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Growing up in New York City I could remember some holidays where I was taken to a very special movie in a magical place called the Radio City Music Hall where ladies in fancy costumes with long legs did some great entertainment. The Rockettes have been a part of Christmas in New York for nearly a century. What is interesting is that this dance group did not come together in the city but in St. Louis, Missouri. They have become the most famous and best-known dance troupe in the U.S.
The Missouri Rockettes
It was back in the 1920s that Russell Markert established the dance troupe. The chorus line was finally founded in 1925. The dancers were 16 women with a height requirement between 5’2” and 5’61/2”. They became known as the “Missouri Rockets” and made their debut in St. Louis. The dance troupe went to New York City to perform on Broadway in “Rain or Shine”. The dancers were discovered by showman S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel.
Radio City Music Hall
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It was decided to attempt to create another dance troupe to perform in the city once the original dancers departed. At this time the project for the Radio City Music Hall was being developed. It was to be the largest indoor theater in the world. Opening night came on December 27th, 1932. Rothafel had consolidated two New York dance troupes and called them the Roxyettes. They performed the song “With a Feather in Your Cap”.
The Roxyettes became officially known as the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934. However, at this time they did not have a definite show and it was a whole year after the opening that the theater was also able to feature movies. Radio City began featuring a new movie every week along with a lavish stage production by the Rockettes.
It became a very demanding time for the Rockettes as the stage shows were performed at least five times a day. The world premiere movies kept being played as long as there was a demand for tickets and the shows changed every time the movies did. As a result, once a movie did not become popular the dance troupe would have to begin rehearsing for a new show. This schedule was so demanding that Radio City opened a 26-bed dormitory, cafeteria, recreation area, tailor shop and hospital with medical staff.
Television Debut and Changes
The Rockettes had their TV debut in 1957 on “Wide, Wide World” as well as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was in the 1960s that the dance troupe raised their hemlines and made their kicks more dramatic. On the Radio City stage, they appeared as many different characters dressed in costumes according to the theme of the show. Then in 1967, they went on strike for better wages. In the 1970s the theater was being closed for weeks at a time and the Rockettes wanted to take their show on the road.
On the Road
The Rockettes danced at Lake Tahoe in 1977. They were adored by crowds in Las Vegas, Nevada and their performances were always sold out. Meanwhile back in New York City Radio City was considering closing their doors by 1978. The Rockettes returned and crusaded to save the iconic theater. Everyone with influence including loyal fans jumped on the bandwagon. Signed petitions came in from all over the world.
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Radio City Music Hall was designated as a New York City landmark in 1979. That year the Rockettes performed with actress, singer, and dancer Ann Margret in a two-hour special “A Holiday Tribute to Radio City Music Hall”. After re-inventing the stage shows movie showings were dropped and 90-minute stage shows were in. The Rockettes now scheduled to dance four or five numbers each day, seven days a week. After a month the women would get a week off at which time they continued performing in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and on TV.
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Every year the Rockettes perform their Christmas Spectacular and Easter Extravaganza. Radio City Music Hall was restored in the 1990s and returned to its glorious 1932 beauty. An excellent sound system was developed for the dance troupe and they started wearing custom dance shoes with a sound transmitter. Suddenly audiences could hear the rhythmic tapping of 72 dancing feet. The Rockettes made their Christmas Spectacular debut along with Santa in the newly re-opened theater in 1999.
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There were over 10,000 women performing as the Radio City Rockettes by the dance troupe’s 75th anniversary. In 2006 the troupe was transformed into a contemporary dance company. Since the 1990s the Rockettes performed from November to January in the Christmas Spectacular. Then in 2015 came the New York Spring Spectacular, a new eight-week production.
So for anyone visiting New York City a must is to see the Radio City Music Hall and see the Rockettes perform.