On December 27, 1932, Radio City Music Hall, a famous entertainment venue located in New York City‘s Rockefeller Center was opened. The hall was the number one tourist attraction in the city at one time, and gained the nickname the Showplace of the Nation.
In 1929, when the stock market in the United States had crashed and the Great Depression began, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a member of the extremely wealthy Rockefeller family, was holding a $91 million, 24-year lease from Columbia University on a piece of property located in midtown Manhattan known as the “speakeasy belt.” Because the economy was starting to crumble, plans to gentrify the area and build a new Metropolitan Opera House at this location were thrown out. Rockefeller made a risky decision to build a series of spectacular buildings that would attract huge commercial tenants despite the bleak outlook of the forthcoming depression in a city that was full of vacant rental spaces.
The first tenant in Rockefeller’s complex was the Radio Corporation of America. RCA was a very young company who was producing popular radio programs and motion pictures through the National Broadcasting Company and RKO Studios, both of which were desired distractions in this depressed era. Rockefeller, RCA chairman David Sarnoff, and Samuel Roxy Rothafel, who was the well-known theatrical genius behind the Roxy Theater, teamed up to build an elaborate venue that would entertain, inspire, and elevate the deflated American public.
Originally named the International Music Hall, the venue was soon renamed “Radio City” due to the complex’s first tenants. The space was designed by architect Edward Durell Stone and interior designer Donald Deskey in a grandious Art Deco style. The main idea behind its construction was to build an elaborate tribute to “human achievement in art, science and industry.” Various materials were used in the construction including precious materials like gold foil and marble, and industrial materials including aluminum, permatex, glass, and cork. Deskey made art a major focus of the interior, enlisting fine artists to create murals, sculptures, and wall coverings to add to the already spectacular interior decoration. The most famous and noteworthy part of the interior is the Great Stage which measures 60 feet wide and 100 feet long and resembles a setting sun. Technical experts consider the stage to be the most well-equipped stage in the world featuring hydraulic-powered elevators which allow for incredible special effects and quick scene changes during performances.
For its opening in 1932, the first performance was an extravagant stage show featuring Ray Bolger, Doc Rockwell and Martha Graham. The high-class variety show that was presented was not successful because of its longevity and the individual acts seemingly getting “lost” in the huge space. Soon after, the theater changed its performances to include playing feature films with a concurrent stage show performance. This format continued until the 1970s, with four performances happening every day. In the 70s, the films the hall could secure for showing were limited due to new film distribution and their preference to only show G-rated movies. Because of this setback, regular film showings at Radio City ceased in 1979.
After the discontinuation of film showings, plans were made to convert Radio City into an office space. These plans were met with vehement opposition by preservation committees and commercial stunts, like one famous response by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update. In 1980, the theater was renovated and once again opened up to the public. Under new management by the Madison Square Garden Company, Radio City still sometimes hosts feature films and film premieres, but the vast majority of performances are concerts and live stage shows. Various award shows have also been held in the venue such as the MTV Video Music Awards, the Grammy Awards, and the Tony Awards. The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, which started in 1933, is still a major attraction and has featured the dance troupe The Rockettes since its inception in the 30s.
In 1999, Radio City went through another major renovation costing $70 million. The theater still boasts the title today as the largest indoor theater in the world.