Towards the end of 1932, The United States was experiencing the most catastrophic economic crisis of the 20th century. Naturally, the last thing on everyone’s minds was spending money. Everyone except for multibillionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who had a multimillion dollar idea.
Rockefeller, Jr. wanted to build a theater to add to his already established Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. His goal was to design an Art Deco styled theater of architectural achievement and grandeur design to raise optimism and hope in the midst of the Great Depression. A nice sentiment, but that was quite an undertaking. He needed a partner. He reached out to Radio Corporation of America, a new company composed of RKO studios, a motion pictures production company, and a station called NBC radio. You may have heard of it? Radio Corporation of America agreed to the partnership, and together they started to put into motion “a palace for the people”. How luxurious! They wanted to construct a beautiful theater that offered high quality entertainment that ordinary people could afford (radiocity.com). The theater was named Radio City Music HRall and it opened 83 years ago today!
The architecture of Radio City Music Hall combined art, science, and industry in its design. Murals were painted on the walls of the lobby and sculptures could be seen throughout the halls. Marble and gold foil were used for the theater’s interior railings, signage, and decoration. The architects used the newest industrial materials such as aluminum, cork, and Bakelite for the electrical equipment. It was a magnificent feat that was about to become an icon of New York City.
It was estimated that over six thousand people came to watch the grand opening on December 27, 1932. Doors opened at 7:30 PM and the most famous celebrities of the time, such as Amelia Earhart and Charlie Chaplin, walked through the grandiose doors. At 9:00 the curtains opened and the show began. It was more of a vaudeville kind of show with performances from acrobats, signers, choirs, musicians, clowns, and comedians. The most notable performances came from the Martha Graham Ballet who danced an interpretation of a Greek tragedy, and a performance by the Roxyettes dancers, later known as the Rockettes.
The show lasted five hours. Five. Hours. It ended around 2:00 AM! Critics railed against the show for being too long and dull, and I would have given the same review. After 5 hours, any performance, no matter how good the talent is, becomes mind-numbingly boring.
Despite the dramatic failure, the theater was still impressive and it had incredible acoustics, which changed the course of the theater. Almost immediately after the opening night flop, the Rockefeller and RCA regrouped and Radio City Music Hall became a theater for movies. Remember, radio and motion pictures were very new and exciting forms of entertainment. Furthermore, film producers had just figured out how to add sound to movies. Amazing! Alas, the admissions cost for movie tickets at Radio City were too expensive in 1933. Most people were not willing to pay the price, especially when films were just as good at other theaters and for a fraction of the price. Again, the founders regrouped and lowered the cost to a much more affordable price.
Since 1933, more than 700 movies opened at Radio City Music Hall, including the original King Kong, White Christmas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians, and The Lion King. It was a successful movie theater for over four decades!
In the late 1970s, Radio City started to shift from a movie theater to primarily stage entertainment. The theater still shows films, but now it is the leading hall for concerts, stage shows, award shows, and celebratory events.
Radio City Music Hall is the largest indoor theater in the world. Over 300 millions people have visited since it opened in 1932, I being one of them! I’ve had the privilege of taking a backstage tour of the theater and seeing the costume room, the dressing rooms, and the pit. I even got to stand on the stage and try on a Rockette Costume!
As someone who grew up in the theater, looking out into the audience was completely surreal. Some of the greatest artists, musicians, and performers of all time have appeared on that stage. I got to stand where they stood!
Radio City Music Hall has been and will continue to be an extraordinary feat of design, architecture, theater, and entertainment. May the theater have another 83 successful years and many more!
Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004. https://books.google.com/books?id=7jvtvGbatv4C&pg=PA395&dq=radio+city+music+hall+history&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjChY2V1PzJAhWG4D4KHbxiCJUQ6AEIXzAJ#v=onepage&q=radio%20city&f=false.