Change can be good: The new multimedia bill was a hit. And despite the economic woes of the time, the music hall soon became a success, hosting the world premieres of such films as King Kong, Little Women and The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Fran Lebowitz is among those who recall the glamour of watching old-Hollywood cinema with a side of Rockettes. “I remember my aunt took me to see them when I was a kid, and we also saw a movie, Song Without End, with Dirk Bogarde, as Franz Liszt, and Capucine,” says Lebowitz. “I remember it was a snazzy movie theater, and I was very swept away.” Radio City returned to an all-live format in 1979.
For all its old-school razzle-dazzle, it’s easy to dismiss the Rockettes as a relic of a bygone era with little more than mass-market, shoobie appeal. Yet many argue that that’s the beauty of it. “I’m sure that the Rockettes were always a tourist attraction,” says Lebowitz, “but now it seems to be that the whole city is a tourist attraction, and the Rockettes seem surprisingly urbane. New York has changed; the Rockettes haven’t changed.”
Chief among the group’s attractive constants: gammy gals and glam getups. As for the former, more than 10,000 dancers have held one of 36 highly coveted spots in the New York line. Former Rockette Vie Varble, who danced from 1942 to 1946, has vivid memories of the romantic and historic sort. First, there were her midperformance missteps triggered when her husband, a naval officer then stationed in Bremerton, Washington, made a surprise front-row appearance. Later, with victory imminent on VE Day, the ensemble coordinated cues in case the declaration came while the Rockettes were on stage. It did, and the dancers delivered the triumphant news midshow. Varble witnessed the entire audience dancing in the aisles.
Things are slightly less epochal for current line member Krista Saab, who’s been with the troupe for five years. She dances along-side a lawyer and a Pilates instructor (many Rockettes hold other jobs in the nine-month off-season), all of whom endure eight-hour rehearsals before a new show to ensure the dances are “clean”—perfectly synchronized, in Rockette terminology. Dedication isn’t the only requirement; each dancer must be between five feet six and five feet ten and a half. Such height differences were the source of some unintentional comedy during Saab’s favorite routine, the classic wooden soldier number: It wasn’t until she was onstage that she noticed her pants were too short; another girl’s were dragging on the floor. They made it offstage with little mishap.
Wardrobe mix-ups aside, the campy costumery is integral to any Rockette performance. Since their 1932 debut, the chorines have appeared as astronauts, champagne glasses, bonbons, cigars, vegetables, flowers, WACs and, most famously, those wooden soldiers. The Rockettes still wear the original design—created in 1933 by no less a luminary than Vincente Minnelli, then Radio City’s art director—which happens to be Mizrahi’s favorite. “Those beautiful creased corners look like sticks of wood,” he enthuses. “And the length of the jacket makes the girls look like they have legs that go for miles.” In addition to Minnelli, other illustrious types such as Erté and Bob Mackie designed for the troupe over the years. Their sketches, including Minnelli’s dynamic drawings, some of which feature his painstaking notations about fabrics, colors and other details, are still housed in the Radio City archives.