close-up shot of the Benedum Center's Grand Chandelier, its crystals and amber teardrop pendants

 

Leading Light: The Benedum Center’s Grand Chandelier

Thu, Sep 12, 2019

Written by: Kayla Washko; photos by Seth-Culp Ressler

From Broadway blockbusters like Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Weird Al Yankovic, the Benedum Center certainly hosts its share of high-profile performances and celebrities. While these spectacular performances are what bring guests to the Benedum, once inside, they often find themselves dazzled by its resident star: the grand chandelier. Boasting thousands of crystals and weighing in at more than 4,700 pounds, the 20-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide chandelier looms large above the seats of the Benedum’s main auditorium.

As we launch our 2019-2020 season, we pay tribute to this Pittsburgh luminary's long career in show business.

A Star is Born

The renowned venue that we now know as the Benedum Center originally opened as the Stanley Theatre, a movie palace and live music venue, on February 27, 1928. From its very beginning, the theater was no stranger to hosting the famous entertainers of its day, from Cab Calloway and Guy Lombardo to Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. When the theater became a rock ‘n’ roll venue in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, a new era of legends took to the stage, including Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, Queen, and Bob Marley.

Grand Chandelier lowered in the promenade level of the Benedum Center

 

Just like theatergoers today, visitors to the original Stanley Theatre would have enjoyed concerts and photoplays while seated under the grand chandelier. The chandelier was manufactured by the Horn and Brannen Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia and installed by The Beaux Art company in Pittsburgh. It was no easy task to bring the chandelier to life: eight men worked 16-hour days to assemble it.

While the grand chandelier may be the most famous, it is far from the only striking light fixture in the theater. More than 90 crystal chandeliers, torcheries and sconces light the way for guests. All of them are original to the theater.

Historic Restoration

Benedum Center's Grand Chandelier with its crystals in detail

 

After the Stanley closed, the venue fell into disrepair. In 1984, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was formed, and its first project was an historic restoration of this Pittsburgh treasure. To restore the chandeliers to their former brilliance, the Trust turned to the Central Brass Company in Reading, Pennsylvania. Each chandelier was given the star treatment: individual crystals were cleaned, restrung on new stainless steel wire, rewired, and rehung in advance of the Benedum’s grand opening festival on September 25, 1987.

Keeping the Lights On

Since its opening, the Benedum stage has remained a busy one, showcasing the best of Broadway and limited engagements for popular touring shows in addition to serving as the home for Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera performances. With only 100-some dark nights in the theater each year, there are few opportunities to give the grand chandelier — and the rest of the theater — some well-deserved tender, love, and care.

In fact, chandelier cleaning at the Benedum Center happens just once per year, typically in the summer months. William Dennis, the Trust’s stage technician, electrician, and resident historian, cleans, relamps, and does all of the repairs on the grand chandelier.

But how exactly does he go about cleaning it? The process, while time-consuming, is not as mysterious as you might expect. First, the chandelier is lowered using a mechanical winch, far enough so that stagehands can reach its nooks and crannies, but not far enough that a single crystal ever touches the ground. Then Dennis uses nothing more than your standard household cleaning items — a rag and dusting chemicals — to get the job done.

Chandelier's base removed for cleaning, pictured with household items rag and bucket    
close-up of candelabra on the Benedum chandelier

 

That process is repeated for the other chandeliers inside the theater as well so that by the time the season starts, the lighting fixtures are burning at their very brightest.

So, the next time you visit the Benedum Center, be sure to look up and have your camera ready. The grand chandelier is ready for its close-up.

Tags:
  • Benedum Center
  • Cultural District