by Steven Woodruff
One of the underlying ironies of the near demise of Radio City was that the people who had built it in 1932, the Rockefellers, were in 1978 leading the charge to tear it down. Not only would one of New York’s most venerable Art Deco masterpieces be lost but with it, an irreplaceable brand of American entertainment that had weathered the great depression, a world war, and an era of decline in the city itself. In January of 1978 it was announced that Radio City would close after the Easter Show in April. The story was that the theater was losing money, the performance format of movies and live theater had exhausted its possibilities to attract audiences. It was time to move on.
Rosemary Novellino-Mearns was a ballet dancer with the Radio City Ballet from 1966 until 1978. Her excellent book “Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story” is an insider’s tale of an astonishing four months of organizing to save what was known as “The Show Place of the Nation”. The first half of the book covers her early student and professional years as she rose in the company as its dance captain. Part memoire, part activist’s tale, Novellino-Mearns’s fleet and well told narrative reveals the daily life of the dance world at Radio City but it also offers a moving story of the life of a woman caught in the glare of a role she never expected.
When the announcement was made that Radio City would close, the author, confronted with the imminent loss of a job turns to her fellow Radio City colleagues to form The Showpeople’s Committee to Save Radio City Music Hall. The last half of the book, which is managed with a healthy dose of intrigue, follows the political twists and turns of getting landmark status for the building. The well-publicized fight to save the hall is set against the backdrop of the daily routine of performances and rehearsals. She captures both threads with natural writing and balanced detail.
The early chapters are of interest for dancers and dance historians. They chronicle the performances of the well-loved Christmas and Easter shows as well as many classical ballets choreographed by Florence Rogge, Marc Platt, Leon Leonidoff, and Broadway dancemaker Peter Gennaro. The author notably includes a complete appendix of all the shows and films presented at Radio City from its opening in 1932 through the spring of 1979. The fare was an unexpected juxtaposition of popular entertainments and movies laced with actual ballets like “Raymonda”, “Les Sylphides”, and “Cinderella”. There was always live music. The unique brand brought audiences a mixed format that would be unthinkable today.
People may think of dance at Radio City as a more unified expression than it actually was. The Radio City Ballet and the famed Rockettes, who shared the dance responsibilities, were actually two very separate groups. They were often at odds for attention and status. Novellino-Mearns describes how the animosities even carried over into the political fight to rescue the building. The Radio City Ballet had its own important history. That company and its counterpart at the Met Opera were America’s first permanent ballet companies, predating San Francisco Ballet, and all of the early incarnations of City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
Novellino-Mearns tells us about her years with the ballet company with a touching sense of affection. It is filled with portraits of friendships, professional discoveries, auditions, performances, and marvelous descriptions of the building and the inner workings of the “great stage” itself. In a final twist of irony, following her successful efforts to save the building she and her husband William Mearns, also a performer at the theater, were blacklisted by the theater’s managers. They never worked at Radio City again.
In the modern era Radio City has taken on a new direction. Renovated and reformatted in the 1980s, the theater is now a new kind of two-a-day performance palace for mega-spectaculars. The ballet company, which as the author notes was struggling even at the end of the 1970s, and the house orchestra are both long gone. We live in an era that continues to hollow out old forms and old buildings and decorate them with bland corporate centers. You may feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia reading “Saving Radio City Music Hall”. You should, the story is certainly an emotional one. The author’s detailed documentary evidence will go a long way to making known a story that since 1978 has faded from public view. The building and the Rockettes have survived, but the unique popular theatrical art form that originally breathed life into its magnificent spaces proved harder to save. Novellino-Mearns always plugged the two together in her pitches to save the hall. In the end, she got half of what she wanted.
(The book is available in hard and soft cover by Turning Point Press, a new imprint of books on social and cultural life edited and published by Andrew M. Wentink. You can visit the website for more details at http://turningpointpressllc.com For those interested in live documentary footage of the events mentioned in the book there is a promotional video available on YouTube. )