Lights, cameras, spangles! After three quarters of a century, the Rockettes are still kicking. Such a shameless pun is nothing short of irresistible as New York’s leggy dance troupe of skyscraping precision kicks and New York holiday fame celebrates the 75th anniversary of its Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. By now the act is seasoned, but it’s by no means stale. The estimated 1.2 million people who will have taken in the Rockettes’ spectacular ways between the November 9 opener and the December 30 finale prove it.
The colorfully costumed, always wholesome dance corps has been performing at Radio City since the depths of the Great Depression. Such longevity is startling, especially considering the routines have changed little since the show launched. But it’s precisely that nostalgic combination of kitsch, camp and good-girl sex appeal that explains the act’s enduring charm—undeniable even to its notoriously cynical hometown audience.
“The Rockettes are one of my favorite things about New York,” says Isaac Mizrahi. “I’ve been seeing them since I was a child.... It’s a full ‘delightmare.’ [It’s] incredibly wonderful and delightful, and at the same time a nightmare.” In other words, something of a guilty pleasure, though Mizrahi is certainly not alone in his conflicted admiration—or in some cases aspiration. “I saw Peter Allen’s famous show at Radio City,” says Michael Kors. “He came right out and said one of those things that everyone’s thinking but no one ever says: ‘It’s every gay man’s dream to be on line with the Rockettes.’ And he came out dancing to ‘Everything Old Is New Again.’ Immediately, you were like, ‘Yeah, I would love to be in the middle. I don’t know if I could keep up, but if I had the height and the kick, I’d love to be up there.’”
Meanwhile, Jamee Gregory, who’s waiting for a grandchild before she rediscovers Radio City during the holidays, regards the Rockettes in simpler terms: “It’s something every New Yorker has to see.”
It’s true. The dancers’ fame is indelibly linked to the Big Apple (national tours began in 1994), but the Rockettes actually started out as the Missouri Rockets, a St. Louis troupe founded by a man named Russell Markert. They were recruited for Radio City by the music hall’s founder, Samuel L. Rothafel, known as Roxy, who developed and opened the Rockefeller-owned venue in 1932 with the help of RCA. He envisioned an entirely live revue, much like today’s productions. Indeed, in addition to the Rockettes, Radio City’s first show included a ballet, a modern dance performance by the Martha Graham troupe and excerpts from Carmen. However, after a string of managerial upsets—Rothafel suffered a heart attack on opening night, after which he returned to Radio City for only a brief, tumultuous time—the company reformatted the program, screening movies interspersed with live performances by the Rockettes in order to make ends meet.