For the past 25 years, Peter Richard Conte has gone to work every day in the women’s casual department at the Center City Macy’s in Philadelphia. But he doesn’t sell designer denim or stocking sweaters. He tickles the keys of what is billed as the largest instrument in the world: the Wanamaker organ.
Considered a national treasure, the organ is 110 years old and named for John Wanamaker, the department store magnate who bought it for his flagship Philadelphia store. He had it shipped from St. Louis in 11 freight cars. The organ now has 30,000 pipes and thousands of keys, buttons, levers and pedals. To play it well, Conte must be equal parts musician and athlete.
“It’s a difficult instrument to play,” Conte says. “There are so many things going on. It’s multitasking at the nth degree. Literally for a five-minute piece of music I will spend up to 20 hours preparing it on an instrument.”
As the Grand Court Organist, Conte performs twice a day, Monday through Friday during most of the year. But during the holidays, the frequency increases as does the spectacle.
“At Christmas time we get thousands and thousands of people into Macy’s to hear this instrument,” Conte says. “And it actually accompanies the world famous light show. Thousands and thousands of LED lights and it ends up with this incredible finale when all the lights in the trees come on and the organ plays a really wonderful arrangement of O’ Tannenbaum. It’s a thrill because you get to have these huge audiences every couple of hours in the store. I just love what I do.”
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