Radio City Music Hall – “The Showplace of the Nation” Turns 90
By Donna K. Keesling
In late 1929, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. decided to build a complex of buildings on a site in midtown Manhattan – a site that was supposed to be for a new Metropolitan Opera House before the stock market failed. The intent of the project was to “express the highest ideals of architecture and design and stand as a symbol of optimism and hope” – and to attract commercial tenants. Radio Corporation of America (RCA), parent of National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and RKO Pictures, joined Rockefeller in the venture. The first building in the complex to open was Radio City Music Hall. On December 27, 1932, the “palace for the people” opened with a four-hour stage show that included Ray Bolger (who later appeared in The Wizard of Oz) and Martha Graham and her Dance Group.
Radio City Music Hall was designed by architect Edward Durell Stone. The interior was designed by Donald Deskey. Samuel Lionel Rothafel, known as Roxy, was a leading expert on movie palaces and served as an advisor on the project.
Radio City Music Hall is considered the largest interior auditorium of its kind. The auditorium, which is 160 feet in depth from the back to the stage, seats 6,200 patrons. The performance stage, known as The Great Stage, is 144 feet wide by 66 ½ feet deep.
Deskey designed more than thirty spaces in the music hall, including men’s and women’s lounges (smoking rooms). The Art Deco interior features precious materials, including marble and gold foil, and elements made of industrial materials such as aluminum, cork, Bakelite, and permatex. Deskey’s central theme, “Progress of Man,” is reflected in the artwork – an integral part of the design – throughout the music hall.
The low-ceilinged ticket lobby opens into the three-story Grand Foyer featuring glass chandeliers, crystal wall sconces, and a wall of fifty-foot-tall, gilded mirror panels. A staircase is adorned with a mural by Ezra Winter titled Fountain of Youth, based on an Indian legend. The auditorium is accessed through eleven pairs of steel doors that feature theatrical scenes in bronze bas-reliefs by Rene Chambellan. The auditorium, an oval-shaped space, has an eighty-foot ceiling. Because there are no columns in the auditorium, every seat provides a good view of the stage.
With its proscenium of overlapping arches, The Great Stage resembles a setting sun. The three-ton gold stage curtain is the largest in the world, using more than 2,000 yards of fireproof lining and almost a mile of bronze cable, which is used to arrange the folds in hundreds of different contours.
The stage itself is made of three sections mounted on hydraulic-powered elevators. A turntable within the perimeter of the elevators is used for scene changes and special effects. The entire orchestra can be raised and lowered via a fourth elevator. Special effects are enabled by a permanent steam curtain and a rain curtain. The steam curtain is encased in a metal grid in front of the stage footlights. The rain curtain is above the stage’s first elevator.
A Wurlitzer organ, especially built for the music hall, is played by two independent four-manual consoles. Pipes for the organ are housed in eight separate rooms, located on both sides of the proscenium and above the stage.
The first show at Radio City Music Hall was an elaborate variety show. Within a few weeks, the format was changed to feature a movie and a stage show. The movie was shown six times a day with four fifty-minute stage shows in between. The first film to be shown at the music hall was The Bitter Tea of General Yen, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Between 1933 and 1979, more than 700 films premiered at Radio City Music Hall.
Over the years, attendance at shows declined as more entertainment options became available through television and local multiplex theaters. In early January 1978, Alton G. Marshall, president of Rockefeller Center, announced that Radio City Music Hall would close in April of that year. He cited a 2.3 million dollar deficit in 1977 as the primary reason for closing the music hall. It was also announced that an office tower would be built over the music hall.
Mary Anne Krupsak, Lieutenant Governor of New York, was committed to preserving the building. She announced the creation of a committee made up of business, government, labor, and cultural group representatives that would work to save the music hall. After considering various options, Krupsak led an effort to designate Radio City Music Hall as a New York City Landmark.
Rosemary Novellino, Captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company helped to form The Showpeople’s Committee to Save Radio City Music Hall. She served as president of the group, motivating performers to support the cause. Dressed in costume, she and other performers solicited signatures of support from patrons waiting in line to attend performances at the music hall. Novellino and other members of the committee also appeared on various radio and television programs to garner support.
On March 28, 1978, the interiors of Radio City Music Hall were designated a New York City Interior Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This designation helped to save the music hall. The designation report stated that Radio City Music Hall was “one of the most impressive achievements in theater design in the country.” The exterior was designated a New York City Landmark as part of Rockefeller Center on April 23, 1985.
In 1999, the music hall closed for a major restoration that took seven months to complete. During this time, spaces were restored with their original color schemes, and fabrics and wall coverings were re-created based on archival photographs and samples.
Ninety years later, you can still enjoy the splendor of this Art Deco masterpiece. The Christmas Spectacular, featuring the Rockettes and the Live Nativity, continues to entertain audiences with a ninety-minute show from mid-November until early January. And the Music Hall still welcomes celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, sports, and the media. When they step out on The Great Stage, they “know what it is to be a star.”
 “History of Radio City Music Hall,” Madison Square Garden Entertainment, 2021, https://www.msg.com/radio-city-music-hall/history.
 “Radio City Music Hall,” The New York Preservation Archive Project, https://www.nypap.org/preservation-history/radio-city-music-hall.
 Judith Gura and Kate Wood, Interior Landmarks Treasures of New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2015), 174.
 “Radio City Music Hall Opens” HISTORY, last updated January 25, 2022, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/radio-city-music-hall-opens.
 Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story (Teaneck, NJ: TurningPointPress, 2015), 139.
 “History of Radio City Music Hall,” Madison Square Garden Entertainment, 2021.
 “Radio City Music Hall.”
 Gura, 172.
 Gura, 179.
 “History of Radio City Music Hall” The Radio City Rockettes, 2022, https://www.rockettes.com/the-history-of-radio-city-music-hall.