PART 1 SETTING THE STAGE

 Once upon a time there was a gigantic theatre which was conceived by a lighting designer, and the centerpiece of the theatre was an electronic stage lighting switchboard that stood the test of time.  That switchboard, that man, and that theatre are the subject of this article.


This article is in FOUR PARTS:  to skip to Part 2 -- Front Lights, Part 3 -- The Stage, or Part 4 -- The Switchboard, click on the index tabs at the top of the page.

Contributors to this article include Music Hall insiders Robert Endres (Chief Projectionist 1974-1999);  Stage Control Panel Operator Emeritus and one time board op and front light operator Eric Titcomb; former switchboard operator from 1959 to 1979, Bob Lachenauer; projectionist Brad Hohle; expert Joe Mobilia; Bill Savoy of the Art Department who began as an usher in 1969; and former stage manager Dean Irwin (and son of Maestro Will Irwin) author of "Backstage at Radio City Music Hall."  

For their excellent descriptions of backstage life at the Music Hall, the author is indebted to Judith Anne Love, Rockette (1957-1960);  Ann Murphy, Rockette (1958-1979); and Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, Corps de Ballet (1966-1978).   Ann Murphy's book can be purchased here and Rosemary's here

A number of images may be enlarged by clicking "HD view."  Others may be downloaded full size by left-clicking the image, then right-clicking "save image as."  In lieu of footnotes, a listing of sources is included at the end.

This photo-essay is companion piece to Backstage at Radio City Music Hall 1932 which documents the stage machinery.

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It was said that "Roxy" a/k/a  Samuel Rothafel conceived the look of Radio City Music Hall while on a luxury fact-finding voyage, sent to Europe by the Rockefellers in 1931, a year before the house opened.

Roxy had been hired away from his namesake, the 1927 Roxy Theatre, to open, program, and operate the Music Hall where he was given the title "Director-General."  But a more accurate description of his duties can be seen in the Roxy Theatre's masthead:  producer, director, and lighting designer.

Intended as the world's largest variety/vaudeville theatre or music hall, the super-deluxe $8,000,000 5,945-seat Music Hall was originally "under the Direction of Roxy" in a confusing arrangement whereby Roxy was hired by the Rockefellers (owners) to design and operate the theatre for their lease holder,  RKO Pictures.  RKO and NBC were sister subsidiaries of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, primary tenant of the new Rockefeller Center and namesake of "Radio City."  

The construction of Rockefeller Center at the nadir of the Depression was what economist John Kenneth Galbraith might term "organized support" to help the plummeting economy turn the corner.  The stock market hit its low point on July 8, 1932 and the Music Hall opened Christmas of that year, when things were beginning to look no worse and possibly prosperity was "just around the corner."

Until surpassed by the Music Hall, the 1927 Roxy Theatre was the world's largest, opened as silent pictures were giving way to talkies and modestly dubbed "the Cathedral of the Motion Picture."  The Roxy was a presentation house with a four-a-day "combination policy" of films and a stage show, based on Rothafel's premise that merely a movie was not enough.  But for some reason, it was decided that the Music Hall would be a high class vaudeville house, two-a-day, and would show no movies.

Roxy was entrusted by RKO to work his magic in not one but two new Rockefeller theatres, with a combined seating capacity nearing 10,000, both opening at Christmas and both on Sixth Avenue.  The smaller theatre (only $4,000,000 and 3510 seats) would become the flagship of the RKO Radio Pictures chain and be named the "RKO Roxy" which was confusing because the old Roxy Theatre was only an avenue away.  And just like the still-operating 1927 Roxy, it would show movies with a four-a-day combination stage show policy.  To the Rockefellers, RKO paid an annual rent of $953,972 for the two houses and an additional chunk for seven and a half floors of the thirty-one story RKO building which fronted the Music Hall.

Who exactly was Roxy?  A German immigrant, since 1913 he had managed seven movie palaces in Manhattan, each successfully more deluxe until in 1920 he was named manager of the Capitol, his first of three "world's largest."  There Roxy was plucked from managerial obscurity when he made his initial radio broadcast over WEAF-- AT&T's radio station-- on November 19, 1922 in an experimental "remote" from the Capitol stage. Within a few years, the telephone company's WEAF became RCA-NBC's flagship station, and Roxy was rocketed to national fame.

While experimenting with broadcasting at the Capitol, the telephone company installed for Roxy's rehearsal use a new-fangled public address system-- the first "God mic" with "decided advantages over methods used in the past"-- i.e., screaming.

What took other lighting designers years to achieve came to Roxy in a flash:  he could design lights as fast as he could talk, and it was all because of that "God mic." 

Before the Capitol, none of Roxy's theatres had stages-- just vast orchestra pits.  Fine music, imaginative lighting and Deluxe service were the hallmarks of a Roxy house.  Louis Hartmann, producer David Belasco's electrician and author of Theatre Lighting (1930), wrote that Roxy "knew the value and possibilities of light.  He appealed to all the senses through the synchronization of music, light, and scenes-- the one enhanced the value of the other."  For HD view, click here.

At the new 1927 Roxy, Roxy hit his electrical stride.  The Roxy Theatre was equipped with the world's largest switchboard, built by Hub Electric of Chicago, utilizing reactor dimmers to control a lamp load of 750,000 watts.  Below left, his uniformed Local One stagehands in the basement reactor room and (right) at the switchboard located in the stage right wing.  Even with the big dimmers located in the cellar, the Roxy switchboard was still twenty-two feet wide and thirteen feet high.  HD view.

In addition to the 750,000 watts of incandescents, nineteen carbon arc front lights produced a "wall of light." 

Roxy, like many others born before 1900, considered electricity and radio as magic, and he described his thirty-four Roxy Theatre electricians as "Magi" or sorcerers.  Three switchboard men, ten front light operators, twelve bridge operators, and nine deck electricians did Roxy's bidding in this penetrating glimpse into a 1929 Roxy lighting rehearsal, where scene changes are made in "eight seconds at the most" and cue sheets "are followed to the shading of a hair."

Yet despite the fact that the 1927 Roxy had a seventy-foot-wide proscenium, compared to the Music Hall, it looked like a doll's house.  Architect:  Walter W. Ahlschlager. 

Described by house designer Clark Robinson as "triangular rather than square," the Roxy stage was wide and shallow and offered no wing space whatsoever.   Seven Peter Clark stage elevators were installed, but five were in the orchestra pit, which boasted three organ consoles, an act lift, and the rising platform for 110 musicians.  HD view.

Unfortunately, the best laid schemes can go awry, and on opening night at the Music Hall, Roxy was quite literally out of this depth-- and width.   Even an augmented Corps de ballet of fifty-eight could not fill the stage for Roxy's Waterloo. 

That the show's overture was the fourth number on the bill spelled trouble, not to mention the fact that the opening number was a demonstration of the contour curtain, to the accompaniment of a slow dirge.  There was some compensation in the fact that stage designer Peter Clark (green arrow) received billing at the top, but it was curtains for Roxy, the highest-paid lighting designer in the world.

Six hours elapsed from "Symphony of the Curtains" to the end, and hardly anyone was left to see "Minstrelsy," the stirring finale.  HD view.

Resident set designer Robert Edmond Jones, whose
 design for the pre-intermission "Night Club Revels" is shown below, left the Hall that night and never came back.   

The show included several flop tunes.  To hear this one, click here.

Pre-show publicity proclaimed "a company of 1000 stars and artists creating a new, spectacular form of music hall entertainment" but a review honed the number down by half.

"From the back row, the performers look like pygmies," wrote syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann, 
and the Daily Worker called the performance "an affront to the human race. . . a glorified insult to every vestige of intelligence acquired by man. . . from his ape-like ancestors." 

Two days later, Roxy opened the second theatre, his new RKO Roxy, and then he himself was carted away on a stretcher. 

A heavily edited version of the Music Hall show stumbled on into the New Year when general stage manager Bill Stern (Roxy's son-in-law and future sports announcer) gave out with the news that "variety" was out; that the Music Hall was taking over as the RKO Pictures flagship, with a four-a-day combination policy;  and that the now redundant RKO Roxy was closing down after only six days.

The revamped Music Hall dropped prices, nixed star acts, allowed smoking in the mezzanines, and settled in as a Super Deluxe presentation house with a first run picture and a forty-minute stage spectacle.  To everyone's great surprise, the house became a hit.  A miracle had occurred, and from that day forward, the Music Hall was "in."

Roxy was sufficiently recovered to return to the Hall six months after the opening, but not for long; one year later he was out for good, and "the Roxyettes" as well.


Into the void stepped Leon Leonidoff, Roxy's Romanian-born second in command, becoming producer, director, and de facto lighting designer.  Below, Leonidoff  with his Finnish set designer Bruno Maine at Peter Clark's 1/2" scale working model of the great stage.  HD view.

The statistics are astounding.  The Leonidoffian stage spectacles became an inseparable partner to the feature films at the newly dubbed "Showplace of a Nation."

Soon after Leonidoff took charge, "On the great stage" began appearing in print ads.  And truly it was a great stage, Peter Clark's masterpiece, with four high speed stage elevators, the remarkable contour curtain, seven travelers, rain and steam curtains, eighty-five linesets for scenery, and with a five-scene light board, it was the perfect show-ready machine, for which scenery was expressly designed to show off Peter Clark's devices to their fullest advantage.  New stage shows were stamped out like Fords, and each production numbered.  Below, production #635, from Leonidoff's final season, forty years later.  HD view.

Working beneath Leonidoff (and also stolen from the 1927 Roxy) were New Jersey native Russell Markert, Detroit choreographer Florence Rogge, and Hungarian conductor Erno Rapee.  That's Rogge with two g's and Rapee with two e's.

The company of 1000, 500, 300 or whichever statistic you choose to believe included the orchestra, and three non-union components (later AGVA, explained later), namely the Corps de Ballet, the singing ensembles, and the Rockettes.  The Rockettes, nee Roxyettes,  were the
 precision dancers Russell Markert brought from St. Louis to the 1927 Roxy, famous world-wide for the "exact, machine-like execution of their dance steps," wrote a reporter in 1939.  "Although only 36 girls appear on the stage at any time, there are actually 46 girls in the troupe and ten are always on vacation.  A Rockette works three weeks and then gets a fourth week off with full pay." (Emphasis added.)  Among their many talents was being able to see their mark without looking at it.  
Usually positioned in the next-to-closing spot, the girls "in the line" were once described by Variety as "a block of precision-milled cheesecake." 

America's "only resident ballet company" was Florence Rogge's Corps de ballet, also on the same vacation schedule.  At its peak, they numbered forty-two girls (10 on "vacation"), nine boys, and together they made famous a repertoire including Bolero, Rhapsody in Blue, and the Undersea Ballet.  The Corps was frequently called upon to augment the Rockettes and vice-versa.

The third non-union component was the Men's Glee Club of twenty-four whose voices were sometimes joined by the Women's Choral Group of nineteen.

"The world's largest permanent theatre orchestra" of seventy-five worked fifty-two weeks a year and besides making beautiful music, they provided the necessary ingredient for in-house romance.  Because everyone was thrown together twelve hours a day and for weeks on end, there were many Music Hall marriages:  musicians married Rockettes, Rockettes married specialty acts, stagehands married Rockettes, and ballerinas married singers and stage managers.  Less legitimate were "Music Hall wives" who lacked the marriage license.

No photograph of the fifty-three man stage crew exists, so this opening night Variety ad, paid for by the crew, will have to suffice. HD view. 

The 268 stage show employees enumerated above comprised 40% of the "permanent staff" of 622 (down from 748 in 1932) which included one hundred and two ushers, fifty-nine maintenance, forty-six in production, forty seamstresses, twenty-one in the box office, fourteen projectionists, nine in accounting, nine elevator operators, nine chefs, eight executive staff assistants, three organists, three nurses, and two poster-painters.  Below, the staff in 1947.  HD view.

Unlike many other producers, Roxy was extremely attentive to the talents of minorities whose original complement comprised thirteen percent of the 1,076 employees between the two new theatres, including a "corps of maids."

At least one of the one hundred and two ushers (forty-five shown here) married a Rockette, which brought hope to an entire phalanx.  

Even though the Music Hall was one of the very last movie theatres to offer a printed program, only soloists were ever billed-- the rest remained anonymous.  While the movie casts were not only named but pictured, the stage folk had to be contented with Tea and Sympathy.  HD view.

Not until late 1951 was the stage talent unionized, when AGVA, the American Guild of Variety Artists, stepped in to protect them.  Presumably Actor's Equity was not involved because the Music Hall productions were revues, not book shows.

So weak was AGVA that the theatre didn't even close when the Rockettes, Corps de Ballet, and singers struck the Music Hall in 1967 for higher wages.  Because the orchestra and stagehands refused to support the strike, management resorted to "plan B"-- production #572-B-- where the orchestra played to a lavishly decorated empty stage, four times a day for five days shy of a month, until the outage was settled in arbitration.  
"You're not going to talk about anything as silly as pensions for Rockettes," laughed the Music Hall management.  Patrons could view the Rockettes out on the sidewalk.

A lighter look at striking Rockettes from the 1930's.

From day one, and critical to an understanding of Radio City Music Hall, is that unlike a legitimate theatre, it never closed.  Even when FDR shuttered all the banks in March, 1933, the Music Hall made merry four times a day, twenty-eight times a week.  It was a high class house.

Nothing was allowed to disrupt the schedule of pictures and stage shows.  If there was a special performance, even a star-studded benefit like the 1941 "Carnival for Britain," it was given at midnight.  

If not at midnight, then at dawn.   Such was the case with the 1964 one-shot industrial which featured Rockettes riding Ford tractors at 8:45 in the morning.  To hear the opening number (including the Wurlitzer organ) click here.

Not until thirty-two years had passed did the Hall close, and then only for five days in 1965 for a paint job and a new three ton contour curtain-- impossible to achieve with people in the seats.  HD view.

At the time of the paint job, the Music Hall commented on previous emergency closings, such as the funerals of FDR and JFK.

The Music Hall became more important to the Hollywood studios than vice-versa, and special Hall film prints were struck to maximize their brightness and clarity at an almost two hundred foot throw.  The Hall itself began to appear in movies, such as Hitchcock's "Saboteur" (1942), but compared to the stage spectacles, the almost square 1.33:1 picture image was tiny, as illustrated in the "Saboteur" matte shot below.  Pictures ran five times a day, and sometimes six (right, green circle). 

In 1953, the advent of the wide-screen CinemaScope process left the Music Hall the only movie theatre in New York still offering stage shows, with the exception of the RKO Palace, which capitulated four years later.  

Besides the edict by its inventor that "no CinemaScope production be programmed with vaudeville," 20th Century Fox also mandated a massive, curved picture sheet frame which in most installations permanently curtailed the possibility of live shows.  The Music Hall had sufficient clout to defy the Fox mandate and installed a flat picture sheet because "a CinemaScope screen with the standard curve could not be fitted in to the space available above the stage," a maximum of fifty inches.  With much hoopla and the Rockettes, the Hall unveiled their seventy-foot wide flat sheet in early 1954, more than double the previous width.

Newly hired stage employees at the Hall were rushed to learn its special horizontal nomenclature, without with they would be lost in a theatre with almost two-hundred and fifty rooms. Stage right was "Prompt side" (PS) or Fifty-first Street, and stage left was "Opposite Prompt" (OP), 50th Street.  The terms "stage left" and "stage right" were verboten.

Looking from OP to Prompt, 50th to 51st.

Like the twin Wurlitzer organ consoles, the Music Hall had twin dressing room towers and an entire service floor above the theatre attic, known as the 8th floor or Studio Level, as seen in this photo showing the back wall of the stage house.  The rear projection booth on the back wall of the stage which jutted out beyond the property line was incorporated into the Associated Press (AP) building (right foreground) when it was constructed in 1938.

Each dressing room tower had its own stage entrance, and each tower was served by two high-speed, fifteen passenger Otis elevators.  (For the record, the Music Hall stage lifts were by Peter Clark, Inc., not by Otis Elevator.)  Dressing room accommodations for six hundred were provided, according to press blurbs.  Below, the primary stage entrance, W. 51st Street on left, W. 50th Street on right.


The Rockettes were given the third floor PS and the Corps de Ballet, third floor, OP. 

Prompt side dressing rooms were assigned odd numbers, and OP even.  Because the dressing room towers at the Hall extended into the auditorium, half the rooms on both sides were smack up against the organ chambers, and the organ was played at least seven times a day.  HD view.

Third floor, Opposite prompt, W. 50th Street, home away from home to the Corps de ballet.  On the far right is the enclosed auditorium fire escape balcony, inaccessible from the dressing room towers.  HD view. 

On the 7th floor OP was the infirmary, continuously staffed to treat dancers, patrons, or stagehands, as required.

Adjacent to the infirmary were mirrored dormitory accommodations for twenty-five commuter girls "if long train trips make it inadvisable for them to go to their homes."

With a footprint slightly smaller than the building to allow for a perimeter of open air walkways, the 8th floor or Studio level was reached by a short flight of stairs from the 7th.  The 8th and the mezzanine level above it fit over the auditorium like a saddle and housed the costume department, two rehearsal rooms, two preview film theatres, the radio broadcast studio, and Roxy's apartment.  Below, the 8th floor in plan.  HD view.

Russell Markert (far right) with his Rockettes in the 8th floor large rehearsal room.  Prior to the opening of a new show, two weeks of  two hour "preps" rehearsals were held Monday through Friday between the first and second stage shows.

Likewise the always stylish Florence Rogge held court with the Corps in the small rehearsal hall, also on the 8th floor.

Orchestra rehearsals, open to company members, were held between the first and second shows on Wednesdays preceding dress rehearsals in the 8th floor broadcast studio, which could accommodate three hundred and which was equipped with its own Wurlitzer pipe organ.  For performances, conductors used an illuminated baton, invented by Erno Rapee's trap drummer Bill Gladstone.  

The entire length of the 8th floor on the 51st Street side contained  the hat, shoe and costume departments all under the supervision of Florence Rogge's sister Harriette (not pictured) and through the window can be seen the perimeter walkway.

The roof was given over to company recreation and to the right can be seen one of the three giant stage cupolas.

Also on the 8th floor were two preview film theatres, "B" with individual comfortable chairs, designated for use by RKO execs, and-- as a perquisite to help discourage chronic alcoholism among staffers-- the 85-seat Preview "A" was given over to company members weeknights between the third and fourth shows to view first run pictures for free.  "Citizen Kane" got its first east coast showing in Preview A, and a staircase (below right) led down to a rooftop passageway connecting directly to executive offices in the adjacent RKO Building.

Down in the basement was the Cafe which served a hot breakfast and lunch where showfolk wearing pancake would not be ogled or ostracized.

Here, like most places, one could smoke a legal drug.  In a 1963 pictorial feature "Facts about the Music Hall" the house proudly boasted of 2800 ashtrays.

The basement level in plan, the corridor from the stage to front of house at the top, with the Cafe en route.  HD view.

During their first full year 1933, the Music Hall was geared to a one-a-week production schedule, meaning a new film premiered and a new stage show opened every Thursday morning.  The schedule gradually relaxed to two week runs starting in 1942, and by the time CinemaScope was installed, never shorter than three week runs.  Until the end, even when stage shows ran a month or more, stage rehearsals never exceeded the original one week time and budgetary allotment.  Why?  Because like a hundred Music Hall procedures and protocols, it was "etched in stone" since its inception, to use the words of former Chief Projectionist Bob Endres.

The Music Hall was a legit theatre on an unrelenting movie theatre schedule, like a pressure cooker or a newspaper.  "Hell week" was the name given to the four days of sunrise onstage rehearsals which preceded the opening of each new production, and very occasionally a midnight rehearsal would be called for, after the end of the last film showing, in order to achieve the quality Leonidoff demanded.

In Leonidoff's first years, the weekly schedule varied between four and five shows a day, and the length of the stage shows fluctuated from half an hour to a whopping eighty minutes for his 1934 tabloid version of "Madame Butterfly" on "a stage large enough to hold half the Island of Japan."  To compensate for the length of "Butterfly," feature films with running times shorter than the opera were booked.  As a rule, the decision to hold over picture and stage show combinations was based solely on the box office take of a given film, and "Butterfly" was one of a very few stage shows to be held over when the picture was not.

Later in 1934, Leonidoff's next and final opera, "Onteora's Bride" was reduced to half an hour, and by 1938 the stage show running time had settled in at thirty-nine minutes. The timing of a typical presentation included an eight minute overture (#2), but not the organ solo (#1), which was used to pad out the program to precisely match the advertised start times.  The overture segued into the thirty-one minute stage show, which included (#3A) the Corps de ballet;  (#3B and C.) specialty acts performed by jobbers; (#3D.) the Glee Club; and (#3E.) the Rockettes and Finale.  Below, production #341 which opened Thursday, September 6, 1945.  

All the "hell week" stage rehearsals were early morning affairs, beginning at 7 AM and running three hours until the doors opened for the first film.  Piano rehearsals Monday for the Corps de ballet; Tuesday for the Rockettes; and Wednesday a technical rehearsal without scenery, because the great stage wasn't great enough to store more than one production at a time.  HD view.

The Wednesday morning technical rehearsal (without scenery) brought with it the Producer, usually Leonidoff, and the "God mic" from whose booming voice there was no escape.  

The Music Hall rehearsal table on the twelfth row contained a rear-illuminated translucent house lighting plot (which included the front light carbon arc positions) and a selection of forty numbered back-lit gel colors.  Cues were constructed using shorthand rehearsal letters which corresponded to the lighting switchboard--  "A" stood for the all-important footlights, "B" the concealed side light position within the proscenium arch; "C" the valance borderlight, and so forth working upstage.  Setting the cues below is Leonidoff, seated on the left hand of smiling Gus Eyssell, Music Hall prexy and managing director.

The five-scene preset stage lighting switchboard, which will be discussed in great detail later, was "a lighting machine sufficiently flexible to serve the needs of any of our productions," wrote Eugene Braun, Roxy's head electrician for forty years.  A miracle of compactness, it was small enough to be placed in the auditorium, just downstage of the orchestra pit.

A 1940 Herald-Tribune cartoon shows Corps de ballet choreographer and sometimes Music Hall producer Florence Rogge bypassing the usual procedures and running the switchboard herself.

The Wednesday morning technical rehearsal (without scenery) was a piano rehearsal.  Can you find the grand piano in this photograph?

Here, the Rockettes tech in rehearsal togs on "the wood," the non-linoleum strip of stage between the foots and Elevator One.  The horizontal line in the foreground is a track for the band car which intersects the steam curtain, just upstage of the girls and directly beneath the contour.  A stack of eight 2000-watt "floods" from the OP "B" proscenium slot can be seen in the distance.  Rockettes interlocked one another gently at the waist so no one could be pitched inadvertently into the pit.

Preparations for the Thursday morning dress rehearsal began at 4 AM when the stage crew began hanging sets and setting lights.  Some newly-delivered stage sets could be readied upstage of the picture sheet during the last Wednesday night film, but anything hung downstage had to wait until dawn.  6 AM was the company call for the three hour dress, which lasted until the instant the doors opened for the first film.  That film showing allowed the company a two and one-half hour breather before the first of four performances.

4 AM Thursday was also the time allotted for the testing of film effects, if any were to be employed in the stage show, either from the front projection room or from the projection room embedded into the upstage wall.  Projectionists also remained on duty Tuesday and Wednesday nights after the last film to pre-screen two prints of the new feature, one each night.  Below, projectionist Jack Sturim.

Stop and go Dress for the Rockettes and Russell Markert, seen here standing on the circle of the turntable within Elevator One.  The girls to the right are on "the wood."

Rockettes "take five" to watch the Corps de ballet.  On the seat backs can be seen a few of the 3,416 Kliegl program lights, each activated by a momentary push button.

The Thursday dress was also the time for setting audio levels for the fifty stage and pit corded microphones routinely used.  The RCA 77 mic on the right was one of five footlight mics which rose automatically out of floor pockets, deus ex machinadeus in this case being Peter Clark.

The dancers, singers, and specialty acts had exactly three hours to acclimate themselves to scenery they had never seen before, such as sloping platforms for the Corps de ballet who performed only en pointe.

At times, vast amounts of scenery suddenly appeared and had to be gotten used to in this trial by fire which earned it the name "hell week."  Downstage of the orchestra pit, a passerella or runway, known as the ramp, was occasionally installed and shown below in the 1962 "Disneyland USA."

The Undersea Ballet was one segment which pulled out all the stops, production-wise.  
Lighting man Gene Braun's fellow Hungarian, Alexander Strobl who invented phosphorescent paint (and also Sterno), bathed the great stage in bushels of ultra-violet light, lit with fluorescent UV tubes on the borders and in pans at the footlights, while 35MM waves were projected from both the front and upstage booths.  When the scrim rose, the Corps de ballet swam and made Peter Pan look all wet. 

Undersea Ballet was a permanent fixture in forty years of rotating repertoire, reproduced a dozen times between 1935 and 1972 and arguably choreographer Florence Rogge's best spectacle ever.  "The aesthetes will go for the Undersea Ballet which runs a riot of color, dovetailing the terpsichorean with kinetoscope artistry...the kaleidoscope of projected submarine life blending with the actual stage setting combines into one of the top montage achievements at the Music Hall since it inception," blabbed Variety in 1935.  

Not the least of the technical details to be worked out in a Music Hall dress was the matter of stage elevator cues and how to avoid pitfalls.  Here the Rockettes dance con molto, blind to the gaping hole left by Elevator Two, while the orchestra on the band car plays atop Elevator Three.  When a lift was down, a stage manager concealed in each wing kept close watch over their charges.

"Doors Open" at 10 AM spelled the abrupt end of the dress rehearsal, and the company was given a 124 minute break for the duration on the first showing of the new movie. 

"30 minutes to Overture!" -- "20 minutes to Overture!" -- "5 minutes to Overture, ladies and gentleman!" boomed the voice of the Head Stage Manager over the dressing room call system, complete with program monitor, "wired for radio" forty years before such systems became standard equipment.

The orchestra on the band car atop the pit elevator, 100,000 pounds all told, rose swiftly from its minus 16-'6" preset position to a dramatic landing at overture position (minus 2'-0") and the show began.

Following the overture, the contour curtain was raised for the stage show.

Most of the 662 opening performances went smoothly, but occasionally accidents happened, such as when in 1969 the twenty-one-year-old lead trumpeter of  the guest band act fell backwards and down onto Elevator One, which was preset 9'10" below the stage deck and laden with Rockettes.  Fortunately he recovered in time to finish out the six week run, and once he was out of danger, the girls presented him with this phony newspaper headline during one of their daily visits to his hospital bed.  In the perfect happy ending, he married a Rockette.  And despite his immediate removal from the stage on a stretcher, the show never missed a beat and the audience none the wiser.  "To my knowledge, a show was never stopped in my twenty years as switchboard operator," said Bob Lachenauer.

Occasionally new scenic units were introduced at the Wednesday technical rehearsal.  

At the conclusion of every first performance, the company was summoned to the 8th floor large rehearsal rooms, not for notes, but for "corrections."  On the Thursday of an opening, the production crew was expected to remain on duty from 4 AM until the end of the last stage show performance, at the conclusion of the eighteen hour dress rehearsal day. 

At the table doling out corrections is Leonidoff, with Russell Markert at his feet.  The portly man behind Leonidoff is manager Eyssell, the skinny one is Head Stage Manager Irving Evans, and the Rogge sisters are to Evans' left.

In weeks when a new show did not open and the movie and stage shows were held over, mandatory "holdover" rehearsals were conducted after the first stage show on Thursday morning to incorporate those dancers, Rockettes and Corps, returning from their week off.  "You were rarely returned to your same spot in the ballet," bemoaned Rosemary Novellino.  "Vacations" were not sacrosanct, however, and a dancer could be summoned to return if another "body" went out unexpectedly.  Public appearances and photo calls were obligatory.  Below, the Corps prances in the unobstructed Grand Foyer.

Commencing in 1933, for forty-seven years, the eight-minute overture slot was taken over by the "The Glory of Easter" and "The Nativity" at Easter and Christmas respectively. 

The Christmas show was initially produced in 1933 on the one year anniversary of the opening and billed as "the entertainment climax of the year", it featured the Roxyettes on a Christmas tree, a tab version of Coppelia, and the Nativity.   It was one of the last shows under the "personal direction of Roxy."   

The next year, and for the next forty, the show was in the hands of Leonidoff who perfectly understood the Hall:  "Our stage is so big you can't fill it with talk!"  He was also a man with a sense of humor.  One time, during a Nativity dress, Leonidoff turned to Choral Director Will Irwin and asked in his Romanian accent, "Vill!  Where did you find such stupid wise men?"  At another, "Jesus Christ!  That camel looks like a cockroach!"  

In 1934, for the second Christmas show (production #87) Leonidoff added Russell Markert's death-defying "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" which, like the Nativity, became a sustaining feature. 

For Christmas, Easter, and summer shows, school choirs or glee clubs were engaged as performing supernumeraries (with billing) and were boggled by the world of the Music Hall.  "It was a tough grind to play four shows a day for seven straight weeks-- 196 performances in all without a single break," recalled the Dartmouth Glee Club president.  For this, they got to join AGVA.  HD view.

For the Music Hall management, the sound of cash register chimes far offset all other considerations, and as neither snow nor rain could keep the patrons away, the number of stage shows-- both Christmas and Easter-- were increased to five-a-day.

A 1961 New York Times map showed the route of the holding queue, starting at "A" and ending at "B."

At the first Easter show in 1933, besides the Roxyettes' "Easter on Parade" Leonidoff presented a Nativity-like tableau entitled "The Last Supper."  "Last Supper" was presented for the first and last time that year because Leonidoff was reportedly infuriated when informed that the cast had to be limited to a measly thirteen.  The number that stuck around for the next forty-seven years was listed in the fine print: Kamenoi Ostrow-- which became "The Glory of Easter."  

Despite the fact that they were played on the same set, "The Glory of Easter" should not be confused with the 
bona fide Easter church service which was held in the Hall beginning in 1939.  Starting at 7 AM Easter morning and lasting over an hour, the United Easter Dawn Service was sponsored by the Protestant Council of the City of New York, Manhattan division, and for thirty-six years, seven thousand worshipers, including five hundred standees, were permitted in to witness the free event.  For those who couldn't be there, it was broadcast live over network radio every single year.  To kick off the affair, the houselights simulated the sunrise, and for once, the Rockettes, ballet, and orchestra were given a break.  Below, the 1961 service in the Hall, which for many jaded New Yorkers was the only church they knew.

On days which were not Easter, the doors were thrown open at 7:30 AM to let in the cash customers who thronged to see the Music Hall's own pageant.  In 1961, for example, "The Glory of Easter" followed by a stage show and blockbuster Disney picture was repeated two hundred and forty-five times over seven weeks.

Even atheists could enjoy "The Glory of Easter" because it ran only eight minutes, and within a few short years, it had taken on a life of its own.  In 1942, the Daily News wrote, "'The Glory of Easter' has become something more than a Music Hall tradition.  It has become a kind of public memorial devotion, like the halting of traffic for two minutes on Armistice Day.  The Music Hall is one of the city's amusement institutions that every citizen should find time to salute periodically.  And Easter time, it seems to me, is a fine time for that pilgrimage."

Famed drama critic Burns Mantle described the scene in 1938:  "Orchestra and organ sweep into Rubinstein's 'Kamenoi Ostrow'  while the huge auditorium is still in darkness.  And suddenly out of the darkness a monster cathedral is revealed.  Lines of communicants bearing lighted candles of heroic size, while other lines of altar boys, white-robed singers, and small groups of ecclesiastical dignitaries move in rhythmic columns toward the flower-buried altar, as artificial sunlight streams through towering cathedral windows, and a swelling chorus takes up the musical theme and carries it, dominated by a solo contralto, to the spectacle's climax."

New York theatre expert Michael Zande continues the narrative:  "They processed to a large, cathedral-like altar below a huge stained glass window. The stage was very dark except for the light coming through the window.  At the great climax of the music --- orchestra and organs blasting --- the kneeling congregants (who were now all facing the altar), raised their lilies, and the spots focused into the shape of a large cross!  FAN-TAS-TICK!"

Undoubtedly the greatest lighting cue in Music Hall history, the effect was produced by two FR-10's, Hall & Connolly High Intensity spotlights, one shuttered horizontally and the other vertically.  Projectionist Bob Endres described the scene from the booth:  "As the music reached three climactic chords, on the third, the stage buzzed projection, and at that exact moment the FR10's highlighted the horizontal and vertical lily carriers with bright white light forming a living cross. This all happened in the last 34 seconds or so as the contour started to come down. We faded the cross as the leading edge of the contour just tipped the upper edge of the cross.  That music is now forever a part of my DNA. I can't get to those final three chords without tensing up waiting for the stage buzz cuing the Cross."  

To continue to Part 2 -- Front Lights, click OLDER POSTS at the bottom right.