In October 1928, in the midst of a booming economy, John D. Rockefeller Jr. signed a lease for a sizable swath of land in midtown Manhattan. The majority of the property was to be used for a new Metropolitan Opera House. But when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929, plans for the opera house quickly unraveled, and Rockefeller decided he wanted to erect a special building—something New York had never seen before.
And he did just that. Created from the vision of the theatre impresarios S.L. “Roxy” Rothafeld and the design expertise of Donald Desky, Radio City Music Hall stands today as one of the world’s largest and most recognizable examples of Art Deco. Opened in December 1932, Radio City Music Hall remains the world’s largest indoor theatre. Take a trip down memory lane as you learn about the architectural marvel:
Building the Dream
Building the Dream
The search for a commercial partner led to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a young company whose NBC radio programs were attracting huge audiences and whose RKO studios were producing and distributing popular motion pictures that offered welcome diversion in hard times. Rockefeller’s financial power and RCA’s media might were joined by the unusual talents of impresario S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel. Roxy had earned a reputation as a theatrical genius by employing an innovative combination of vaudeville, movies and razzle-dazzle decor to revive struggling theatres across America. Together Rockefeller, RCA and Roxy realized a fantastic dream—a theatre unlike any in the world, and the first completed project within the complex that RCA head David Sarnoff dubbed “Radio City.” Radio City Music Hall was to be a palace for the people. A place of beauty offering high-quality entertainment at prices ordinary people could afford. It was intended to entertain and amuse, but also to elevate and inspire.
A Palace for the People
Deskey himself designed furniture and carpets, and he coordinated the design of railings, balustrades, signage and decorative details to complement the theatre’s interior spaces. He used a brilliant combination of precious materials (including marble and gold foil), and industrial materials (including Bakelite, permatex, aluminum and cork). The strength of his achievement is reflected in how well the theatre has maintained its character over time. It was a remarkable example of contemporary design in its day and it still has the power to take the breath away. It remains an elegant, sophisticated, unified tour de force.
The house steals the show. Donald Deskey’s masterpiece of American Modernist design gets rave reviews. One New York critic reports approvingly, “It has been said of the new Music Hall that it needs no performers.”
Showplace of the Nation
Radio City Music Hall is the largest indoor theatre in the world. Its marquee is a full city-block long. Its auditorium measures 160 feet from back to stage and the ceiling reaches a height of 84 feet. The walls and ceiling are formed by a series of sweeping arches that define a splendid and immense curving space. Choral staircases rise up the sides toward the back wall. Actors can enter there to bring live action right into the house. There are no columns to obstruct views. Three shallow mezzanines provide comfortable seating without looming over the rear Orchestra section below. The result is that every seat in Radio City Music Hall is a good seat.
The Great Stage is framed by a huge proscenium arch that measures 60 feet high and 100 feet wide.The stage is considered by technical experts to be the most perfectly equipped in the world. It is comprised of three sections mounted on hydraulic-powered elevators. They make it possible to create dynamic sets and achieve spectacular effects in staging. A fourth elevator raises and lowers the entire orchestra. Within the perimeter of the elevators is a turntable that can be used for quick scene changes and special stage effects.
The shimmering gold stage curtain is the largest in the world. For more than sixty-five years audiences have thrilled to the sound of the “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ, which was built especially for the theatre. Its pipes, which range in size from a few inches to 32 feet, are housed in eleven separate rooms. The Hall contains more than 25,000 lights and features four-color stage lighting. And what’s a show without special effects? Original mechanisms still in use today make it possible to send up fountains of water and bring down torrents of rain. Fog and clouds are created by a mechanical system that draws steam directly from a Con Edison generating plant nearby.
The Theatre For Film Premieres
Just two weeks after its gala opening, Radio City Music Hall premiered its first film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Before long, a first showing at the Music Hall virtually guaranteed a successful run in the theatres around the country. Radio City’s huge screen and widely spaced seats make it the ideal movie house. Since 1933 more than 700 movies have opened here. They include the original King Kong; National Velvet, the film that secured Elizabeth Taylor’s hold on the silver screen; White Christmas; Mame; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; To Kill a Mockingbird, starring former Radio City usher, Gregory Peck; Mary Poppins; 101 Dalmatians; and The Lion King.
In the early years, a standard movie run lasted one week. Later, extended runs of five or six weeks became common. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn have taken Radio City box office prizes for the number of films screened here. All three had more than 22 of their films shown at the Hall. The popular movie-and-stage-show format remained a Radio City signature until 1979, when the mass showcasing of new films called for a new focus. Today, the Music Hall still premieres selected films, but is best known as the country’s leading hall for popular concerts, stage shows, special attractions and media events.
Christmas at Rockefeller Center: A Holiday Tradition
Rockefeller Center is the nation’s favorite Christmas destination. The spirit of the laborers who decorated the first tree on the site almost seventy years ago lives on in the giant, gloriously lit spruce that graces the Plaza throughout the holiday season. The tree lighting ceremony draws huge crowds eagerly awaiting the official start of the season. And for weeks, happy kids and harried commuters are stopped in their tracks by the sight of the gossamer angels with golden trumpets and the sound of music in the winter air.
For 80 years, the Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes, has continued to create lasting memories for generations of families that have made this cherished show a holiday tradition. Since 1933, the Christmas Spectacular has played at the famed Radio City Music Hall and today’s show still features beloved favorite numbers, including “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the “Living Nativity”, which have been performed since its inception.
Big Stars on the Big Stage
Radio City is the ultimate destination for the brightest and the best. Future stars, including the budding new comedian, Ray Bolger, and Metropolitan Opera star-to-be, Jan Peerce, shone here first. Many others came to bask in stardom already won. During the golden years of the silver screen, film celebrities rarely missed an opportunity to make an appearance on opening day. It wasn’t unusual to find the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Merle Oberon, Mary Pickford, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell stopping by to greet fans.
For decades, America’s most popular entertainers have thrilled audiences here. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Ann Margaret, Johnny Mathis, John Denver, The Count Basie Orchestra, Itzhak Perlman, Jose Carreras, Ray Charles and BB King have all appeared on the Great Stage.
Today, the Music Hall continues to attract celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, sports, the media and national life. Shows starring Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder and Riverdance pack the house. Our reopening gala features Tony Bennett, Billy Crystal, The Eurythmics, Barry Manilow, Liza Minnelli, Sting, 98 Degrees, The Radio City Rockettes…and many others. Celine Dion stars in the first solo concert following the reopening. In the past decade, Radio City has hosted the Grammy’s and the Tony’s, The MTV Video Music Awards and the ESPY Awards. It has been the site for TIME Magazine’s celebration of its 75th year, complete with a visit from the President, and a host of benefit events. It has remained a magical place for people in the spotlight. To step out on the Great Stage of the Music Hall is to know what it is to be a star.
Although it respects the past, a major restoration of this sort must also respond to the present. Changes in public expectation, building regulations and technology are reflected in the restoration’s master plan. People today are accustomed to lighting levels three times as high as those in the 1930s, so lighting in the restored Hall is brighter than it was originally. Building code regulations are more stringent and infrastructure improvements have been introduced to address these issues, including access for the handicapped. Advanced technology is integral to contemporary musical performance and television transmission. State-of-the-art sound control, computerized lighting and a power room for digital cable wiring have been made part of the new behind-the-scenes equipment.
The restoration process was a cross between detective story and an archeological dig. Researchers pored through historical archives, old photos and newspaper clippings for clues about the design of the original Hall. On-site, conservators scraped surfaces with scalpels to expose layers of paint and other finishes; used solvents to strip away coatings; and removed later-date fixtures to reveal original wallcoverings and finishes beneath. In the laboratory, technicians looked at samples under microscopes to identify the color and content of original materials. Experts in lighting, textiles, furniture and art restoration were called in. In compliance with its designation as a Historic Landmark in 1979, all work plans were approved by the New York City Landmarks Commission. Then an army of artisans went to work.
The neon marquee has been restored to its original red, blue and gold glory. Seating in the auditorium has been recreated by the same company that manufactured the original. Draperies, wall-coverings and carpets have been rewoven in original patterns and colors. Murals and paintings have been cleaned, and where possible, over-painting has been removed. The Stuart Davis mural, Men Without Women, is now back in its original home after almost 25 years at the Museum of Modern Art. Gold, silver and copper leaf has been reapplied to ceilings; metal railings and decorative elements polished until they gleam; chairs, tables and casework reupholstered and refinished. And the worn stage curtain has been replaced by a totally new one, woven in a pattern that enhances its shimmering glow.