Radio City Music Hall


This video from CBS Sunday Morning, discusses the history of Radio City Music Hall, including its opening day in 1932. It describes it as an “art-deco gem” that highlights its dazzling design courtesy of Roxy Rothafel and Donald Deskey. It also highlights the components that make the historic Radio City Christmas Spectacular come to life!

Radio City Music Hall: The Star that Lights up NYC

On December 27th, 1932, Radio City Music Hall opened its doors, becoming one of the largest tourist attractions of New York City. Despite facing difficulties, this place of entertainment became a historic venue where thousands of people would gather to watch the annual Christmas Spectacular or see their favorite artist perform. It has become a center of New York’s history as it grew into the place it has become today. The beginning stages of this grand music hall are far from what we encounter today, as it progressed through time. This famous building was built as a piece of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s “Rockefeller Center” and was created amidst the Great Depression in 1932. It started out as a movie theater where people would gather to see its showcases. Named after the “Radio Corporation of America,”[1] it would soon become a piece of history that glanced back on its beginnings.

December 10, 2012—
Radio City Music Hall located in Midtown Manhattan lights up in Rockefeller Center. Its legacy carries on as it shines bright and stands as a symbol of New York City culture and tourism.

An important aspect of the historic nature of Radio City Music Hall was its architecture. It’s art-deco style was inspired by the designers of the time. The venue was designed by the architect Edward Durrell Stone and a man named Donald Deskey who “was inspired by German and French modernist styles and adapted these methods by using more affordable materials.”[2] During the Great Depression, this was looked upon with respect as it took a toll on the economic viewpoint of the world. The design of the Music Hall was also collaborated with other designers such as Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel who oversaw the project. The architecture and design of Radio City Music Hall contributed widely to its role as a famous theater in New York City. Its interior design became unique and had a large part in America’s architectural influence. The Art-deco style within are considered “some of the most impressive in the history of modern theater design, with no equal in America in terms of scale or variety of architectural, artistic, and decorative elements.”[3] These architectural achievements of Roxy and Deskey led to the naming of both the interior and exterior as official New York City Landmarks.

1932—Gottshco, Samuel Herman (Library of Congress)
This painting that is the backdrop of the grand staircase in Radio City Music Hall shows how the interior designs helped it become an official New York Landmark. Radio City Music Hall is known for its many murals and artwork enveloping the entire theater. It captures the art-deco style of Deskey throughout the building.

The notorious Rockefeller Center became the heart of the growing communications and entertainment industries which brought thousands of tourists each day. John D. Rockefeller Jr. signed a lease for land located in Midtown Manhattan when the stock market was doing extremely well. Before the stock market crash, Rockefeller’s lease contained a plan for a Metropolitan Opera House. As New York City History continued, the stock market crashed in 1929, leading to an overwhelming mood of fear and uncertainty amongst the millions of people who suffered financially. The Opera House ended up seizing its plans in the midst of the financial stress, leading Rockefeller to make a decision that led to the creation of one of the largest theaters in our nation. In accompany with the Radio Corporation of America, Rockefeller decided to create an architectural and artistic masterpiece that would lighten up the dismay caused by the Stock Market Crash. It would seen become the “pinnacle of showbiz” located in one of the most well-known tourist destinations of New York City, Rockefeller Center.[4]

In 1932, the famous Music Hall opened its doors for the very first time, expecting an occasion that would be revered as one of the most magical moments in its history. Over 500 performers were expected to take part in the opening night consisting of “vaudeville, ballet numbers and classical music”[5] The opening gala was talked about all over the news and was one of the most anticipated events during the time for “the greatest achievement of the theatrical world”[6]. The reality was quite the opposite as the show failed in its attempt. The first show and many after that were assembled by the artistic genius of Roxy, who had a keen eye for talent and artists to perform. According to a New York Times article titled “Music Hall’s Opening” by Brooks Atkinson he discusses the first night by saying “the truth seems to be that Maestro Roxy, the celebrated entrepreneur of Radio City, has opened his caravansary with an entertainment which, on the whole, does not provoke much enthusiasm.”[7] The theater aimed at creating an extravagant show that would leave its audience in awe, but Roxy’s inclusion of multiple performers brought chaos to opening day. Audience members had trouble connecting to the stage due to the size of the acts. Performers such as Ruffo, a well-known opera singer in the early 20th century joined the stage amongst several other stars Dr. Rockwell, Weber and Fields, Ray Bolger, Taylor Homes, Otto Fassell and the Kikuta Japs.[8] The opening night, although somewhat overdone, set precedent for the years to come at the Music Hall where it would become a center for movies, large events, and shows.

In the beginning, Radio City Music Hall’s owners focused on showcasing new motion pictures. The first film presented here was “The Bitter Jean of General Yen” in the beginning of 1933. After the first premiere, hundreds of movies were shown to large crowds, becoming a site of prestige for movie stars. One of the most-known events that takes place at Radio City Music Hall each year is the Christmas Spectacular. The first performance was in 1933, and ever since than it has been a vital tradition of its original showcases. Along with the premiere of classic movies such as King Kong, The Lion King, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Radio City Music Hall became a venue known for its elaborate productions and success in motion pictures.

The lead artistic manager at Radio City Music Hall, Roxy Rothafel, played a key role in creating some of the most well-known dancers in our nation today. The Rockettes, originally called the “Missouri Rockets” were discovered by Roxy Rothafel as they performed in “Rain or Shine,” an early Broadway show. Their talent caught his eye and they eventually were originally the “Roxyettes” who also participated in the opening night. Performing on one of the most iconic stages in the nation, the Rockettes have proven to stand as a symbol of Radio City. The work and dedication it takes to become a member of this group is intense. The women work as a team each day to endure the harsh practices, long days, and intricate choreography they are given. The Christmas Spectacular that they work months towards “features fan favorite traditions like “The Living Nativity” and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” both of which have been in the show since its inception in 1933, alongside innovative state-of the-art technology that encompasses the entire theater.”[9] One Rockette, Laura Jakowenko, discussed the amount of dedication it takes to perform at the Christmas Spectacular. In order to get picked as a member, there are certain regulations that are put in place like height, experience, and ability to perform specific types of dance such as jazz and tap. She speaks about the connections she makes with the other dancers by saying it is “truly a sisterhood” [10]Through the Rockettes the legacy of Roxy’s creation still lives on today and is presented every holiday season for all to see.

December 11, 2010—
This is a photograph taken during the famous annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The Original Rockettes continue to perform as lead dancers each year and work months to prepare. Sometimes they are required to change costumes in a matter of seconds for the next scene.

Although Radio City Music Hall’s legacy continues to shine, during the late 1970s it experienced what came close to its last curtain call. In 1979, the venue was being considered in plans to turn it into an office space and the doors shut for a period of time due to financial reasons. Alton G. Marshall, the leader of Rockefeller Center had to do with the closing as he “announced that the hall would close in 1978 because of a $2.3 million deficit in 1977.” [11] After theatergoers and people who saw the tremendous influence Radio City had on American Culture plans for a rescuing the famous hall was conspiring. This was the longest closing since it closed for 5 days in 1965 for interior design updates. [12] A rescue committee was founded in an attempt to preserve the importance of the building as a tourist site and influential masterpiece by Governor Mary Anne Krupsak. In a 1978 New York Times article, after finding out about the closing of radio City, people began to support the committee’s efforts. One New Yorker said “Radio City Music Hall is the symbol of the tourist industry of New York City, and is highly regarded worldwide. Clearly, it is worth fighting for. If it survived the Depression and wartime it can survive now.”[13] New Yorkers and government officials participated in the fight against its closing. Committee members wrote “lawyers for the committee have already researched the possibility of having the building officially designated as a landmark [which] could be the first step to keep the building from possible destruction.”[14] Efforts continued until their work paid off and Radio City was restored.

The leader of Rockefeller Center, Marshall had different thoughts in mind, as he saw the end of Radio City Music Hall and even potential destruction of the building. As the building took its first closing since it first opened its doors, on March 28, 1978 the Music Hall’s interior was named a New York City Landmark that would aid in decreasing taxes and show the historical pertinence it had in the Big Apple. With huge success, the committee helped reopen the venue in 1980, and planned to restore it in order to continue and grow in entertainment.[15] On April 23, 1985 the outside of the venue was also named an official New York City Landmark. The preservation of Radio City Music Hall was a huge impact on its future as they continued to update the interiors according to its original art-deco style.

Radio City Music Hall has been an entertainment capital in Midtown New York City since 1932, offering tourists and New Yorkers a sight worth seeing. Not only does its architecture serve as a symbol of New York culture, but it has become a venue of prestige where hundreds of entertainers dream of stepping onto its stage. Whether sitting in the crowd for The Christmas Spectacular or seeing a concert, it captures the legacy of all that it has created.



[1] Sokol, Samantha. “On This Day in NYC History, December 27th: Opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932.” Untapped New York, 10 Jan. 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Radio City Music Hall.” NYPAP. Accessed March 27, 2020.

[4] Chong, Jinwoo. “Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s Radio City Music Hall, The Showplace of the Nation.” Untapped New York, 9 July 2019.

[5] “Radio City Premiere is a Notable Event.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Dec 28, 1932, pp. 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Brooks Atkinson. “Music Hall’s Opening.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Dec 28, 1932, pp. 14

[8] “Ruffo to Sing in Radio City: Former Opera Star Arrives Today for Music Hall Opening Dec. 27.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Dec 14, 1932, pp. 27.

[9] Farrell, Melinda. “Christmas, Dancing, and Motherhood–Spectacular!” USA Today Magazine 146, no. 2870 (November 2017): 64–67.

[10] Jakowenko, Laura, and Courtney Bowers. “Taking the Radio City Stage” Dance Spirit, vol. 20, no. 10, Dec. 2016, pp. 30–31.

[11] “Radio City Music Hall.” NYPAP, n.d. Accessed March 29, 2020.

[12] “New Radio City Music Hall to Open Saturday.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993), Mar 06, 1965, pp. 15

[13] Lesley O. “Efforts to Save Music Hall Started: Public and Private Efforts to Save Radio     City Music Hall are Started.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 07, 1978, pp. 1.

[14] Ibid 12.

[15] Ibid 11.

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