It all started on December 21, 1933, the year after the Music Hall opened. That first Christmas Show was accompanied by the movie Flying Down to Rio (strange choice, perhaps) and The Night Before Christmas, a Walt Disney Silly Symphony — an animated short film. The show, created by the Music Hall's stage producer Leon Leonidoff and none other than Vincente Minnelli, (then Radio City’s music director) lasted just two weeks.
Fast forward to the 1970‘s: the nearly six-thousand-seat Radio City was still showing movies and presenting a stage show, but drawing scant audiences, something I failed to notice that year, busy as I was, running a movie palace of my own. (Well, not my own, because I didn’t own it, just the right to go broke paying its rent). That would be the St. George Theater, a 2,672-seat hall in Staten Island, seventy blocks south of Radio City and a ferry-ride away. We had no Christmas Show at the St. George in 1976, just a four-wall “deal” involving a little-known movie called In Search of Noah’s Ark, which purported to prove that pieces of Noah’s original ark had been found on Mt. Ararat. Well, it was a living, at least for that month, and because it was a four-wall, we didn’t have to do anything but turn the theater over to Sun Pictures, and pop some popcorn. Towards the end of the Noah’s Ark run, we managed to get a local teen escape artist/magician onstage between showings, to take the chill off.
As a result of running the St. George, I met Robert Endres, then the head projectionist at Radio City and, the following year, got a private tour of our big sister theater, including a private showing of some or other forgettable movie (Pete’s Dragon?) and a rehearsal of the Rockettes. A private showing in a nearly six-thousand-seat hall really is a little unnerving... By that time, I was an ex-movie theater operator, and could see just how much trouble big theaters were in everywhere. There was talk, that year and the year after, of the demise of Radio City, the last of the Manhattan behemoth palaces; which brings us to January 1978, when the end nearly did come for the music hall.
“Nostalgia Draws Music Hall Crowds, Despite Cold”
The headline could have come out of yesterday’s New York Times, but it didn’t. The date at the top of the column is January 8, 1978. Radio City, Roxy Rothafel’s great gold Deco clamshell of a theatre, occupying — since 1932 — several thousand square feet of prime NYC real estate, about a half-block of Midtown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was in trouble. Everybody knew about it; 5,690 mostly-vacant seats in Midtown? "Vacant" anything is a no-go in Manhattan. Management promised to keep the doors open till Easter. Then the Rockettes — once upon a time Russell Markert's Music Hall Roxyettes — and the whole shebang would be gone. Folks from as far away as Minnesota braved the frostbite of forty-one years ago, in lines four deep around the corner, compelled by the notion that the Music Hall was going the way of so many palaces. It had been “curtains” (pun intended) for the Roxy, Radio City's sister theater only a few blocks farther downtown (demolished in 1960) and on the other coast, for the 3,387-seat Paramount (aka Graumann’s Metropolitan) in L.A. (torn down in 1961), just to name two spectacular demolitions. By 1978, it seemed there might be more movie palaces down than standing.
I’d read the headlines too, and had felt the despair. I was still grappling with my own severe depression: less than a year before, my team had crash-landed, after trying and failing to keep the St. George open as a movie palace. The year after our failure, my old favorite hometown palace, the RKO Albee, had finally been reduced to a pile of marble and plaster dust in Cincinnati, despite a vigilant Save the Albee committee. My friend and colleague, Robert Endres, then still head projectionist at RCMH, recalls the shock of hearing that Radio City would close:
I guess you could say I was ‘stunned’ at the closing announcement as was everyone else. I had been out in Illinois with my parents over the Christmas holiday.... I walked into work that first day back to be told there was a meeting in the large rehearsal hall and we were told to attend. When I got there the Music Hall executive staff was there, as was Marshall [president of Rockefeller Center] who made the announcement. The mood was pretty grim.
It was a time, the late seventies, when hardly anybody could see far enough into the future to imagine how the great halls could ever be useful again. Across America, in most cities, suburbanites hardly ever went “downtown” anymore: derelict palaces in badly-lit urban settings made downtown movie-going seem a lonely, even dangerous experience. Even inside the theaters, there were incidents. In May, 1970, at Loew’s Paradise, once the “showplace of the Bronx,” members of an audience watching The Liberation of L.B. Jones, accustomed as they were to small explosions, refused to leave the theater after a pipe-bomb went off in the orchestra pit. Business-as-usual. Police forcibly evacuated the palace, where they found another unexploded bomb. Such was the life of the urban movie-goer — and exhibitor.
The Music Hall had an entirely different problem. Manhattan is the ultimate “downtown,“ so even in the dire seventies, there were plenty of people on Midtown streets, and the Music Hall was certainly safe, if hardly populated. But with nearly six thousand seats, a dwindling NYC tourism couldn’t begin to support Radio City; and New Yorkers didn’t think of the Music Hall as a place to go for movies. To quote New York on the subject of moviegoing in 1978, “ You consulted one of the foldout sheets everyone had tacked above their desks or in their kitchen, from the revival houses, blessed be their names—the Thalia, the New Yorker, the Regency, Theatre 80 Saint Marks, the Bleecker Street Cinema.” These were the theaters of the day. Ironically, it’s these very art houses that are mostly gone now, while among other refurbished movie palaces, Radio City stands.
It was — who else? — the Rockettes who finally saved Radio City. Two days after Alton Marshall made the announcement that the theater’s last day would be April 12, Rosemary Novellino the dance captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company and Eileen Collins, the Rockettes' union rep, founded The Showpeople’s Committee To Save Radio City Music Hall, with the Rockettes at the movement’s core.
While all those patrons were standing in lines four deep on the cold pavement, Rockettes were entertaining them! The committee, meanwhile, launched its letter-writing campaign gathering better than 150,000 signatures worldwide, an impressive feat pre-internet. This and a number of efforts at publicity – including some guerrilla theater, in which committee members gathered signatures while dressed in suits of armor (to highlight their “war” to save the Music Hall) – could not be ignored by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. On the morning of March 14, the day of Radio City’s Commission hearing, the committee organized an “impromptu” Rockette kick line on the steps of City Hall.
Two weeks later on March 28, the Music Hall's interior was declared a landmark, and not a moment too soon, given Marshall's deadline. Six weeks after that, on May 12, 1978, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A little more than forty years after the Rockettes danced in the cold — for all those people who assumed they were getting a last look at Radio City — the hall is still standing, a live house featuring occasional film.
As are many grand theaters across America, including my own St. George. Despite our failure to keep it alive as a movie house in 1976, and a number of failed subsequent efforts by entrepreneurs at repurposing the St. George (roller rink, dinner theater, antiques venue), it’s alive and kicking; and I mean that literally, with a children’s corps of dancers onstage many afternoons. This story can be had via the recent PBS Documentary, Treasures of New York: St. George Theatre starring our theater’s eventual savior, Rosemary Cappozalo, and her family. Rosemary, or "Mrs. Rosemary," as she's known in Staten Island, was a Julliard-trained dancer and veteran teacher herself. What is it about dancers? In the cold, on the sidewalk, or in a deserted theater, they just keep moving!
1. Coming Soon: the story of Shea’s Buffalo, the only Tiffany-designed theater still standing, a theater-rescue story to follow the near-demise of Radio City.
2. The Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City would never have existed if the city hadn’t demolished one of its most glorious buildings, the old Penn Station, and felt a deal of remorse about that fact, passing the Landmarks Law in 1965. So without the loss of that fine Beaux Arts transportation hub, Radio City Music Hall (and a number of other buildings, including Grand Central and large parts of the Broadway Theater District) might never have been spared.
3. Something anecdotal: a story in my husband’s family involves a friend of his father’s, a WWII G.I. who was in the vanguard of American troops that liberated Paris in 1944. Story goes, he was riding on a tank in the liberation parade when a woman tossed him some flowers, exclaiming, “Vive les americaines!” In return, the soldier shouted, in his best high school French, “Vive la Arc de Triomphe.” Determined to have the last salute, the smiling woman sang out, “...et vive la Radio City Music Hall!”
4. Bob Endres (formerly of RCMH) gets the last say: “I heard one interesting story from a former vice president who, after he retired, had lunch with Alton Marshall...President of Rock Center. Marshall apparently told him that they really didn't want to close the Hall, but...had to do something about the format, so they put the story out that they were going to close...to get enough attention to be able to restructure...”