Photos by Mark Wahl
Samir Wahhab, the Pabst Theater Group’s chief engineer, walks up two steep and narrow flights of stairs, reaching a small opening – barely big enough for a grown man to get through. The ceiling barely hits 5 feet in some places. This small crawlspace opens up to the theater’s attic, which is dimly lit and smells distinctly of old wood and dust.
Jason Millies, assistant engineer, wears a red plaid shirt and has a gray knit cap covering his head. He puts on a pair of gloves and saunters over to an enormous iron machine – part of an equipment cache that’s 70 years old. Millies grips the hand crank with both hands side by side.
“OK, Jason,” shouts Wahhab. “You can start!”
Millies begins to rotate the hand crank in a forward motion. Wahhab stands few feet away from him looking through a small opening directly above the chandelier. As the 1.23-ton chandelier makes its way to the ground, Wahhab helps guide it to the ground by keeping the cable steady and securing the power supply cables so that he can turn the chandelier lights on while it’s being cleaned. “Jason has to keep his hand even around the wrench because if the chandelier falls, the ceiling will fall right along with it,” says Wahhab.
Millies, though, has been doing this for three and a half years and remains calm. “The trick is finding a rhythm and not letting it get away from you,” he says. It’s 68 feet from ceiling to floor, and Millies has to complete 18 revolutions for each foot. Those 1,224 revolutions take a while. He says it takes even longer to bring the 12-foot diameter chandelier back up.
On this snowy Monday morning in late February, the Pabst crew – and several volunteers – are preparing for the annual cleaning of the chandelier, which has hung in the theater since a renovation in 1976. Since 1978, under the watchful eye of Wahhab, the chandelier has been brought down once a year for cleaning.
From far below, Andy Nelson, director of public relations, sits in one of the Pabst’s plush red seats. Having worked with the Pabst Theater Group for the more than six years, he has overseen the lowering many times. “You’re good,” Nelson yells toward the ceiling as Wahhab pokes his head through the small opening. “You’re about a half-foot away from the railing, you can stop now!”
As the chandelier gently rests above the railing, tiny reflections of light and color bounces off each crystal and illuminate the theater. “It looks good now, but it’s amazing how it looks after everything has been polished,” says Nelson.
At 10:34 a.m. Katie Krill, along with four other volunteers, grabbed an old white t-shirt and a spray bottle and got to work cleaning the 33,000 crystals that make up the chandelier. Depending on the weather, Wahhab says, as many as 10 volunteers show up each year.
Krill, an usher at the Pabst, says this is her third year polishing the chandelier crystals. “Everything gets touched,” she says. “Every crystal gets re-sparkled and every bulb gets changed. It’s a lot of work but it’s really fun.”
As Krill and the three other volunteers work on the first row, Millies stands on a ladder and begins to polish the second row. A green marker is placed at the top of a row once it has been polished.
“How long it takes really depends on how many people show up,” says Krill. “Three years ago it took three days to clean and polish everything. Last year it only took one.
Amidst the friendly chatter, an older man with graying hair and an expression of pure contentment on his face, holds a crystal in between his fingers. He twists it back and forth, watching as it catches the light. This is Dan Schley’s first time cleaning the chandelier.
As he gingerly polishes his strand of crystals, he looks over and says: “This was on my bucket list. I heard about it two years ago and ever since then I have wanted to do it. I mean just to be next to it,” nodding toward the chandelier, “I mean it’s absolutely breathtaking.”