A Short History of Radio City Music Hall

This is second in a series exploring the histories of North America's last remaining grand movie palaces.

Of course New York had to have the biggest movie palace of them all. Although in recent years Radio City Music Hall has only sparingly hosted film premieres – Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and Sex and the City: The Movie (2008) being two examples – for more than half its lifespan the theatre specialized in presenting movies plus a live-show featuring precision dance troupe the Rockettes.

Radio City's exterior is a Big Apple icon, with its twin vertical neon signs, corner marquee at West 50th St. and 6th Ave., and block-long side marquee. Inside, the cavernous theatre offers unobstructed seating for 6,000. It's so big that the WNBA's New York Liberty hosted games there, setting up a basketball court on stage.  

Here's a brief history of the Art Deco wonder known as Showplace of the Nation:

The Beginning        

Just before 1929's Wall Street Crash, financier John D. Rockefeller Jr. planned to build Radio City as part of Rockefeller Center, his development across three blocks leased from Columbia University. Despite the onset of the Great Depression he went forward with this "palace for the people," budgeted at a reported US$8 million (US$139 million today) and built along with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and movie-palace pioneer Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel, who in 1927 opened Times Square's equally impressive but long-gone Roxy Theatre.

Radio City opened Dec. 27, 1932 with a long and expensive variety show that was coolly received. Within days, a panicky RKO Pictures, the film division of RCA, announced the venue would focus on movies – a cheaper entertainment that would likely put more bums in seats.

On January 11, 1933 the theatre hosted its first film, Frank Capra's exotic and racy melodrama The Bitter Tea of General Yen. The facility became the place Hollywood studios wanted to launch their titles. Classics King Kong (1933), To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and The Lion King (1994) premiered there, and top stars including Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn regularly appeared to hawk their latest releases.  

Jewel with a Dull Surface      

The building's exterior, principally designed by 30-year-old Edward Durell Stone, gives the impression of a large, grey box. Initially, some considered it an eyesore. The interior decorated by Donald Deskey, however, was another matter. Rothafel apparently wanted the look of a first-class steamship liner, and that comes through in the curvy contours, tall ceilings and wood paneling of the Grand Foyer. The elegant yet modernist feel is achieved by balancing marble and gold foil with more industrial materials.

The centrepiece atop the grand stairway is the 40' x 60' mural The Fountain of Youth by Ezra Winter, illuminated by a 29-foot-tall cylindrical chandelier. There are eight lounges each displaying works of art, and even the washrooms, with their original foot-pedal-operated hand-dryers, can't fail to impress. The diamond-themed precision of the Grand Lounge suggests Art Deco as conceived by Stanley Kubrick.  

The hall is shaped by stacked arches suggesting a setting sun. The shimmering gold curtain for the 14-foot-wide Great Stage is reputedly the world's largest. The stage's original hydraulics, designed by Peter Clark, were built to quickly move scores of performers and props, and is considered second to none. During a US$70 million renovation in 1999 (US$100 million today), it was decided no mechanical upgrades were required. The hall's Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ – the biggest in any movie palace – was rebuilt, however.

The Rockettes Keep Kicking

By the late ’70s, movies no longer presented a viable business for Radio City, and it faced the wrecking ball. But this inspired a backlash, including a John Belushi rant on Saturday Night Live. Instead, the venue's interior was granted landmark status, the building was fixed up and it reopened in 1980 – from that point on focusing on concerts, stage shows and special events.

The most famous is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, performed annually since 1933 and featuring a diverse program somehow incorporating both the Rockettes and a Nativity scene. It runs from mid-November to early January.

You can pose for a picture with a Rockette during the 75-minute Stage Door Tour, which exposes you to all the magnificent paintings and sculptures and the ins and outs of the Great Stage in this one-of-a-kind facility that threatens to upstage every performer who graces its boards.

Address: 1260 6th Ave, New York
Opened: 1932
Tours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, starting on the half-hour
Adult ticket price: US$26.95



Published Friday, October 9th 2015

Header image credit: (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)



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