Sunday, July 13, 2014

Downtown’s silent glockenspiel

Ramada bell’s chimes once charmed

December 08. 2013 11:37PM

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WILKES-BARRE — The hustle and bustle of downtown Wilkes-Barre used to have a different tune.

These days, loud music and exhausts from numerous vehicles are often heard throughout Public Square. There was a time, however, when people strolling through the downtown area were treated to tunes from an unusual source, a glockenspiel bell, at the site of the current Ramada Hotel.

Before hosting the Ramada, the building where the bell currently resides used to house the Sheraton Crossgates hotel. The building was constructed in the late 1970s and finished in 1980. During the hotel’s construction, the glockenspiel was installed and was fully operational.

The German word “glockenspiel” translates to “bells play” in English. At various time increments, they can typically be programmed to play tunes while characters march out to seemingly strike the bell with hammers while a chime plays.

A closer look at the Ramada bell reveals doors on either side of it. Tom Torbik, a former partner with the Ramada Hotel, said different characters would come out from the side doors and seemingly strike the bell. He said a pilgrim was a permanent character on the fixture. Others included Santa Claus and an American Indian.

Dorothy Mugford, a former director of sales and marketing for the hotel when it was known as the Sheraton Crossgates, said a soldier was also one of the characters used. She said Crossgates. Inc. thought the glockenspiel would be nice gift to give to the city.

“It was a treat,” she said about the glockenspiel’s operation. She said many hotel customers and people in the city spoke fondly of its tunes.

“We loved it at the hotel,” she said.

Torbik also spoke highly of the old fixture. When the glockenspiel was still operational in the 1980s, he said, it could be controlled to play tunes every 15, 30 or 60 minutes.

“When the hotel first opened, it used to charm every half hour or hour,” he said. A control panel in the lobby enabled to hotel to control how often the glockenspiel would go off.

“You could set it to do whatever you wanted it to do,” Torbik said.

Larry Newman remembered being downtown in the 1980s, a time when the city was going through a renewal as the result of the Agnes flood. Newman is the executive director of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown management organization, Diamond City Partnership.

He said the glockenspiel came at a time when big changes were coming to the downtown area after the 1972 flood.

Newman referred to the glockenspiel as a “quirky feature” of downtown’s new landscape at that time. He said the bell was a European feature not traditionally found in American cities.

“Obviously, one of the traditional functions of clock towers and bells in cities and towns was to help people tell time, particularly before everybody was strapped to an electronic device to help them do that,” Newman said.

Rather than being a time reminder, he said, the hotel glockenspiel was an “art feature” and more of a novelty.

Mugford, Torbik and Newman were not sure when the glockenspiel was turned off. Mugford believed that complaints came from neighboring businesses that the device “took away from their jobs.”

Mugford said it was used to a lesser extent and mostly around the holidays after complaints. When the fixture would play Christmas carols, that’s when Mugford said it was most noticeable.

“I really think it adds a lot to the city,” Mugford said of the glockenspiel.

King’s College recently purchased the Ramada Hotel. The sale was confirmed in October for $2.7 million, and Kings is also seeking $7 million in state funding to purchase and renovate the hotel to accommodate expansion of its physician assistant program.

Mugford speculated the college could potentially use the glockenspiel to play hymns. John McAndrew, director of public relations for King’s, said everything “on or in the building” is under review.

“I think it would be a theft of time to start the glockenspiel,” Mugford said.

Torbik said the bell’s control panel that was used in the lobby may or may not still be in the hotel. He also was not sure if it still functions properly. Newman was also open to the idea of the glockenspiel being used again but said it would be up to the new owners.

“Would it be a nice feature to be able to reintroduce to downtown? Absolutely, if it’s practical,” he said.

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