Radio City Spectacular: Rockefeller Center at Christmas
In 1928 Columbia University leased a plot of New York City land in midtown, known then as the “speakeasy belt,” to John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller intended the location to be the site of the new Metropolitan Opera House. The opera house blueprints were on the drawing table when newspapers carrying the terrible financial news of the Great Depression shrouded the plans; the Metropolitan could not afford the building proposed. Though that particular venture was never carried through, Rockefeller made a bold and wonderful decision to build a complex of buildings that exude luxury, beauty and for their time and ours, hope.
Matched by the tragedy of the Great Depression, this era approached what is known today as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” And though depression ravaged the nation, a glimmer of hope to the common person could be found in theatre palaces across the nation. These buildings were called palaces because they intended to encapsulate an experience generally foriegn to the majority of the working population: lavish luxury. The theatre was where the everyday American could be royalty, where one could go to escape, to dream, to be inspired, to fall in love, and to believe in magic.
In 1931 the construction of Rockefeller Center began and with it, a history that inspires to this day. Though iconic, buildings akin to Radio City cannot be taken for granted. Not too long ago, the popular vote ruled in favor of erasing many historic buildings from the streets. We are grateful to the preservation efforts of the many individuals and organizations who have set a precedent and high standard for the care of our historic buildings. Radio City was built in a dark time, survived a demolition scandal and lived to see a restoration to its full and former glory. Though it would seem that 100 years puts a barrier between us and the past, the fabric of this great theatre: hope, love and magic, transcend time and space forever appealing to the human disposition.
In 1933, the newly opened Radio City Music Hall held the very first Christmas Spectacular, a beloved performance and tradition that brings the heart a kind of childish joy. Dressed to the nines in festive attire, then and now, visitors to the theatre enter this New York City Palace of the People under the bright primary colored lights of the Radio City sign and embark on an incredible journey as if falling through the looking glass into a place where time stands still and the heart races with excitement.
The lobby glitters with gilded gold staircases balanced by the rich, red fabric cladding the walls. Ezra Winter’s forty foot mural guides the visitor up the grand staircase exploring the whimsical idea of a journey to the Fountain of Youth. Such imagery is in step with the overall sensation the interior offers: excitement, adventure and life, qualities particularly romanticized in the languor of youth. At Christmas time, this grand lobby sports a crystal chandelier in the shape of a Christmas tree that dangles elegantly from the ceiling despite the magnitude of the lumiere. Such description is but a taste of the true experience; at every twist and turn, the visitor is met with new glamour and old wonder.
The lights glimmer signaling the show is about to begin and all enter the theatre to take their seats. The sunburst ceiling of the main hall extends from the stage like a slinky reaching to the very end of its length to draw even the furthest seat to the events on center stage; as if the Hollywood Bowl itself expanded its rings to protect the theatre going people of New York. The lights go down, the curtain up and the Christmas Spectacular begins.
For almost 100 years, the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City has brought awe and wonder to children and adults alike. Donald Deskey, designer of the interior at Radio City, was quoted saying something to the effect that only the performances themselves should outshine Radio City Music Hall. The wonder of the luxurious interior coupled with the North Pole and the Rockettes, Deskey’s stage was well set for the magic that ensues during the Christmas Spectacular.
The show has evolved with the time, playing off different cultural trends, favorite toys and classic songs. Among the many different performances, Clara and the Nutcracker make a debut, the most Santas ever seen take the stage along with acrobats, ice skaters and dancing stuffed animals. The clacking and tapping of the rockettes creates melodies and formations that leave the viewer absolutely dumbfounded. The dancing, the costumes, the humor and the glimmer of the Radio City stage is enough to bring joy to even the scrooges among us.
There are two acts original to the first show in 1933 that have become traditions to the performance: the Toy Soldiers and the Live Nativity. The synchronization of the soldier act is so impressive it would make the esteemed men and women in our military cheerfully salute their practiced organization. The evening closes with the live Nativity and to the surprise of all, elephants and camels stroll in from Sixth Avenue to meet the Christ Child at Radio City. In two short hours, the audience travels to the North Pole, the Palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Central Park and to the little town of Bethlehem. It is the combined genius of the architects and designers of this grand theatre and the incredible presentation of the Christmas Spectacular that allows for such an adventure.
We are eternally grateful for the beauty of Radio City Music Hall and the joy of the Christmas Spectacular; Christmas in the City would not be the same without them and if you have not been, you really must go.
Ode to the Year & Christmas Cheer
We’ve been around the country, a few times this year,
In and out of fifteen states with all our preservation gear.
We work Hartford to Hawaii and all in between.
But now we’re home for Christmas
As I am sure you will be.
We’re based in Connecticut, all blanketed in snow
On the winter holiday, we have some places you should go.
We recommend a trip to New York City,
To experience Christmas cheer that always delights
Be sure to see the lights and all the city sights.
Should you travel by train,
Gander upward, it’s worth a bit of strain,
To see the constellations dance in Grand Central Station.
Carefully now and be about your wits
Have some wherewithal; you’re in the City afterall.
From there, it’s a ten minute walk or ten minute drive
To the place called Rockefeller where love and wonder thrive
T’will be hard to decide, with so much to do,
Perhaps you’ll turn on the ice ‘neath a skyscraper tree.
Speeding by Prometheus, a teacher in every art, from Greek Mythology.
When the sun sits low in the west,
I pray, do not take your rest
Though brief may be the light, alive and young defines the night.
So dress in your very best and escape to Radio City.
There you’ll enjoy the most spectacular Spectacular that ever will be.
And when the day is finally done and in fond memory,
You might think to yourself,
It’s rather uncanny how Canning your Christmas can be.