New York, NY – Each year, excited families from around the country and around the world look to Radio City Music Hall for the
quintessential New York City Christmas experience — but if they had to solely rely on Santa’s elves to pull it all off, the annual Christmas Spectacular, Starring the Radio City Rockettes, might never happen. That’s why there’s hardworking union tradespeople like the trio of talented women LaborPress recently visited at the famed 6th Avenue entertainment venue.
Housed between W. 50th and W. 51st streets, “organized chaos” aptly describes the scene inside Radio City Music Hall as festive candy-colored costumes are whisked through a labyrinthine network of surprisingly narrow corridors and rushing Rockettes cram packed elevators alongside star-struck fans.
It’s showtime from now until January 1, after all, and with up to 32 shows a week to produce, Production Stage Manager Nancy Pittelman, Wardrobe Supervisor Gillian Kadish and Rockette Heather Langham, have little time to spare.
“We’re always, always busy,” Kadish says.
When they do pause briefly to talk about what it takes to make Christmas magic happen, it’s under a strict, ironclad schedule that must be honored. Too many moving parts — from the intricate costumes to the hi-tech digital technology used to totally immerses this year’s audiences in a veritable winter wonderland of snow — demand their attention.
Production on New York City’s annual yuletide extravaganza actually starts in the summer when Radio City teases fans with its Christmas in August special.
“There’s lots of media frenzy out on 6th Avenue when we perform Christmas in August,” Kadish says.
Things get lots more intense when the holiday season actually rolls around and an average day for Kadish — member of TWU Local 768 in Los Angeles, TWU Local 764 in New York and Motion Pictures Costumes Local 705 — and her team, start a typical day at 7:30 a.m. and continue straight through to 1:30 a.m. the following morning.
Says Kadish, “We do all the presets — we set all the costumes where the performers get into them — whether that be in the dressing room, stage left, stage right, on the deck, or under a bus. In all kinds of nooks and crannies where the performers get changed.”
And every one of those Christmas Spectacular items — including, of course, everything that Radio City’s 36 Rockettes wear throughout each performance — must be hand inspected.
“We go through all the costumes to make sure that all the hooks, eyes, buttons and closures are working,” the wardrobe supervisor explains. “We’ll go through all the shoes to make sure all the rubber is fine. We’ll make sure all the taps are on the bottom of the shoes. And, obviously, with copious amounts of costumes, it can’t be as simple as counting them. You have to actually physically look at each particular costume and make sure it’s in the right location because not everybody gets dressed in the same space.”
In between shows, there are usually endless amounts of repairs and alterations that also need to be made in-house and on-the-fly. Once again, “organized chaos.”
But, “It’s all thought about in advance,” Pittelman explains. “There’s really a system in place to deal with every sort of scenario that may come our way. The other challenge of our job is when a scenario happens that we’re not prepared for — then we scramble and make it happen.”
The ideal situation, Pittelman and her colleagues agree, is to make it all happen “without the audience being aware.”
“And 99 percent of the time, that’s the case,” the AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) and Actors Equity members says.
As production stage manager, Pittelman is tasked with prepping every on-stage element before each show to make sure it’s fully functioning and ready to shine. But there’s still so much more to do.
For instance, “We make sure that we’re going to have a full cast that day,” Pittelman says. “And if we don’t, we alert the swing performers — the people that substitute for the cast — that they’re going to be in for the day. And we let wardrobe know, so that they can pull costumes for whoever is going to be in the show. And then we begin the show.”
And if it’s Thursday, that means showtime actually happens four times daily — 11 a.m.; 2 p.m.; 5 p.m.; and 8 p.m.
Says Langham, “We have a great athletic training program. So, we can go up and ice our legs between shows if we need to.”
Now in her ninth season, Langham first auditioned to become a Radio City Rockette when she was 19-years-old. She didn’t make it. The Arizona transplant then tried out six more times until she was 29-years-old and finally won a coveted spot on the world-famous roster.
“Being a veteran, it’s really kind of fun seeing the new girls and what they’re taking in from [the experience],” Lanham says. “We all work together, the production, the wardrobe. There’s a lot of great things we’ve got going into this production with new technology.”
Growing up out west, Langham never got the opportunity to actually see the Radio City Rockettes perform live. But she knew, instantly, that she wanted to become one of them watching the Rockettes perform on television during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“My mom owned a dance studio, and I was 5 foot, eight inches tall when I was 12-years-old,” Langham remembers. “I would watch [the parade] every single year with my mom and would always say — that’s what I’m going to do when I get older. It took me 10 years and six auditions to get the job. But I wouldn’t change my journey getting here for anything. I think it instilled some good values in me to keep going and work hard.”
This is the 13th season Pittelman has shepherded the show — and she’s confident she and her union co-workers have put together something extra special.
“We started the process in the summertime,” Pittelman explains. “We’ve implemented lots of new technology this year — 22 projectors in front of house; a 4K LED wall; we’ve been working all summer to create new digital technology for the audience. When they go into the transition from Santa’s workshop…and throughout the show, there are these wonderful times when we immerse the audience in these beautiful video content moments. It’s something very different this year. And something we’re very proud to bring to the stage. But it’s Christmas all year.”