For almost a century, the Rockettes have been American icons. They have appeared at Radio City Music Hall in hundreds of stage spectaculars, and have participated in many historic and memorable events—like joining the USO and traveling abroad to entertain the troops and support wartime effort, and performing at the inauguration of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, in 2001. Take a trip down memory lane to see how the Rockettes have evolved as an iconic part of American history.
The Rockettes began kicking up their shoes since Russell Markert, the Rockettes’ chief choreographer, image-preserver and resident “father figure” of the famous troupe until he retired in 1971, founded the exemplary American chorus line—an exciting precision dance company with great style, flair and glamour—in 1925.
Inspired by the British dance troupe formed by John Tiller (“The Tiller Girls” performed in a 1922 Ziegfeld Follies production), Russell wanted to achieve absolute precision and ultimate uniformity in the movements of the dancers. Originally, a Rockette had to be between 5’2″and 5’6 ½”, but today, she is between 5’6″and 5’10 ½” and has to be proficient in tap, modern, jazz and ballet. Starting with just 16 women, over the years the troupe grew to a line of 36 dancers.
The dancers known as the “Missouri Rockets” made their show debut in St. Louis. That same year, the troupe traveled to New York City to perform in the Broadway show Rain or Shine, and were discovered by showman S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel.
The “Missouri Rockets” were such an instant hit, that Rothafel was loath to let them leave after their performances at the Roxy Theatre, and pleaded with Markert to form another line to replace the departing dancers.
While there were three separate dance troupes performing in New York City in the early ’30s, Rothafel moved two of the troupes to Radio City Music Hall for opening night on Dec. 27th, 1932. Described as “the hottest ticket in town,” more than 100,000 people requested admission, but only 6,200 could be obliged.
Rothafel first dubbed the troupes as the “Roxyettes,” who performed a routine to the song “With a Feather in Your Cap” on opening night, but in 1934, the “Roxyettes” officially became the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Two weeks after its gala opening, Radio City Music Hall premiered its first film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Radio City quickly became the favorite first-run theatre for moviemakers and moviegoers alike. Before long, a first showing at the Music Hall virtually guaranteed a successful run in theatres around the country.
Since 1933, more than seven hundred movies have opened at the Music Hall; like the original King Kong, National Velvet, White Christmas, Mame, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians and the Lion King.
Radio City featured a new movie every week accompanied by a lavish and unique stage production starring the Rockettes.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. The Rockettes were among the first entertainers to volunteer for the United Service Organizations (USO). They entertained our troops abroad and were involved in wartime shows at the Copacabana, the Army Air Corps base in Pawling, New York and at the Stage Door Canteen. The Rockettes and Eleanor Roosevelt even hosted a War Bond Rally at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden.
Radio City was showing world premiere movies together with stage shows, sometimes as many as five a day. The movies kept playing as long as there was demand for tickets, and the shows changed every time the movies did. If a film failed at the box office, the Rockettes suddenly had to rehearse the new show at dawn, at midnight, and in between.
Because of their demanding schedule, Radio City Music Hall became their home away from home. They worked, played, ate and often slept within its walls. Facilities including a 26-bed dormitory, cafeteria, recreation area, tailor shop and hospital with medical staff, were provided to support and sustain what many recall as an extended family.
Americans in the ’50s increasingly turned to television for their entertainment, so it was inevitable that television would feature the Rockettes. They made their first TV appearance on Wide, Wide World, and also performed for the first time in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1957. Like so many events the Rockettes took part in, it became a New York City tradition.
The ’60s were a time of social change and political activism, so it’s no surprise that the Rockettes broke new ground for women in those early years. In a salute to both Feminism and the Space Age, the Rockettes danced as astronauts on the Great Stage.
Their production numbers also reflected an incredible variety of music, dance and costuming (after the bikini craze that entered the fashion world in the ’60s, the Rockettes raised their kicks and hemlines!). They appeared as Geisha girls, hula dancers, bull fighters, chimney sweeps and even can-can dancers.
In 1961, Eastman Kodak, created a color photomural featuring the Rockettes. It was the largest mural of its kind ever made, and was hung in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.
While Radio City was a popular venue for filmmakers to premiere a movie, it wasn’t uncommon for the stars to make an appearance before the showing. In 1962, none other than Cary Grant surprised the Rockettes when he came to promote his new movie, That Touch of Mink.
One of the most awesome productions in the history of Radio City took place with a salute to Walt Disney. Sections of the theme park’s famous Main Street, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland were recreated right on the Great Stage, all under the personal supervision of Walt Disney himself.
Radio City management began closing the theatre for weeks at stretch, leaving the once busy Rockettes with time on their hands. The troupe petitioned for the right to take the show on the road when Radio City was dark. In 1977, the Rockettes appeared at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Their precision dancing took the west coast by storm as they went on to play to sold-out crowds in Las Vegas. (They even opened for Liberace at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1979!).
In 1978, Radio City was slated to close due to financial problems. The Rockettes lead the crusade to save the theatre. In 1979, Radio City was designated a New York City landmark, saving it from the wrecking ball. The movie-and-stage-show format remained a Radio City signature until 1979, when the mass showcasing of new films called for a different focus.
The decade ended on a wonderful upbeat note. The Rockettes starred with Swedish-American actress, singer and dancer Ann-Margret in a two-hour television special, A Holiday Tribute to Radio City Music Hall. (Ann-Margaret even joined the Rockettes in their iconic “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” number!).
The Rockettes led the fitness movement that swept the country. The dancers were arguably the fittest women in America. Radio City had moved to a new format: it no longer showed movies, but presented 90-minute stage shows. The Rockettes danced four or five numbers in each of them, four times a day, seven days a week, for four weeks straight. Then each woman got a week off.
During the ’80s, the Rockettes performed with Ginger Rogers in a show called, A Rockette Spectacular with Ginger Rogers, and also worked alongside Carol Lawrence and Liberace. They appeared as themselves in the movie Annie, starred in the 1988 Super Bowl halftime show and made a commercial for L’Eggs pantyhose, singing and dancing in praise of “a great pair of L’Eggs.”
They went on the road, too, and performed in Vegas and Lake Tahoe. There, Sammy Davis Jr., a great admirer of theirs, watched their show night after night. On their closing night, without warning, he stepped out on stage and joined the line (Former Rockette Leslie remembers him being one of the sweetest men she has every met!).
To celebrate the 50th birthday of Radio City in 1982, producer and choreographer Bob Jani presented a lavish show featuring 50 years of Rockettes costumes. Another memorable event of throughout the ’80s was a series of three television specials in honor of the centennial of the Actors’ Fund of America. They were called The Night of 100 Stars, but actually over 200 of the most famous performers in the world took part; if you were a star of stage, screen or television, you were there. And it all took place at Radio City, so of course the Rockettes welcomed the audience, danced the big opening number and even got to share the stage with talent like Dick Van Dyke, Lana Turner, Grace Kelly and Muhammad Ali.
The Rockettes continued to present their ever-popular Christmas Spectacular and Easter Extravaganza. Choreographers and designers created new routines and new costumes for them, but the historic Radio City Music Hall was beginning to show its age. Radio City’s parent company, decided that the world’s greatest theater was in need of the world’s greatest restoration. The vision? To restore Radio City to its former glory, to recapture the magnificence that made people gasp as they entered on that opening night back in 1932.
Every bit of gold leaf was repainted. Every one of 6,200 seats was recovered. In fact, there were now exactly 269 fewer seats. The company had surveyed the sightlines and ordered that seats be removed because they did not have an adequate view of the stage. They approved the purchase of a huge, 50,000-pound LED screen, which can be raised and lowered. It is the largest of its kind in the world. The projections from the screen’s “light emitting diodes” make all kinds of scenery possible, and take the audience on magical journeys.
Another innovation was the sound system. Radio City wasn’t satisfied that the audience was hearing the Rockettes’ pre-recorded taps; they wanted the real thing. The company wouldn’t settle for the dancers to wear wired microphones and belt packs; they were too bulky, and slowed down costume changes. So they challenged the best engineers to come up with a solution. Today, when the Rockettes are doing a tap number during the Christmas Spectacular, they wear custom dance shoes that have a special cavity within the heel for a sound transmitter, so what the audience hears is the actual rhythmic tapping of 72 feet.
When the Rockettes appeared in the Christmas Spectacular at the newly re-opened Radio City in 1999, one of the new numbers featured Santa Claus and his workshop. Greg Barnes, the Tony Award-winning designer who’s known for his costumes for Follies, Flower Drum Song and the revival of Bye Bye Birdie, created many outfits for the Rockettes, but perhaps his most memorable idea was to dress them as reindeer, complete with antlers. At every performance, when they pranced on stage pulling Santa’s sled, they brought down the house.
Radio City Music Hall marked the 75th Anniversary of the Rockettes, with around 2,500 women having shared in the legacy by performing as a Radio City Rockette.
In 2001, the Rockettes were invited to perform at 43rd president of the United States George W. Bush’s inauguration in Washington D.C., where they danced their way down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In 2005, the Rockettes performed their second presidential inauguration.
Linda Haberman became the first woman named solo director and choreographer for the Rockettes in 2006. Trained at the School of American Ballet, Haberman was in the original cast of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, then went on to become his assistant choreographer. Her vision for the Rockettes was to transform them into a contemporary dance company. Haberman’s amazing choreography brought the troupe to new heights, and demanded superb dance technique as well as true athleticism.
On the Radio City stage, her productions combined dance with the ground-breaking technology and called for the Rockettes to interact with 3D effects. For the “New York at Christmas” number, Haberman put the Rockettes on a full-scale double-decker bus, which moved in sync with images of the city projected on the 90-foot LED screen.
Haberman created the first touring productions of the Christmas Spectacular, which visited more than 80 cities in the United States during their time. The tour ended after the 2014 season, as new approaches were explored to best showcase the Christmas Spectacular and the Rockettes.
This decade saw an important new Rockettes dance education program: The Rockettes Summer Intensive, which offers aspiring professional dancers the unique opportunity to train with the Rockettes and learn their world-famous precision dance technique. More than 1,000 young dancers from across the country audition each year. Those who are accepted spend a week in New York, where they rehearse and learn the Rockettes’ disciplines and dance routines. To date, more than 60 Rockettes have come from this training program.
Since the 1990s, the Rockettes have only performed at Radio City Music Hall from November to January in the Christmas Spectacular. However, that changed in Spring 2015 when the Rockettes starred in a new eight-week production, The New York Spring Spectacular, alongside Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti and Dancing with the Stars’ Derek Hough.
In June 2016, the Rockettes performed on the Great Stage to celebrate New York City in The New York Spectacular. Centered around the trip of a lifetime for two kids, who, while on a vacation in New York, are separated from their parents, the city magically comes to life to show them its many splendid wonders.
The Rockettes have been busier and more in the public eye than ever. They have performed on the Great Stage with Oprah, Heidi Klum, Michael Bublé, and have made numerous appearances on The TODAY Show, The Chew, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Project Runway (a costume was designed during a special Rockettes-themed episode by finalist Christopher Palu!) and America’s Got Talent (2013, 2014 and 2015!).
From the moment they first appeared in 1925, the Rockettes have been American icons. They are symbols of what you can achieve if you move with passion, dream big, work hard and most importantly, believe in yourself.