Radio City Music Hall: mecca and magnet

Dance Magazine
August 1956

It is the largest theatre in the world, with the most elaborately equipped stage in the world.  While 6,200 people at a time are looking on, the orchestra can rise out of a seemingly bottomless pit and glide backwards across the stage.  Parts of the stage can rise or sink out of sight, while the giant turntable can revolve in grand circles.  The lights, controlled by 4,305 levers, can play a symphony of color, and the huge three-ton golden curtain can fold and curve and arch as though moved by hundreds of unseen hands.

And yet the major attraction at the Radio City Music Hall is not really the mechanical magic of its stage--not even the fact that its films are first-run--not even its sixty-piece symphony orchestra and its giant organ--or, for that matter, its twenty-four man glee club. It is a row of thirty-six seemingly identical females called the Rockettes plus three dozen gentler, less machine-like girls called the Corps de Ballet.

They are friendly rivals, these two groups. They both appear in every show (four a day and five during holiday seasons). They are the darlings of the eight million people a year--some of them New Yorkers, who visit Radio City Music Hall with every change of show--and many of them out-of-towners, who make the Music Hall their first stop when they hit New York.

On stage the Corps de Ballet is responsible for the high-minded aspects of the program. Always on pointe, and sometimes dressed in tutus, the girls perform vest-pocket versions of well-known ballets like "Scheherazade", Ravel's "Bolero," and the "Underwater Ballet," a perennial favorite. Their choreography is arranged or freshly crated by their ballet mistress, Margaret Sande, who succeeded the well-known Florence Rogge in 1952.

Miss Sande actually has thirty-six girls under her supervision. There are always eight on vacation. The Rockettes number forty-six, with ten always on vacation. Since all of the dancers perform a seven-day week, they are given every fourth week as time off. There are weekly replacement rehearsals in which the girls who have been on vacation learn the new routines. Since they are accustomed to close teamwork, the girls learn very quickly.

The atmosphere of teamwork penetrates the entire existence of the Corps de Ballet, and particularly of the Rockettes. For while a Corps de ballet member can occasionally graduate to a solo, the Rockettes must always remain anonymous. If one of the Rockettes shows a tendency to step away from the team spirit, she is very soon invited to step out of the Music Hall organization.

While all of the girls appear glamorous (but not too "showgirl," since the Music Hall caters principally to a family trade) on stage, they actually lead a simple, almost monastic life off stage. Because there is not too much time between shows, they stay at the Music Hall, and every effort is made to keep them comfortable and happy.

They have an entire backstage floor of the huge theatre building to themselves. As in an exclusive girls' club, no male may appear on the floor unless his arrival is announced. That's so the girls may walk around comfortably dressed--or undressed between performances.

They have two vast rehearsal rooms, one of which has walls and ceiling of fiber acoustical tile. This rough texture led Patricia Bowman, often a soloist, to call it the "Shredded Wheat Room." The name has stuck.

The girls also have a comfortable dormitory with rows of beds for between- performance rest. Those who live out of town often stay overnight when there is an early morning rehearsal.

They have their own radios and television. And every evening a new film is shown for them. There are also a complete infirmary and a cafeteria where visitors will often find the girls, still in their stage make-up and dressed in slacks, dressing gowns, and all sorts of at-home attire, having a bite.

Strangely, although the dancers meet the male members of the Music hall staff socially in the cafeteria and on the attractive roof gardens, there ids not much inter-marriage. Their choice of husbands runs to boys from their home towns or boys they meet in New York. They seem to prefer businessmen to theatre adherents. And they do not often make the wealthy marriages that one associates with showgirls.

The Corps de Ballet members must have good ballet training in order to work at the Music Hall; the Rockettes must be able tap dancers and good high kickers. Russell Markert, who has directed the Rockettes since the Music Hall's opening in1932, prefers with at least a ballet foundation.

Rockettes must also have poise; an attractive figure with long slender legs; and a good sense of rhythm. Height is important. In order for the line-up to maintain the illusion of uniform height, the girls in the center must be slightly taller than those at the ends. They range from 5'5" to 5'71/2".

These requirements sound simple and universal enough, but actually out of every thirty girls who audition for Mr. Markert and the Rockettes associate director, Emily Sherman, only one may be selected. But, although today's nightclub line-ups are having a hard time getting recruits (they prefer television, where work is steadier and the salary higher) the Radio City Music hall constantly attracts aspirants from every part of the country. They stay an average of four to five years and then leave to marry or, occasionally, to return to their home town and open dancing schools.

The present Rockette contingent has dancers from eleven states and one from England. The Corps de ballet has representatives from ten states, plus Israel, New Zealand, Canada and Iran.

Young girls from all over the world dream of the excitement of performing in the "showplace of a nation." That excitement constantly renews itself, especially for the Rockettes. For it is inevitable that as they finish their brisk Army-like routines, that they will line up right across the stage, kick their pretty legs, like so many pistons, to right, to left and straight up and down in front. And that point, the audience will complete the familiar ritual with a wave of delighted applause.

The Corps de Ballet is beloved (for many Americans it is a first taste of classical dance). But the Rockettes are an institution.