by Robert Mullis
January 1, 2023
In the fall of 1971, I was cast in the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. That meant several weeks of work in the city and no need to tour. Our daughter Jenna had just been born in July and this would be her first Christmas. Our first Christmas as a family in New York City.
At this time the Music Hall program was made up of a first run movie along with a stage production with the Rockettes, the Corps de Ballet, singers, specialty acts and the Radio City Orchestra. The Rockettes had become a New York institution since the opening of the Hall in the early thirties. They were hoofers and kickers. For the audience the high point of the show was their famous kick line. The Ballet Company did more difficult routines from pointe work to jazz numbers. In my view they were much more professional and more talented dancers. Male dancers were hired whenever there was a need. Rehearsals began in late October.
The general schedule at the Hall began with the movie, followed by the stage show, and this was repeated for four stage shows throughout the day at approximately 11:00, 3:00, 6:00 and the last at 9:00. Another showing of the movie would end the day. When rehearsing a new production, the ballet had to meet between shows to learn the routine. It was easier on the male dancers as we didn’t have to go down and perform the regularly scheduled ballet.
Leon Leonidoff conceived, directed and produced the show, as he had done for many years. He pulled a jazz ballet that had been done a few years early and was augmented with fur hats for the ladies and fur trim on the costumes, some in neon yellow, others electric blue and more in chartreuse. When we came for technical and dress rehearsal at 6:00 am, we found a huge set piece of two circular stairs around a large, inflated snowman. Leonidoff’s idea that the jazz ballet was “so hot” that the snowman melted by the end of the number. He always thought extravagantly and that is the main reason for his many years producing shows. In this case the fans inflating the snowman were so loud and when the snowman was deflated it would fall unpredictably across the stage. Scratch the snowman. Simplify the set.
The Rockettes were performing their historical and crowd-pleasing “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” As a variation on the staging there was a toy castle set piece on the third elevator at the rear of the stage that was raised about ten feet above the stage. At the beginning of the number a drawbridge ladder was lowered to the next elevator. The Rockettes marched from the castle to the stairs leading to the main stage. Unfortunately, no one planned for vibrations of uniformed marching on the staircase, and it collapsed, sending about ten Rockettes tumbling down to the lower level. There was mass confusion and scurrying to bring in emergency medical personnel to access and repair the damage to the fallen “soldiers.” Later one of the stagehands mentioned that when in the army, they always broke rank when crossing a bridge to avoid dangerous vibrations that could damage the bridge. During the first show there were several missing spots in the lineup. This was corrected in later shows with extra Rockettes who had been on their week off were called in to replace the injured.
At the end of the Wooden Soldier number, The Rockettes fall like a row of dominos, one after another. It is a very technical move as each Rockette must support their neighbor so that it is smoothly choreographed, and no one is injured. Santa brings out a huge cannon that explodes with confetti and it starts the controlled fall. I was charged with sliding a huge pillow from the wings to soften the fall of the last Rockette.
The Christmas Show always ends with the “Living Nativity” which includes all the biblical characters as well as live animals—several sheep, a donkey, a horse and lastly a camel. The Blue King led, marching under a canopy and then the Gold King, riding the white horse with his cape flowing over the rear of the animal. I was cast as the Pink King, named for the various shades of pink and red that composed the regal costume with massive cape and train as I crossed the large stage surrounded with a contingent of archers and spear carrying Rockettes in similar costumes. Sometimes the sheep would leave little pellets across the stage and we would try to swerve to miss their deposits.
Lastly, was the camel, loping along to the oohs and ahs of the children in the audience. On some occasions he could be antsy and difficult to control. The spear carrying Rockettes behind me would give the word to “move it” and our trip to Bethlehem scurried at a pace to get out of its way. Do you know that camels kick their lets to the side? So we would bury ourselves in the curtains to avoid getting kicked.
After the procession across the stage, the backdrop would rise and reveal the manger looking like a medieval interpretation of the holy family. The entire cast dressed the stage and some of the calmer animals were there also. The kings reentered with their gifts. I was the first and enjoyed swinging around with my massive cape as I approached the manger. “O, Come All Ye Faithful” swelled as the entire cast made the final pose. The huge curtain descended. The stage show ended. From a side stage a large theatre organ rolled out to play as the audience exited. Another audience. The movie began again.