Kick-Starting Christmas at Radio City

We had no business sticking around Radio City Music Hall. We were Hebrew school kids from Brooklyn, dragged by our teachers to see a screening of The Little Prince, starring Richard Kiley, Bob Fosse and other theater legends who meant nothing to us. Right after the fitfully entertaining movie however, our betters had decided that bringing us, in our formative years, to Radio City and not letting us witness its legendary live show would be akin to serving a death-row inmate chicken wings but zapping him before the prime rib.

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And so there we were, 10-year-old Talmudists suddenly witnessing glitz, glamour, wooden soldiers, Christmas trees and the birth of Jesus. Disoriented but dazzled, we knew we had seen not only a piece of living New York history but a show as grand as any on Broadway. Since its launch in 1933, the Christmas Spectacular has been as much a part of Manhattan’s holiday season as the Herald Square windows and the Rockefeller Center tree.

After 84 years, one might think the show would get stale. But according to Lindsay Howe, a proud Rockette who joined the kickline in 2003 and serves as the show’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, it continues to evolve. For her, the show has never been bigger and the dancing never better. “The main difference between when I joined and now is the level of technique and athleticism required,” Howe said. “The numbers are longer, the quick changes are shorter—everything’s been stepped up a notch.

“Even the precision has gotten better. In terms of where your eyeballs might be focused or where your fingers might be placed when your arm is out. We dance closer together. We dance faster.”

As for the show’s content, traditionalists can rest assured that the Living Nativity and the Crate of the Wooden Soldiers sequences, which have played since the very beginning, remain sacrosanct, and the overall tone of the production is still glossy and familial. If the technology has been augmented, it is to enhance, not overwhelm. “When I started, we had these flat set pieces and backdrops. Now we have the world’s largest LED screen and magical snowflakes that fly over the audience during our grand finale!”

Just as optically stunning—though of much older vintage—is the illusion that all the Rockettes are equally tall. In fact, they can range from 5’6” to 5’10 1/2” and are positioned with the tallest women in the middle and the shortest on the ends. “The difference of height between each woman is so slight that when we’re standing on the great stage at Radio City, all 36 of us magically appear to be the same height.”

Along with the visual marvels, Howe takes equal pride in the sound of the show. “People might not know that we wear mics in our shoes. There’s no tap track—every tap sound we make is live and in-sync. It’s another reason people travel from all over the world to see the show every Christmas season.”

Who can argue with nearly 90 years of success? Though I must admit, the 10-year-old in me still pines for just one little Chanukah number. Maybe next year.