FAIRBANKS, Alaska — If you've enjoyed the Christmas music at Golden Heart Plaza in downtown Fairbanks during the past few weeks, you can thank John "Benny Benevento.
The clock tower is supposed to play a random tune five minutes after every bell chime. But for much of its history it's been silent, a victim to Alaska engineering obstacles including an earthquake, interference from car auto starts and ice-clogged electrical conduits.
The clock tower has been the project, and sometimes the nemesis, of Benevento, a retired electrical engineer, since the Fairbanks Rotary Club put it up in 1990. But as of this spring, Benevento's latest system has been successfully bringing music to downtown Fairbanks. During the year it plays a mixture of patriotic music, show tunes, jazz and old traditionals. Beginning in December, it switches to a holiday format.
Benevento, 78, wore a Christmas-colored hat with the words "bah humbug," as he stood in a snowbank and worked on the controls of the clock tower at Golden Heart Plaza on Tuesday morning.
Benevento is contemptuous of a handful of clock tower-programmed songs including "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "The Little Drummer Boy." But far from being a Scrooge, he takes his responsibility of adding Christmas cheer to the downtown square seriously.
He stood in the snow for more than an hour, blowing on his hands occasionally to keep them warm, as he
manually programed the clock to play a Christmas song after every 15 minute bell chime from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m..
"It's got some Christmas music, but there should be more," he said." His favorites are the more-religious songs like "Hark the Harold Angels Sing" but he programs the clock to play a variety, including the ones he doesn't like.
Benevento grew up in an orphanage in Massachusetts and got his electrical engineering training by correspondence course aboard the USS Roanoke while serving in the U.S. Navy. Before coming to Fairbanks, his work for NASA brought him to Wallops Island, Va., where he worked alongside some of the first astronauts in the U.S. space program including "Sam the Monkey," one the first animals in space.
He settled in Alaska in the mid-1980s to help start the Poker Flat Research Range, a rocket launching facility on the Steese Highway operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
He fell into clock tower duty because he helped repair a mechanical clock on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus that played music using old metal piano rolls. That clock, according to Benevento, was beautiful piece of mechanics.
"I fell in love with the thing, I mean I freaking fell in love," he said. "It had motors and cams. We manufactured the parts to make it work."
The Golden Heart Plaza clock tower has been less of a joy because it's been beset by problems. Originally, the clock was programmed by an underground cable from the Gold Exchange restaurant where the Rabinowitz Courthouse now stands. An earthquake in the early '90s ruptured that connection. For a time Benevento used a microwave signal from the second floor of the Lathrop Building to control the clock, but the link was soon overwhelmed by interference.
"In the early 2000s, they (car auto starts) started to get really bad. This was before the (Rabinowitz) courthouse was there. Now (after the courthouse) you had all kinds of people starting their cars out the windows, staring the carillon. It was a nightmare. It would turn it on and used to start to get two-way radio from the police and fire department."
The new system, installed by Benevento in the spring, brings the controls for the clock tower closer to the speakers, to a small box directly below the clock tower. Making sure it played the right number of Christmas songs took some fine tuning this week, but generally, the tower is at last functioning like clock work.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com