The Musical Voice of the “World’s Largest Carillon”

The 732-bell carillon was built for the Coca-Cola pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. In 1965, it was moved to Stone Mountain Park. A keyboard is connected to a underground vault of electronics, which control the bells in the carillon’s tower. Mabel Sharp has played the Carillon since 1974. The music played from the carillon can be heard at the top of Stone Mountain.

Schulmerich Carillons at the New York World’s Fair

By Bradd Schiffman
As a young electrical engineer, George J. Schulmerich revolutionized the art of bell making when, in 1930, he invented the electromechanical carillon. Instead of traditional cast bells, this carillon used “bell generators” made up of tuned bronze rods, electrically activated striking hammers and electrostatic pickups to convert the barely audible bell sound into an electrical signal which is then amplified and broadcast from speakers mounted in a carillon tower. The carillon can be played manually from an organ-like console or can be programmed to play automatically.

By the early 1960s, Schulmerich had an advanced line of electronic bell instruments being sold at home and abroad. In 1962, Vice President of Sales, Ronald Beach, cold-called Coca-Cola’s advertising agency in New York hoping to spark some interest in a carillon at one of the company’s locations. Unfortunately, no one would see him. However his visit did not go unnoticed, for two weeks later he received a call from Coke Vice President J.E. Duffield who asked Mr. Beach if he thought Schulmerich might be able to create a carillon for Coca-Cola’s pavilion at the upcoming New York World’s Fair. Mr. Duffield’s vision called for a soaring tower that would provide a central focus for the pavilion. Mr. Beach soon had the contracts signed and work began in Sellersville on the “World’s Largest Carillon.”

The final product was a 610 bell carillon with a 120-foot tower containing 57 speakers. The console had 2-keyboards, 50-stops and 32-pedals, and was housed in a glass enclosure at the base of the tower. The electronics were held in fifteen(!) 6x2x2 foot metal cabinets that were installed in a second floor office in the pavilion’s VIP section. Only one cabinet contained the bell generators, the rest mostly being used to house the electronic amplifiers that provided 3000 audio watts to the tower speakers. The carillon, console and tower were manufactured, wired and tested in Sellersville, then disassembled and shipped to Flushing Meadows in early 1964.

One cabinet contained an automatic player which used punched paper tape to play preprogrammed selections on the carillon throughout the day. Thus, if it was Scotland Day at the Fair, the selections would be Scottish tunes. These alternate-hour programmed recitals lasted about five minutes. Coke originally wanted the carillon to play much longer but were persuaded that it might be viewed by some as “too much of a good thing”.

For the Vatican Pavilion, Schulmerich donated a 50-bell Americana carillon with keyboard, as well as a full scale replica of the commemorative bell cast in memory of the second Ecumenical Council. This bell was about four feet high and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds. The carillon was programmed to play automatically throughout the day. Angelus was rung as the Fair opened, at noon, and at 6:00 PM, and the bells were used with the continuous Mass that was celebrated inside the pavilion chapel.

The Protestant and Orthodox Center was also given a 50-bell Americana which was used to play pre-recorded religious music continuously indoors as background music throughout the pavilion. The bells and keyboard were only used when a recital was given in honor of a visiting church dignitary.

For the Belgian Village, twenty-five cast bells were produced by Schulmerich’s affiliate Eijsbouts Royal Bell Foundry of Asten, Holland. These were then installed in the top of the large bell tower at the northeastern edge of the four acre Village bordering Meridian Road and the Long Island Expressway. These mechanically operated bronze bells, the largest weighing a massive 500 pounds, met an unfortunate fate the night the Fair closed for good in October 1965. When workers came the next morning to remove the bells they noticed a huge area of damaged concrete at the base of the tower, as if something very heavy had fallen. Upon reaching the bell landing they discovered what it must have been: the 500 pound bell was missing. Apparently the other 24 bells had opted to take the stairs, but they too had vanished, never to be heard from again. They were presumed to have been sold for their scrap metal value, a small fraction of their worth as bells, and nowhere near the $100,000 the carillon had cost. The West Coast university that had purchased the bells in advance for their historic value had to have its money refunded.

After the Fair closed, Coca-Cola decided to give its carillon a permanent home at Stone Mountain Park, near its Atlanta, Georgia headquarters. The electronics are the same, but the tower was completely replaced, designed and built by local craftsmen. John Klein, the official carilloneur during the Fair, played the old Coca-Cola carillon at its new location for several seasons after the Fair.