Thursday, October 6, 2011
Rich's Great Tree
The Rich's Great Tree, now the Macy's Great Tree (and briefly the The Great Tree at Macy's), is a large 70–90-foot tall cut pine Christmas tree that has been an Atlanta tradition since 1948.
Beginning that year, the Rich's department store put a large pine tree atop its flagship downtown Atlanta store, lighting it on Thanksgiving night. The idea was conceived by head of advertising Frank Pallotta. Later, the tree was perched atop the four-story "Crystal Bridge" that connected the original Rich's department store with a new building addition on the opposite side of Forsyth Street. With the tree on the roof of the complex, combined with its tall height, the Great Tree could be seen for tens of miles outside the downtown district of Atlanta. It was visible for decades, until Rich's downtown store closed in mid-1991 and the tree was moved to a smaller, less-imposing spot in Underground Atlanta. From there it was later moved to Lenox Square mall, but neither location provided as spectacular a view of the tree as when it stood on the Crystal Bridge.
As the tree became an Atlanta tradition, more was added to the display to create an attraction in its own right. This included Santa's Workshop, complete with "reindeer" on loan from the Stone Mountain Park Petting Zoo that parents and children would walk through on the way to visit with Santa Claus. Also, inside the store, was Santa's 'Secret Shop'. Off-limits to the adults, children entered an enclosed mini shopping area. All of this "spirit of Christmas" started at the street level with animated window displays such as angels playing violins in the windows.
The Rich's department store chain was sold to Federated Department Stores in 1975. After years of contraction, Federated closed Rich's main downtown store in the 1990's and moved the tree to nearby Underground Atlanta. In 2000, the tree was once again relocated to the rooftop of Rich's Lenox Square mall store, in the Buckhead (uptown) community, located north of the downtown and the midtown districts. Federated began a merger of the R.H. Macy's department stores with Rich's in the early 2000s, with the remaining Rich's stores being renamed Rich's-Macy's. On January 1, 2006, the Rich's name was dropped altogether in favor of the nationally-known Macy's moniker. The 2005 holiday season was touted as the last year of "Rich's Great Tree", even though the tradition continues on as "The Great Tree at Macy's".
The tree itself is an eastern white pine, usually around 75 feet tall, and contains several miles of electrical wiring, thousands of Christmas lights, hundreds of basketball-sized Christmas ornaments and mirror balls, and dozens of strobe lights for effect. It also has a huge lighted tree topper seven feet (two meters) in diameter, previously a snowflake, and now a color-changing LED star since becoming Macy's. For 2009, it also had 125 snowflake ornaments and 125 metallic red Macy's stars, similar to the décor used inside its stores for the Christmas shopping season. It uptakes hundreds of gallons of water (well over a thousand liters) each day (depending on the weather and humidity), along with bottles of aspirin to keep the tree fresh (though it is unclear how effective aspirin actually is). It is secured so as to withstand wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour.
The tree is selected over a year before it is actually intended to be cut and used, so that it can be used as the backup should something happen to the tree that was previously selected. It is generally picked from somewhere in North Georgia. The 2009tree was planted in late 1983 after being used indoors as a family's first Christmas tree.
The Pink Pig
The Pink Pig was an amusement park ride of sorts that was a miniature suspended monorail sized for children. Adults would be hard-pressed to fit inside the enclosed cars that the children sat in as the ride operated. The original ride "flew" from the ceiling of the toy department. The pig was then moved outside the building to a rooftop Christmas village that surrounded the Great Tree. The Pink Pig started outside under the tree, returned indoors to fly over the toy department before returning to its starting point. The original Pink Pig was named Priscilla. A second pig, named Percival was later added to meet the high demand to ride the pig. After completing their journey, riders received a sticker that said "I rode the Pink Pig".
The ride moved to the Festival of Trees event in the 1990's, and resided at the Atlanta History Center. The ride was brought back to Rich's in 2004 when it reappeared at the Rich's at Lenox Square mall, the new location for the Great Tree. The new version of the Pink Pig is a conventional Zamperla Rio Grande storyline train ride with a miniature pink pig locomotive pulling a set of pink child-sized passenger cars at ground level, instead of the original suspended monorail design. It has been speculated that the original monorail was retired because it could not be maintained as a viable and safe children's ride
Fame of the Great Tree
During the time the Great Tree was at the downtown Rich's store, it was undeniably the biggest Christmas-time attraction in the [[Southeastern United States]]. Parents from around the South brought their children to downtown Atlanta expressly to experience this attraction and have their picture taken with the Rich's store Santa Claus. Millions of children and their parents made the annual migration during its tenure. The Pink Pig was an immensely popular attraction in its own right. Decades after the original Pink Pig was retired, many Atlanta natives who rode the pig as children fondly reminisce about their rides in the pig. The ride inspired the 2004 book I Rode the Pink Pig: Atlanta's Favorite Christmas Tradition. Today, much memorabilia can be found in the homes of Atlantans.
The Lighting of the Great Tree
The grand illumination ceremony occurs on Thanksgiving night from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM, no matter the weather; and, since the 1980's, has been regularly aired on television station WSB-TV, which now shows it in HDTV. Christmas carols are sung by various music celebrities and local groups, and at least one is usually chimed by a bell choir. The tree is lit near the very end of the hour on the highest note of "O Holy Night", and remains lit every night at least through New Year's Eve.
Originally, four choirs sang from the north face of the Crystal Bridge, which connected all but the lower two levels of the downtown Rich's over Forsyth Street. Each of the four floors of choirs, ordered from bottom to top, sang during the program. Faux stained glass panels (still used by Macy's) were put in the bridge's windows on either side (left and right) of each choir, giving the ceremony an almost church-like effect. Street lights were turned off in the area below so there was no glare for the thousands of spectators that gathered every year regardless of the weather. The host/storyteller of those earlier days was Bob van Camp of WSB Atlanta radio and television, and once the organist at the Fox Theatre.
The ceremony, in those days, was based on the reading of the traditional birth of Christ, i.e. the "Christmas Story", unlike today's more generic "holiday" themes and music.
Over the years the crowds grew. The venue expanded to include the south side of the bridge. Thus, four more choirs were added. Although heard by everyone, the ceremony of choirs alternated between the bridge facings. For the conclusion of the ceremony, all of the bridge choirs (of both musical eras) were lighted on every floor, and leading towards the soloist's highest note in "O Holy Night", at which point the lights on the great tree burst alive to shine on downtown Atlanta.
Before rock and roll became the predominant form of popular music in the 1970's, the Christmas carols were sung in a traditional, even classical manner, but in more modern times, nearly all of them have tended to be performed in a gospel music style, including "O Holy Night". In earlier years, for example, "O Holy Night" was performed by an operatic soprano, while in 2006, it was performed by LeAnn Rimes. The 2009 concert included country music singer Josh Turner and gospel singer Mandisa (who sang the keynote), and dance crew SoReal Cru using remixed versions of classic Christmas songs from Merry Mixmas and other albums.
Other historyIn 2004, the tree from Snellville snapped about two-thirds of the way up while workers were attempting to use a crane to lift it from the ground to the roof. Since the tree was rather late in being set up to begin with (November 14 was only 11 days before Thanksgiving that year), a replacement tree (always selected in case of an emergency such as this) was being rushed in from nearby Lithia Springs. In 2003, it took eight workers three weeks to accomplish the massive decorating task. The tree also snapped in 1974, the year before Federated bought Rich's from the Rich family, and some native Atlantans suspected that both times were a sort of "karma" regarding the reduction and then complete loss of the store, an Atlanta institution since 1867.
After being announced in 2004, Rich's stores became Rich's-Macy's in early 2005, and for Christmas that year and the next, the "Rich's Great Tree" became the "Great Tree at Macy's". In 2007, the still-new name was dropped in favor of "Macy's Great Tree", after all Rich's stores became Macy's, eliminating the retailer after 140 years. The only visible reminders of Rich's are the Great Tree, and the façade of the original (1924) part of the Rich's building, now attached to the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Building via another four-story bridge where the Crystal Bridge was. (Crystal Bridge, original location of Rich's Great Tree))
The tree and the bridge were featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1961.
Rich's Department Store