Discovering The Smith Center / Retrospective Series
Many people have enjoyed countless musical performances at The Smith Center over the years, but few people know that the Reynolds Hall building on the center’s campus is actually a musical instrument itself.
During the day, 47 handcrafted bronze bells within the center’s Carillon Tower ring on the hour, right up until a show starts at The Smith Center. At 8 p.m. on event nights, the bells chime together to signify that the house doors are about to close and the show is about to start.
“Instead of an usher going through the lobby ringing a bell, our big bells signal that you should be in your seat,” says Smith Center CEO and President Myron Martin.
The Case for the Bell Tower
General logic would suggest that a ringing bell tower would be one of the last things one would want in a performing arts center.
“My early inclination was, you know, that’s a terrible idea,” says Martin. “If there’s one thing you don’t want in a world-class performing arts center, it’s a big, loud bunch of bells going off every time you’re trying to do a performance.”
Architect David Schwarz originally proposed the idea as a way for The Smith Center to stand out in the 61-acre Symphony Park development downtown .
Schwarz believed that a dramatic carillon bell tower at the top of The Smith Center would set it apart from future larger structures. Such a tower, he suggested, could be reminiscent of the penstock-intake towers at the Hoover Dam, which inspired Schwarz’s art-deco design concept for The Smith Center.
It was the center’s acoustical team, hired in the early stages of the project, that found a way to isolate the sound of the bells from inside of the building.
“They found a way to do it in a very real way, meaning they used real bells instead of an iPod and a bunch of speakers at the top of a tower,” says Martin.
The Carillon Tradition
A carillon is a musical instrument typically housed in the bell tower of a church or municipal building.
A typical carillon consists of at least 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells, which are played serially to produce a melody, or together to play a chord.
In medieval times, swinging bells were first used as a way of notifying people of imminent church services, as well as fires, storms, wars and other events. Using bells to also play melodic musical compositions became popular in the 16th century.
A carillon’s musical range is determined by the number of bells it has, since each note is produced by an individual bell.
The Smith Center’s 16-story carillon, topped with a stainless steel silver crown, is considered to be a concert carillon because its 47 bells have a range of at least four octaves.
The 47 bells weigh in at a total of 29,500 pounds.
The Search for the Right Bells
Akustiks, the acoustics vendor for The Smith Center, researched and evaluated numerous bell foundries before one was commissioned to build its carillon.
“There are very few companies that make bells anymore,” says Martin, adding that the Smith Center team visited three in Europe that were still casting bells the way artisans did 150 years ago.
“Making bells is a fascinating process,” insists Martin.
The team eventually decided upon a company in The Netherlands called Verdin to make The Smith Center’s bells.
“We chose them because they had Old World skills, but also CAD (Computer Aided Design) and new technology to tune the bells,” says Martin.
Verdin has created bells since 1842, and its craftsmanship is displayed in more than 50,000 installations worldwide, including the Smithsonian Institute, Walt Disney World, the University of Notre Dame and the Mayo Clinic.
The Smith Center bells were cast by Verdin in a generations-old foundry in Aarle-Rixtel, The Netherlands.
Making the Bells Possible
More than 32 individuals, families and businesses helped contribute to the purchase of the bells, and their names are engraved on their respective bells.
In 2009, local children handed ingots, blocks of metal that would be cast into the bell shape for further processing, to an on-site Verdin bell maker.
On June 7, 2011, The Smith Center’s carillon bells were installed in the tower in a topping-off ceremony signifying the completion of The Smith Center’s exterior.
It was the first time that a carillon bell had been cast in Las Vegas, with the grandchildren of Fred and Mary Smith ringing the bells for the first time.
“That commemorative spirit will forever represent the spirit of a better tomorrow for the valley’s youth,” says Martin.
A Civic Icon
Today, the Carillon Tower remains a key architectural feature and focal point of The Smith Center, and its image is even at the heart of The Smith Center’s logo.
“It is an icon and a beacon for our community to celebrate and rally around,” says Martin.
The Road to Reopening
Due to public health and safety guidelines during the pandemic, The Smith Center has cancelled or postponed over 350 performances totaling more than $20 million in lost revenue.
As a nonprofit, The Smith Center needs community support now more than ever.