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Mystery of the Bells

Judith Panick
Keys to the City: Civic Auditorium Manager Judith Panick displays the double-decker keyboard of the carillon, the secret of the downtown bells that have enchanted many an old geezer.

Twice a day, the pealing of the carillon announces two of SC's favorite hours--lunch time and quittin' time. Locals love them, but what's the truth about the chimes?

By Traci Hukill

EACH AFTERNOON AT 5 o'clock, just as the carillon bells start to play, the doors of City Hall swing open and out pour the weary City Mothers and Fathers, rubbing tired eyes and stopping to mutter a quick prayer of thanks that the vigil to end the sleeping ban is over before heading on home. How do they know it's time to punch out? The bells told them so.

Everybody likes the bells: students, wage slaves, suits, tourists. But does anyone know who plays the carillon bells that chime each day at noon and 5pm? Where do the bells live, anyway? And how do we get them to play '70s TV theme songs?

Metro Santa Cruz hit the streets to discover just what the populace knows about this downtown institution. The results sent us reeling. Legends, machinations and fantasy prevail when people talk bells in this town, but we slashed through misconceptions like the DEA hacking through a public official's back yard, because we think you deserve to know the truth.

Myth Number One: The bells reside in the Clock Tower, Holy Cross Church, the Greek Orthodox Church or any other place of worship.

No, no, a thousand times no! These are non-denominational, nonpartisan bells, and as such, they make their home in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium behind a side door humbly marked "Not an Exit." Their music pours from cone-shaped speakers mounted on the building's roof--a far cry from the quaint old church belfry you may have envisioned.

It is not, however, any mistake that the bells call to mind a charming New England scene complete with rolling hills and prim steeple. They were a gift to the city in 1963 from the poetically named H.C. Timberlake, an Easterner who missed the sound of bells in his new home here on the untamed frontier.

Myth Number Two: Little old ladies play the bells and just repeat the songs each day because they like them so much.

One bespectacled old gent appeared so enamored with the vision of two gray-haired ladies playing the bells that we feared to tell him the truth, lest his frail heart revolt against him.

"There, there, Buz," we comforted him. "You're half right--sort of."

Until about 10 years ago, a retired church organist named Sylvia McDonough would come in several days a week to play the noontime bells. She also used to jam on special occasions like Easter and the Fourth of July. She has since passed on, leaving the playing of the bells not to a blue-haired replacement, but to the power of automation.

The Schulmerich carillon can be played by hand or automatically on rolls of music similar to player piano rolls. Every couple of months, building maintenance man Jerry Louis changes the roll in a more or less arbitrary decision, and wondrous technology does the rest, including rewinding the rolls for the next day. The carillon even has an electric timer that has to be reset after blackouts. In fact, so low-maintenance are the bells that the Civic's general manager, Judith Panick, regretfully confesses that she'd worked there almost a year before she knew they were housed in her workplace.

A less than quaint arrangement, you say? Sometimes the truth hurts.

Myth Number Three: The carillons look like a pipe organ or a row of pretty silver bells.

Actually, with only 50 keys on a double keyboard, the otherwise dignified carillon resembles a toy piano. But its amplifier--the macho part of carillon anatomy--is so big it's stored in a large metal cabinet with an array of Jetsons-era knobs on it. How macho is the amp? Well, as it is, the carillon's music reaches all corners of downtown with its volume control set at a modest "3." The local carillon experts reckon if they were to crank that sucker up to "10," the mighty bells would be heard as far away as Capitola.

Incidentally, the Civic is a very good neighbor. On occasion, the nice folks at St. George's have complained that the bells disturb their afternoon naps. The Civic has obligingly redirected the rooftop speakers in these instances.

Myth Number Four: No one besides the ladies ever gets to play the carillons.

Absolutely untrue! On the carillon's 30th birthday, the Civic Auditorium invited the musical public to play the carillon. A woman, a little girl and a piano bar guy showed up and went to town on the diminutive keyboard, which is adaptable to any kind of music that's not too fast or complex. And one day just this past September, one of the Daughters of the American Revolution played "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in honor of a DAR special event.

But do not construe this as an invitation to play the carillons! That kind of talk makes the Civic folks mighty nervous. One senses that they've had to dodge rotten tomatoes lobbed through the windows once or twice and aren't about to risk it again.

Ah, yes, the theme song question. Will the carillon ever play the themes from Gilligan's Island or I Dream of Jeannie? Please, read on.

Myth Number Five: You can call in requests.

No. What you hear on those piano rolls is pretty much what you get. And since they were delivered to the Civic along with the carillon in 1963, Gilligan's Island and those other '70s sit-com foot-tappers are out of the question.

Myth: Number Six: No one would notice if the bells went away.

Oh, let us count the ways in which the citizenry would retaliate if the Civic were to the silence the carillon. The people might hold a candlelight vigil, or perhaps they would march down Pacific Avenue shaking maracas and chanting, "Hell, no, the bells won't go!" More likely, though, they would do what they always do when the bells, for whatever reason, don't ring: They would call the Civic manager's office and demand an explanation.

"If something goes wrong with the bells, God forbid, the phones start ringing," Panick says. "People really notice the carillon."

It might be background noise to some people and the day's focal point to others, but the ringing of the carillon is an intrinsic part of life in downtown Santa Cruz. No need to ask for whom the bells toll in this town: They toll for all of us, twice daily, at our favorite times of the day.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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