Thousands of crystals dangle above the heads of Pittsburgh theater patrons, reflecting light onto the walls and ceilings of the elegant halls. The glass giants help create a distinct aesthetic for the cultural institutions, exuding charm and sophistication.
While watching an opera at the Benedum Center earlier this year, Good Question! listener Lou Martinage wondered just how many crystals chandeliers held there and at Heinz Hall.
“I’m fascinated by beautiful things,” Martinage said. “Crystals are unique in that respect because they reflect the colors.”
He said he tried counting them, but without binoculars, it was impossible to keep track of the strings of glass beads, prisms and flower-shaped figures. The Benedum Center chandelier is 12 feet in diameter and a towering 24 feet tall. It features a large basket-shape made of tightly strung beads, with candlesticks poking out of the top, illuminating the cake-like-layering in the center.
Benedum electrician Will Dennis oversees the cleaning of the giant fixture. Brushing his fingers against the glass, Dennis recounted the history of the old theater, christened in 1927 as the Stanley Theater movie palace.
For years, it was the area’s largest cinema, and because it was owned by the Warner Bros., it showed all the company’s films. In the 1970s, the Stanley hosted rock concerts, including Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead and Prince.
Then, Dennis said, it fell into disrepair. In the 1980s the newly-formed Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took up the renovation of the Stanley and the nearby Loews-Penn, now Heinz Hall. Crews tried to stay true to the theaters’ earliest design, including the Austrian crystal used in the chandeliers and the interior decor.
“A lot of the architecture that you see is original or replicated to be original,” Dennis said.
Because there were no color photographs of the old theater, Dennis said workers restoring the floor found scraps of the original carpeting and tried to match the new material. There is no accurate architectural record of what types of crystal was used for which light fixtures, or the exact designs of the hall’s friezes.
“What happened with the rock and roll kids...was not a lot of upkeep and a lot of things just got lost,” Dennis said.
When the Stanley reopened as the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in 1987, Dennis took on the project of maintaining the chandelier. He said one challenge was finding substitute crystals with shapes and colors that resemble originals, but the internet helped solve that problem.
“I try and keep it as close to [the original] as I can,” Dennis said. If he can’t acquire a replica, he’ll make small adjustments, like switching amber prisms for light purple, or using a teardrop shape instead of a bead.
In its early days, Dennis said some Benedum patrons were a bit handsy, swiping crystals from eye-level fixtures in the halls.
“So I solder many of them so they couldn’t be taken,” Dennis said. “Then I found them online for 65 cents-a-piece and now I don’t care. And now no one steals any.”
The chandelier was last cleaned because the touring production of Aladdin was headed to Pittsburgh at the end of the summer, and crews wanted to polish the chandelier and check the electrical connections beforehand. Stagehands used mechanical and electric winches to lower it about 35 feet, so the amber leaf-like crystal at the bottom of the fixture swayed about a foot from the balcony floor. Dennis says he still remembers the first time he saw the chandelier up close.
“I expected it to be very big and garish and bold,” Dennis said. “It’s very delicate for its enormity.”
The chandelier has more than 50,000 crystals and weighs about 4,700 pounds. Crystals, in this case, are counted as any piece of ornate glass in the fixtures--including bowls, pedals and beads. Dennis and his team clean the glass one-by-one, using a rag and Windex or other dusting chemicals. Four people can fit inside when it’s disassembled. Twenty-one circuits connect 323 bulbs, which are controlled by 15 breakers.
Down the street at Heinz Hall, general manager Carl Mancuso said the theater’s chandeliers were likely also originally comprised of Austrian crystal, the en vogue distributor of the material at the time. According to a write-up in QED Renaissance by Martin Schnedier, the twelve ovular fixtures were “designed and handcrafted to enhance the special decor of the hall by J. and L. Lobmeyr of Vienna, Austria.”
They appear to be embedded in the ceiling of the main performance space.
“They look rather small when they’re up there, but when they’re down, they extend four or five rows of seats and are massive,” Mancuso said.
But he’s never actually counted the pieces, so WESA did. In each individual chandelier, there are about 2,900 crystals--mostly strings of beads gathering at the center in a layered flower design. Multiplied by 12, the total number of crystals comes to a little under 35,000.
*A previous version mentioned there were 500,000 crystals in the Benedum chandelier. There are actually 50,000.