Secrets of Radio City Music Hall
A peek behind the curtain of one of NYC's most famous theaters reveals its secret life as a cinema, the story behind the Rockettes and its near miss as a tear-down in the 70s
Christmas in New York wouldn’t be Christmas in New York without the Rockettes kicking up their famous legs in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This annual tradition dates back to the 1930s and should be on everyone’s must-see list of things to do in the Big Apple, but did you know there’s much more to this iconic art deco entertainment venue than the popular Christmas show? Dubbed the “Showplace of the Nation,” Radio City Music Hall has seen more than 300 million visitors pass through its doors since opening on Dec. 27, 1932. Read on for 11 of the hall’s most storied secrets.
Largest Indoor Theater in the World
Radio City has an impressive list of credentials, but at the top has to be the fact that it can seat about 6,000 patrons, making it the largest theater in the world. But don’t let the huge size scare you away if you can’t score the best seats in the house. Thanks to an incredible design and layout, every seat from any of the three mezzanines is a good one. Even from the back of the third mezzanine at over 160 feet away, guests still have a perfect view of the stage. It also houses the biggest stage curtain in existence. This sparkling gold curtain is a wonder to behold as it unfurls before every show.
Hub of Cinema’s Golden Years
A year into its performances, the managers of Radio City changed the format and started showing films. Movies would be the lifeblood of Radio City for decades, and thousands of ticket-goers flocked through its doors each week. Stars of the day such as Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck would come for premier showings. It certainly couldn’t have hurt that each movie performance included an intermission complete with a dance segment by the Rockettes. Forget stadium seating and 3-D at the multiplex, who wouldn’t take one of the largest screens in the world and a show by the world’s most famous dance troupe?
Radio City Parking Lot
Though hard to fathom, this iconic New York entertainment venue almost became a parking lot or office space. In the 1970s film audiences stopped coming in large numbers, and Radio City suffered financial strain. A plan to tear it down in 1978 was abandoned with help from local preservationists who rallied to the cause. There was also a big assist from John Belushi on Saturday Night Live who took to the Weekend Update desk for a legendary rant about saving Radio City from the wrecking ball. You can still find the clip on Netflix in SNL: Best of John Belushi.
Though there are around 1,200 landmark buildings designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, only 110 interiors have been awarded that special status. Once you enter Radio City, you’ll understand why it is one of the chosen few. The mastermind behind the stunning art deco masterpiece is industrial designer Donald Deskey, who had a cruise ship in mind. With a 60-foot high Grand Foyer, eight elaborate lounges and sitting rooms for men and women, and even special carpeting and wallpaper flecked with real gold, Radio City is a Big Apple treasure. In 1978, the Commission formally recognized its importance to the city and granted landmark status for the interior.
Restoration to Its Former Glory
Radio City has gone through several periods of revamps, updates and restorations, but none comes close to the huge $70 million project undertaken in 1999. Holding true to Donald Deskey’s original design vision, the renovations (originally priced out at $30 million) required an extra $40 million to bring historic interior back to life. Check out the enormous restored “Fountain of Youth” mural by Ezra Winter located along the grand staircase for a taste of all that dazzle.
Hidden Hydraulics Under the Stage
Radio City’s stage is a feat of engineering. Three pieces of the massive 10,000-square-foot stage can be moved with a push of a button by a unique stage elevator system. Maybe that doesn’t sound so special, but once you realize the hydraulic system that’s in use was built way back in 1932, it’s hard not to be impressed. When architects assessed all of the changes that needed to be made during the 1999 renovation, the mechanical experts declared the hydraulics and engineering was so sound that they didn’t have to change a thing. Amazingly, the enormous 57-foot pistons are still cranking along helping to create the magic on stage.
The Rockettes’ Surprising History
If you’d imagine the Rockettes were native to New York City, you’d be wrong. In fact, they began as the Missouri Rockets in 1925 under dancer/choreographer Russell Markert, who founded the country’s first all-American precision dance troupe in St. Louis. After coming to New York to perform as the Roxyettes at the newly opened Roxy Theatre, they also also performed at grand opening of Rothafel’s new theater, Radio City Music Hall in 1932. Finally, in 1934, the dance troupe was hired permanently by Radio City and they became Rockettes.
From the beginning, the Rockettes were renowned for their synchronized high kicks and lavish costumes. By 1941, more than 4,000 different costumes had been designed and 60,000 costumes were made for the troupe. Even today, the Rockettes’ fantastic costumes are inspired by the early designs, and thousands of archival drawings are kept on hand to help recreate outfits from the past and use as inspiration for new ones.
What It Takes to Become a Rockette
When the holiday season ends, the Rockettes don’t stop. They perform around the world and at special events in every season. Each year approximately 400 to 500 women try out to join this elite group of performers. Aspiring Rockettes must be at least 18 years old and between 5’6” and 5’10 1/2 ” in height. After multiple strenuous tryouts, only a handful of women are selected to join the talented team. With the prospect of performing up to four shows a day during the busy Christmas season, every new Rockette must be in tip-top shape. Once joining the Rockettes, the women undergo constant strength, power and endurance training under the guidance of a fitness expert. The performers you see on stage really are some of the best dancers in the world.
Famous Names Through the Years
It would take all day to list every star that has appeared at Radio City, especially in the last 30 years since it switched its focal point from film to live shows. Legends such as Bill Cosby, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, BB King, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, and more modern day performers such as Beyonce, Britney Spears and the like. Probably the most famous night of entertainment occurred in 1999 when Radio City reopened after its $70 million renovation. During the star-studded gala, the audience was entertained by Tony Bennett, Billy Crystal, Sting, Barry Manilow, and, of course, the Rockettes. All in one night!
Sports on Stage
The Met hosts opera, Carnegie Hall hosts concerts, Radio City Music Hall hosts … the WNBA? Hosting sporting events have been a recent development in Radio City’s history, but the stage is so massive that it can easily fit a regulation professional basketball court. WNBA basketball moved in during 2004 when Madison Square Garden was taken over by the Republican Convention. The ladies of the New York Liberty played four games for several unforgettable evenings inside the magnificent theater. Other sporting events held at Radio City have included a championship boxing match in 2000 featuring Roy Jones Jr. Furthermore, the world’s biggest sports stars gathered at Radio City from 1995 to 1999 for ESPY awards presented by ESPN.
See for Yourself
Many of New York’s most popular landmarks are open to the public, but there are very few where you can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the history and action on stage. To see Radio City Music Hall in a new light, take a Stage Door Tour, which is available daily from 11am to 3pm. Not only do you get to see the magnificent lobby up close and the stunning Art Deco ladies powder rooms (yes, even the men can step in during the tour), you might even catch an act warming up on the gigantic stage. Best of all, you’ll get to meet a Rockette in person and have a photo taken with her. You won’t find that souvenir anywhere else.
Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York. Click here to read more about great ways to celebrate the holidays in New York City, and don’t forget to check out our deals and discounts for tours, cruises and shows this holiday season.