Who am I kidding, as if you can ever get too much Art Deco. More on that in just a second. I’m splitting this day up in to more than one post as it’s getting way too long already, and this only describes events up to mid-day.
First the important stuff – breakfast. Junior’s Cheesecake was the destination today – a nice big place doing much more than just cheesecake. I had a huge plated of Corn Beef Hash, Perry had Eggs Benedict. I also had a cappuccino. It arrived with a generous dusting of … cinnamon. Lucky I noticed before I stirred it in. The coffee itself wasn’t even too good – but they win a point for serving it with a sugar stick. So, maybe 5/10 on the iScott Coffee Scale. Probably a zero if I hadn’t noticed the cinnamon first. New York does almost everything – except making good coffee easy to find.We were well organised enough today to have two things going on in more or less the same place – at the Rockefeller Centre. Mind you, the Rockefeller Centre is I think two full city blocks, so that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily close together.
First, was a tour of the Radio City Music Hall. We ordered it on a whim the other day, after wondering if it was possible to see inside at all. Sure enough, they do tours of the building, so this morning, off we went. It’s yet another one of those iconic New York places (the poor city has so damn many of them!) – Radio City, the Rockettes, countless awards ceremonies, concerts, etc – so I was really keen to check it out.
It was good to get a bit of the history of the place, to help interpret the features within. When it opened, in 1932, you bought a ticket for entry, and once you were in there were live shows, there was food, there were movies – you just entered the building, saw what you wanted to see, and off you went. This helped explain why the Grand Foyer was so grand – as it would have people milling about in it pretty much all the time, not just for a scheduled performance. But wow, Grand is sure the word.
The next area we were lead to was very much behind the scenes – the hydraulics room. Almost the entire area of the stage is hydraulically operated – there are multiple sections, including the orchestra pit, and each can be raised or lowered over a range of about 40 feet. There’s also another mechanism where some can also be rotated. It’s pretty cutting edge stuff, for 1932. The surprising thing is that all of the equipment there now, is the same stuff that was installed in 1932. It works so well, to this day, that there’s still no need to replace it. This technology wasn’t just for theatregoers, though. In the second world war, the navy took an interest in this exciting new hydraulic lift platform technology – and adopted exactly the same system to lift planes up to the decks of the aircraft carriers, including the USS Intrepid that we recently visited. Our tour guide even said that, during the war, there were soldiers permanently stationed around the theatre’s hydraulics room to ensure that no spies would get themselves in and work out how it was all done. Pretty unexpected that something for the theatre would then go on to be used in the theatre of war.
We were then lead to the lounge area – another place for patrons to hang out between shows. Since the theatre seats nearly 6,000 people, even back in 1932 they were playing close attention to crowd control. From the stairs out of the main auditorium they added a few extra large diamond-shaped pillars to the lounge, to ensure customers wouldn’t all go the same way. They called them ‘silent ushers’ – to split the flow of people and ensure they were more evenly distributed among the lower lounge area.
The lounge area face another challenge – being quite close the the auditorium, there was a risk that people in the lounge would disturb the shows going on in the auditorium if they were too noisy. Instead of just trying soundproofing, they used design as a tool. The whole area was decorated with dark paint and dark fabrics, and the lighting was kept relatively low, to create a relaxed, hushed atmosphere. At the time, diamond shapes were said to induce calm and quietness in people – so the massive pillars, the lights, the carpets … everything had diamonds patterns on it. An interesting approach – I guess it must’ve worked, it’s all much the same as it was back on day 1.
Regarding the authenticity – for a place built in 1932, that sees more than a million people through it a year, you can be quite sure not everything in the theatre is original. However, as it’s a Landmark building (like being Heritage Listed I guess), everything that is replaced, is made using the same techniques as when it was done originally. The carpet is still manufactured in the same way, the gold-leaf-look walls are still done in the same way (it’s just aluminium foil and shellac – clever!) – there’s enough work and material required to keep the supplying businesses in business, so everything stays as true as it can to how it was back in 1932.
There was even something here pre-dating 1932. The original working scale model of the theatre, built for presenting to the Rockefeller before the design was approved. It was a fully working model – the stages moved, the lights worked, a pretty good demo version.
And then the exciting part – seeing the main auditorium itself. It really was a bit of a ‘wow’ moment, walking through those doors. I’ll let the pictures do some talking.
The design is based on a sunrise – hence the red chairs, the golden tiers of the roof and walls. It’s grad and it’s glorious, and it’s hard to believe now that such things were even possible on this scale in 1932. No pillars, no supports, all just good solid engineering and stunning design. They were setting up for the MTV awards, so there was plenty happening at stage level. We were even there at the right time to see the orchestra pit section get lowered by the hydraulic system. No creaking or groaning, still a quiet efficient system after all these years, running happily at about 1 foot per second.
The tour was much more comprehensive than I though it would be – there was still a bit to go. We were ushered in to a small room – populated with some of the remaining original 1932 seats (surprisingly large and comfy) – to watch a small presentation about the theatre’s history. The scary part of the the story was in 1978, where, due to the onslaught of TV over the decades, and more and more local picture shows, patronage kept declining until the whole operation was no longer commercially viable. The theatre was shut down, and demolition plans were drawn up, and moves were underway to determine what would replace it. Fortunately, it was rescued primarily due to people power, petitioning the Rockefeller and the local government – which is when it was made a Landmark building to keep it safe, just a few weeks before the wrecking ball was due to move in. So incredibly lucky. From that point, the Rockefellers tipped in a bunch of money to help restore and renovated, and the venue has been on the up and up ever since – destined to hang around for quite some time yet, I’d think. The christmas shows have become quiet legendary, with the equally legendary Rockettes performing – up to six shows a day in the busy November / December period. Lucky there are two teams of Rockettes to help manage the workload.
Another bonus in the tour – we got to meet one of the Rockettes. She’s been a Rockette for 6 years, and told a whole bunch of stuff about life as as Rockette. They have to re-audition every single year, there’s no guarantees that once you get in, you’ll stay in. They have to be between 5 foot 6, and 5 foot 10 and-a-half. They’re basically a team of incredibly capable athletes – training at least 6 hours a day, six days a week, in the leads to the christmas shows. Elite, at the top of their game, in an extremely demanding position, fully committed, not allowed to put a foot wrong, performing time after time after time.
Much of the choreography for the Rockette shows is still based on works by the original choreographer, Russell Markert. Fun Fact: The Rockettes actually pre-date Radio City Music Hall. They started in Missouri as the ‘Missouri Rockets’ – but when they toured to New York, showman ‘Roxy’ Rothafel ‘discovered’ them, and moved them to New York, where before long they found a new home in Radio City Music Hall, as the “Roxyettes”, until their change to the Rockettes in 1934. Would you believe, Russell Markert stayed on as their choreographer, all the way up to 1971.
After the ‘meet and greet’ – and obligatory souvenir photo opportunity (I swear I would not be surprised if we walked in to a convenience store and were ushered over to a green screen to get a souvenir photo taken…), it was on to ‘Roxy’s Apartment’. But first – the touristy souvenir pic!
Roxy Rothafel was instrumental in the design and ultimate success of Radio City – one the ways his thanks was shown, was that he was gifted a quite substantial apartment with the theatre complex itself. With 20 foot high ceilings (covered in genuine gold leaf – no foil and shellac for this guy!), and luxurious fittings, it’s pretty striking even today. The dining room is very smart – a perfectly domed roof, so even when a who is playing below, the acoustics ensure each dinner guest can be plainly heard. The apartment has had plenty of famous visitors – Olivia de Havilland, Judy Garland, Walt Disney, even Liberace. Now, it is of course not lives in – but is rented out for (very fancy, I would imagine) private functions.
Next thing you know we were thrown from the 1930s directly in to the present, as the tour somewhat abruptly ended. But what an amazing experience – I was only hoping to see the main auditorium, but ended up seeing and learning so much more. It was a real treat – can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re at least even vaguely interested in this type of thing.
That’s it for part 1…