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Lights of Liberty & Liberty 360

Posted on Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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Remembering Lights of Liberty and Liberty 360...

Lights of Liberty Projected onto Independence Hall

From 1999 to 2009, Lights of Liberty was a nighttime sound and light walking show that operated in Historic Philadelphia. Lights of Liberty enabled visitors to experience the American Revolution with beautiful hand painted image projections up to 5 stories tall (about 50 feet) on various historical sites and monuments where America was born in Independence National Historical Park. The world premiere of Lights of Liberty occurred on July 8, 1999, and the show was offered seasonally May through October. Unfortunately, the Lights of Liberty show stopped operating around 2009.

The Lights of Liberty Show

Lights of Liberty featured an all star cast with narration by Walter Cronkite, Charlton Heston, Whoopi Goldberg, Claire Bloom, Frank Langella, Angela Lansbury, David Morse, Ossie Davis, Craig Shoemaker and Ralph Archbold (Benjamin Franklin). Plus, the amazing musical score and soundtrack was performed by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and produced by Skywalker Sound.

Lights of Liberty marketed itself as the world’s “first ambulatory sound-and-light show,” a fancy way of saying a walking tour with sounds and lights. For about an hour, visitors walked on a route through the Independence Park area and visited five separate sites including the Liberty Bell, Franklin Court, Carpenters’ Hall, Second Bank of the United States, and Independence Hall, viewing Revolutionary-era scenes projected on the buildings and listening to the soundtrack with custom-made Lights of Liberty headphones.

It has been reported that the initial development took about 5 years (1994-1999) at a cost of about $12 million. On June 28, 1999, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported in an article entitled “Lights of Liberty is a marketing test” that PECO “would be financing umbrellas, as well as a committed five-year subsidy to keep Lights of Liberty up and running at a cost of about $2 million a year.”

On busy nights, about 400 people could be seen walking the seven-block tour route.

At the conclusion of Lights of Liberty, “God Bless America”' was played and a projection of part of the Declaration of Independence with John Hancock’s famous signature was displayed on the second floor of Independence Hall, America’s Birthplace. Often times, visitors would sing along with God Bless America in this moving tribute.

State of the Art Concept

At the time when it debuted in 1999, Lights of Liberty was considered state of the art technology, and Lights of Liberty received national honors for excellence and outstanding achievement at the Themed Entertainment Association Awards (THEA) in Los Angeles. “The THEA award is the equivalent of the Oscars for our industry,” according to Keith James, president of the Themed Entertainment Association.

Lights of Liberty Projected onto Second Bank of the United States

Technological Challenges

Notwithstanding the technological accolades given to Lights of Liberty and Lightswitch (which helped to design the show), the operational challenges for Lights of Liberty were great. Lights of Liberty could not build any permanent structures for the lighting equipment on National Park Service land where the lighting equipment could be stored, and the light shows projected from at each location. To address these challenges, Lights of Liberty custom developed 18-24 large carts which needed to be towed each day before sunset to five separate historic sites (i.e., Liberty Bell, Franklin Court, Carpenters’ Hall, Second Bank of the United States, and Independence Hall) before the show, and then hauled away at the conclusion of each night’s show.

On June 13, 2002, in an article entitled “1776, Relived Digitally: A Historic Square Sizzles”, The New York Times reported on the technological and operational challenges with the show,

“For the visual part of the production, 56 computerized projectors splash historical scenes on the facades of the buildings where the stories being told took place. The scenes were inspired by vintage paintings or drawings or derived from written sources... Because the Park Service would not grant Lights of Liberty permission for a permanent installation, getting the show in place is an enormous nightly undertaking. Each evening it takes 50 stagehands nearly two hours to cart the projectors, their computer controls, 275 light fixtures of various sorts and more than 7,000 feet of cable into Independence Park from a garage a few blocks away. The Park Service allowed Lights of Liberty to install a few power boxes in unobtrusive areas, but that was it.”

Lights of Liberty’s Capital Campaign

To mark Lights of Liberty’s 7th year of operations in 2006, the $4 million Legacy of Lights Capital Campaign was launched to help fund numerous initiatives, namely the permanent installation and upgrading of its massive projection and lighting equipment.

Lights of Liberty Projected onto Second Bank of the United States

Remaking of Lights of Liberty and Creation of Liberty 360

In 2008, Lights of Liberty became part of Historic Philadelphia, Inc. which manages Once Upon a Nation, the Betsy Ross House and Franklin Square, and has produced amazing visitor experiences.

In 2010, Lights of Liberty underwent a reimagination in which two separate shows would be offered: a year-round indoor show called Liberty 360 and a separate updated and seasonal nighttime show, similar to what been offered from 1999-2009, that would start again in 2011.

The Liberty 360 attraction premiered over the July 4th weekend in 2010. The Liberty 360 film featured a 3-D patriotic adventure narrated by “Benjamin Franklin” on a tour of some of America’s most cherished historic symbols of freedom. Unfortunately, the Liberty 360 movie did not appear to be as popular as Lights of LIberty, and fell short on delivering on its promises, especially with its use of 3-D and CGI animation. In 2016, the Liberty 360 show played for the last time when the Historic Philadelphia Center closed, and its parent organization decided to focus its’ resources on its’ other signature visitor experience offerings: Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square and Once Upon A Nation.

Lights of Liberty’s Significance

On May 22, 2010, the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote an editorial entitled “Lights of Liberty putting on a new face”, about the significance of Lights of Liberty, the sound-and-light show that was originally championed by the late city planner, Edmund Bacon. Specifically, Lights of Liberty’s importance was that it “offered the first tangible sign of rebirth around Independence Mall in the late ‘90s.”

The Inquirer Editorial also stated in “Lights of Liberty putting on a new face” that,

“Visitors to Philadelphia’s historic district should expect to encounter the Liberty Bell unchanged by time. But it’s just smart business to renew other tourist attractions around Independence Mall from time to time. So it’s good to see an ambitious update in the works for one of the signature offerings in and around Independence National Historical Park — the Lights of Liberty sound-and-light show depicting the nation’s founding… When the $10 million project is completed next spring, visitors will be treated to a new digital, 3-D version of the roving outdoor performance, with images projected on historic buildings and a soundtrack over headsets.”

Lights of Liberty was heralded to return in Spring 2011, but unfortunately, it never did.

Lights of Liberty Projected onto Independence Hall

Inspiration and Gratitude

In addition to The Freedom Trail in Boston serving as the inspiration for The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia, The Constitutional's founders very much valued Lights of Liberty as one of the more forward looking visitor experiences in Philadelphia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and its new take on historical interpretation, technology, education and entertainment.

Evening Activities in Historic Philadelphia

Today, many visitors to Independence Park looking for an evening activity will take the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour for a moonlit journey through Historic and Haunted Philadelphia. The Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour is 1 Part History, 2 Parts Haunt. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the Spirits of ’76 “Frightfully Fun!” The Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour travels the cobblestone streets of Old City and visits more than 20 sites including the historic homes and grave yards which are allegedly haunted.

Spirits of '76 Ghost Tour

Visit the Spirits of 76 Ghost Tours