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The Rockettes perform during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
The Rockettes perform during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
MSG Entertainment

It's Kitschmas Time in the City

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By Tommy Nguyen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Even as a kid growing up on the West Coast, I've always had some vague notion that New York's Rockefeller Center, with its 84-foot lighted Christmas tree and famous ice rink filled with kids in elf caps, was the commercial capital of Christmas in America. Now that I actually work at Rockefeller Center -- and have entered my irritable season of weaving through throngs of brightly colored tourists and Fifth Avenue shoppers -- making peace with this fact seems to require a more grueling process of personal growth.

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But I'm getting there. These past few holiday seasons, I've been trying to get into the spirit of my corporate neighborhood, albeit via baby steps, such as watching the tree-lighting ceremony in person (through the window at my boss's office party) or going down to the ice rink to meet some out-of-town friends (for drinks at the adjacent restaurant -- no one actually skated).

But I certainly met my match when I decided to experience, right across the street from work, the 75th anniversary of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, home of the Rockettes -- and where baby steps are impossible. For me, witnessing Santa being pulled on his sleigh by 36 tethered women with glowing reindeer antlers was a strictly all-or-nothing affair. And with a production that includes onstage fireworks, 3-D animation, falling snowflakes, flying kids, hydraulics, Swarovski crystal, donkeys, camels, Jesus and, of course, the 72 legs of conjoined beauties, the show requires a kind of sensory surrender that some people may not be up for.

Apparently, most people are. More than a million visitors see the show each year, and it felt as if they were all there on the day I checked it out. But I did meet some nice people in line, many of whom had seen the show numerous times since they were kids, and they all had the same advice for me: Deal with the crowds, lighten up and have a good time.

"I saw it when I was 5 or 6, in the early '60s perhaps," said Melanie Nooney, who came up from Berlin, Md. "I came here for my nieces, but, yes, I do enjoy it."

"Isn't it totally schmaltzy?" I asked.

"I grew up on schmaltz!" she said.

When I finally walked into the Grand Foyer, my first time in the music hall, the evening (and my attitude) started to take a turn. Radio City, which can seat more than 6,000, is a stunning, handsome piece of arrested time. The sparkling art deco design -- which debuted on Dec. 27, 1932, when Martha Graham played Radio City's very first show, along with a dance ensemble then called the Roxyettes -- still evoked white fur shawls, top hats and giant camera bulbs flashing away. You could almost hear an old Cole Porter tune wafting down from the chandelier, which looked like a Christmas tree coated in ice.

"Strawberry daiquiris!" two women yelled out. It took a couple of uncommonly pleasant voices from Georgia, and the sight of two large pink beverages in their hands, to snap me out of my daydream.

"This is more of a girls' night out," Barbara explained, as she and her friend Rachel carried enormous shopping bags bunched up at their elbows.

"My husband and son didn't want to come to this," Barbara said. "But we think this is going to be awesome."

Barbara and Rachel seemed to be onto something. So I, too, paid a visit to the bar before I took my seat on the mezzanine level.

The show, with no intermission, went by faster than expected. To include bigger acts, and more of them, the production expanded to its current 90-minute length in 1979; one of the new splashes this year is a double-decker bus that takes the Rockettes through a digital backdrop of New York City, seen as a dazzling winter dream.

The very first Christmas show actually had only two numbers, both of them still around today: "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "The Living Nativity." Back then, they were performed in between movie screenings.

Today, the biggest cheers were reserved for the bears in tutus dancing to a "Nutcracker" classic, for the story of a skeptical kid who miraculously takes flight, for the playroom of rag dolls come to life. The 3-D show was a crowd-pleaser, too, though it was almost more fun watching grown men in the audience stick their hands in the air to catch a giant snowball.

Still, I like that my favorite act, "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" -- in which each line of soldiering Rockettes effortlessly shifted and slid into remarkably geometric formations -- is also the show's oldest concept. It was done seamlessly. Plus, it reminded me of the precision military parades of totalitarian regimes, which I'm an absolute sucker for; I'm sure Kim Jong Il would like the Rockettes, too.

In a way, "Wooden Soldiers" tells me that audiences really did see something special 75 years ago -- all the more reason it's still around. And if today's bigger and brighter show can charm (but maybe not quite convert) a cynical Manhattan malcontent who would probably be late to work even without the holiday crowds blocking his way, maybe it's time to clock out early tomorrow and finally put on those ice skates.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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