Radio City Music Hall: Five Reasons to Visit (and Love) the Classic NYC Theater
Few things are as quintessentially holidays in New York City as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes (and live camels!). While the leggy precision dancers clad in Swarovski crystal leotards are scene-stealers, perhaps the biggest star of the show is the grand old dame of a theater that serves as its home base. Whether you're in town for only a short time, or making your annual trek to the Spectacular, here are five things to love about Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center, and why the art deco masterpiece is worth a visit well beyond Christmastime.
The Grand Lounge is dazzling.
1. Radio City Music Hall Is a Design Masterpiece
Designated both a New York City Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Radio City Music Hall was developed as part of Rockefeller Center, opening to the public on December 27, 1932. Initially planned as the site for a new Metropolitan Opera house, the project was eventually taken over by John D. Rockefeller for development—and incredibly, the building was constructed in just under 10 months! At its opening, the glittering theater was praised as a design showcase—as one architecture critic of the time noted, "It has been said of the new Music Hall that it needs no performers."
Though it's been through two major renovations since, the theater remains grand, with its very extra Grand Lounge, opulent staircases, glittering chandelier and lush, velvety finishes. Interior designer Donald Deskey worked with teams of artisans to help bring the Music Hall's interior to life. Textile designer Ruth Reeves designed the carpets and the fabric coverings on the walls, which, when removed in 1999 for remodeling, were cleaned of decades worth of smoking soot, revealing an intricate design. Ezra Winter's "The Fountain of Youth" mural covers the wall above the grand staircase, and Edward Trumbull, famous for his design of the Chrysler Building's lobby, inlaid mosaics in the four passenger elevators depicting his favorite things: wine, women, and music.
The ceiling in the theater is a soaring 84 feet high.
2. It's a Technological and Engineering Marvel
Upon its opening, Radio City was the largest theater in the world, and it still ranks near the top of the list today. Its marquee takes up an entire city block, and its interior dimensions run 160 feet from the back of the auditorium to the stage. Its soaring ceiling is 84 feet high. The stage itself has three hydraulic-powered elevators and a turntable, allowing for dynamic set changes. The technology was so forward-thinking that the U.S. Navy even studied the stage hydraulics when designing WWII-era air craft carriers, and guarded the stage as a military secret during the entirety of the war!
More than 25,000 lights can be used to illuminate the performers. A Wurlitzer organ, custom-built for the theater with pipes ranging from a few inches to 32 feet, needs 11 separate rooms to house its components. There are 5,930 seats in the theater, ranging from the orchestra to the third mezzanine, but creative architecture means there are no columns necessary to hold up the balconies, providing unobstructed views even from the cheap seats. Progressive engineering means some of the original machines built for the space still make it possible to shoot water sky-high, make it rain, and yes...even snow.
The Christmas Spectacular is just that spectacular.
3. The Christmas Spectacular Is Literally Spectacular
You can't talk about Radio City without giving a big shout-out to the Rockettes, the precision dance team that's endured throughout its history, high-kicking its way to rave reviews year in and year out. The annual Christmas Spectacular interweaves classic dance numbers with more modern technological elements to keep the show relevant, reinventing its storyline every few years to ensure that audiences keep coming back for more.
A new finale debuted in 2018, though it's hard to top the Living Nativity scene, which leaves first-time visitors awestruck. The live camels, donkeys, and sheep steal the scene and leave visitors wondering where exactly they are kept in the urban jungle. An early morning visit to 51st Street when the show's in town might give you an up-close view of their daily walks. The sheep and donkey have a home away from home built under the stage, complete with a stable and mood lighting. The trio of camels, too big for the elevators, have their own quarters behind the stage.
There are two separate casts of Rockettes; a morning cast and an evening cast, who perform six days a week. During peak holiday season, the Christmas Spectacular performs six shows a day, so that's a lot of high-kicking! When one cast has the day off, the other must cover the entire day's run.
4. Family-Friendly Programs Play Year-Round
While the Christmas Spectacular nets the lion's share of the publicity, Radio City is a year-round facility, hosting everything from concerts and stage shows to awards shows like the Tonys and the VMAs. It can be used for basketball games, ice-skating exhibitions, and even boxing matches. Once a first-run movie house, it still hosts a number of high-profile movie premieres, more than 700 to be exact, including classics old (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and new (The Lion King). A quick glance at the upcoming schedule shows plenty of family-friendly picks are in the works. If you're not as excited for Trolls Live! as your kids, at least you can admire the decor!
The hallways are packed with photographs of some of the most famous to grace Radio City's stage. Photo by author.
5. The Stage Door Tour Is Totally Worth It
If you can't get enough of the theater during the run of your show, might we suggest booking a behind-the-scenes tour? Running daily, the 75-minute Radio City Music Hall Stage Door Tour takes you on a journey throughout the building, opening your eyes to the decor, the history, and plenty of spots that are regularly off-limits to the public, including the secret apartment, The Roxy Suite. Once covering an entire floor, the Roxy Suite has downsized a bit, but still offers plenty of space for special events and post-show parties, which have been hosted by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Alfred Hitchcock to Walt Disney, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey.
The tour takes you up and down hallways packed with photos of some of the most famous entertainers to grace Radio City's stage, plus past rehearsal studios, the Rockette's costume shop, and to the area beneath the stage, provided the nativity animals aren't in town. No matter the season, your tour ends with a Rockette meet-and-greet and, after hearing some fun facts about the troupe, you can ask questions and pose for photos. I was particularly interested in hearing just how difficult that toy soldier blast is to pull off and was told it involves a lot of plank-style muscle tension until you hit the ground!
Check out some of the costumes the Rockettes have worn over the years. Photo by author.
Radio City Music Hall is located at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue, right in the heart of Rockefeller Center. Follow up your visit with a a bite to eat at one of these nearby stops.
Unless noted, photos courtesy of the venue.