently discovered material. It means Conte will have to improvise for more than 21/2 hours.

It's uniquely challenging, Conte says. His plan of attack is to weave his musical tale around recurring motifs from Gottfried Huppertz's original film score.

He says he realizes that Saturday's event will be a battle of titans of sorts: An expressive musical monster with 28,000 tentacles going up against an expressionist masterpiece filled with some of the most awe-inspiring and terrifying science-fiction imagery in cinema.

The "organ is a giant," Conte concedes, "but it has great subtleties as well."

It can evoke "incredibly tender moments of love and incredibly spooky moments," he says. "I can, with the push of a button, go from a faint whisper to a terrifying roar."


For more information on the Wanamaker Organ visit

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or

No comments: