Radio City: What It Takes to Run America’s Spectacular Showplace

November 20, 2016  
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – Putting on Radio City’s annual Christmas Spectacular takes an incredible amount of work. “America’s #1 Holiday Show,” which opened Nov. 11 and will run through Jan. 2, has a cast of 150, including singers, musicians, and the Radio City Rockettes, and a stage crew of more than 250 workers.

Some 50 truckloads of equipment had to be unloaded weeks before the show opened. Carpenters had to build backdrops 80 feet wide and 45 feet high. The wardrobe department sews and maintains more than 1,100 costumes, and will put more than 30,000 red dots on the Rockettes’ cheeks during the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and “Rag Dolls” tap-dance numbers. And the audio crew mixes the sounds of a 50-piece live orchestra, singers, actors, special effects, and the 72 individual microphones mounted on the Rockettes’ tap-dance shoes. 

They will do this four times on weekdays, five on Friday and Sundays, and six times on Saturdays, while the front-of-house staff smoothly moves almost 6,000 people in and out of the theatre for every performance. By the end of the holiday season, more than 1 million people will have seen the show.

“It’s the most successful show of its kind” in the country, says James Claffey, president of Local 1 of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees.

Radio City opened in 1932, and its Art Deco architecture, sunrise-arched proscenium, and block-long neon-lit marquee quickly made it a New York City landmark. The Christmas Spectacular was first performed in 1933, and it still includes two of the original numbers, “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the “Living Nativity,” with live animals onstage.  

In its early days, Radio City largely showed movies, with the Rockettes dancing during intermissions and music coming from the massive pipe organ that brought the phrase “the mighty Wurlitzer” into the language. During World War II, the hydraulic lifts that can raise or lower the stage by 40 feet were guarded so the enemy wouldn’t be able to copy the technology, says Claffey.

Renovated in 1999, the 5,910-seat theatre is now the city’s third-largest venue, after Madison Square Garden and the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. It’s home to Broadway’s annual Tony awards and has hosted concerts by artists including Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett, Pink Floyd and Bette Midler, and Adele and Beyonce. But the Christmas Spectacular is still “the biggest show we’ll do all year,” says audio director Tom Arrigoni.   

It’s been a union shop for most of its history. IATSE Local 1’s contract is more than 50 years old, and “we were here before the contract was here,” says Claffey. The wardrobe attendants are in IATSE’s Local 764, the orchestra in American Federation of Musicians Local 802, and the Rockettes in the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Local 1 “does all the crafts here,” says Claffey. The stagehands cover everything, including lights, wiring, maintenance, props, carpentry, special effects, and sound.

For the Local 1 leader, Radio City is also personal. He worked there for nine years before he became the union’s business manager, doing props and carpentry for the Christmas shows and all the concerts.

“This is my home crew,” he says.

November 19, 2016

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