Monday, September 1, 2014

Radio City Music Hall

Back in the Fifties the entertainment scene was much different than today. Sixty-inch wall-mounted plasma TVs, movies recorded on DVDs and downloading tunes to your I-pod were just dreams in the minds of pimply-faced geniuses growing up with no friends. Our main source of entertainment was the movies. Neighborhood theaters were packed with patrons sitting in the darkness mesmerized by the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Movies were also a great place to cool off before air-conditioning in homes was popular. Guys took their girls to the movies so they could sit in the balcony and make out. You could even collect a set of bad dishes a piece at a time on dish nights. But the holy grail of movie theaters, the place everybody in the country wanted to go, was located in Manhattan on Sixth Avenue and 50th Street, the incomparable Radio City Music Hall.

The famous Samuel L. Rothafel, widely known as Roxy, opened the Radio City Music Hall on December 27, 1932. It started out as a stage theater, but due to poor returns they turned it into a movie theater on Jan 11, 1933. They believed that the time for the stage format show had passed and now the Depression-era public were more interested in movies. They did, however, keep the Roxyettes as a holiday “gift” to the audience before movie screenings. To remove the connection to Samuel Rothafel, they renamed the dance troupe to the Rockettes. A world famous precision dance troupe with a rich history of skill and dedication to their craft, the Rockettes were granted in 1979 a permanent home in their very own show, The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The Radio City Music Hall's stunning design was by architect Edward Durrell Stone and interior designer Donald Deskey in the Art Deco style. Over the years, Radio City became worn and ill-equipped for the quality of performance that modern audiences expect, and in the late '70s it was on the verge of demolition. However, that catastrophe was narrowly averted when the famed venue was granted landmark status. In 1999, architect Hugh Hardy supervised a painstaking seven-month $70 million restoration that put Radio City back on the map for New York audiences. All areas of the hall were improved with this restoration, from the legendary marquee to the ceilings, thus restoring Radio City Music Hall to its former glory.

Although this grand theater was not very far from home in Brooklyn, we didn't get there that often. We would usually go during the holidays when they featured their Christmas Spectacular, a first run movie accompanied by a performance by the Rockettes and a stage show that concluded with an on-stage story of the birth of Christ, complete with imaginative sets, lavish costumes and live animals. We were used to the neighborhood Colonial Theater with gum under every seat, so for us Radio City looked like a cathedral. The only movie I remember seeing there was "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Mom was a huge Bing fan and kept shushing us as we fidgeted in our seats.

We would follow the Music Hall show with a stop at some inexpensive, kid-friendly restaurant like the Automat. Mom would give us each a handful of nickles so we could pick our food, deposit the coins, and open the little glass doors to retrieve our food. For me the food was incidental. The novelty of dropping nickles in a slot and getting food in return was almost too thrilling to bear. My favorites were franks and beans or macaroni and cheese; for dessert it would be Jello or coconut cream pie; and to drink, chocolate milk or, in wintertime, hot chocolate out of a lion's head dispenser. We went home full and happy after these trips, and even a ride on the crowded subway couldn't dampen our spirits.

One thing I remember clearly is that my parents behaved differently toward us and each other on these little outings. Scoldings were minimized, the purse strings were loosened, and there was a lot of laughing and smiling. I don't think I ever appreciated how hard my Mom and dad worked to support us, and didn't realize how much these breaks from the routine must have meant to them. I'm glad Radio City was there to provide some special memories of family time spent together.

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