Before I knew from high, low and middle brow, there was Radio City Music Hall. Before bling, bra-burning, post-modernism, and even before men who walked on the moon, there was Radio City Music Hall. It opened in 1932, and the chill in the air these days feels an awful lot like it must have back then. What better place to hide from hardship than a palace to which nearly everyone is invited?
I surprised myself last night by going to see the last performance for the year of the Christmas Spectacular, avec Rockettes, which premiered there when the building first opened. It was the only time I've set foot inside for forty years, though I must have passed by it 2000 times. Would it still wow me -- or would its hugeness seem ordinary now that I was no longer a kid? Would the spectacle be hopelessly tacky -- or would I understand finally that it always had been?
The year we moved to Manhattan, 1962, the cost of a ticket was $3. For that you got a first-run movie on the largest screen in the world and the Rockettes tap dancing furiously across the stage in formation and kicking up their heels in perfect unison, while we swooned in plush orchestra seats. Who knew then about chamber music, Chekhov, crème fraiche, or Jean Paul Belmondo? It was entertainment, but to me at eight years old, it was heaven.
Lock-step precision, like rhyming, has as a certain -- limited -- aesthetic appeal. On a TV documentary about Buckingham Palace I saw servants setting tables for state dinners, using rulers and T-squares to make sure forks, knives, and finger bowls line up with deadly accuracy. The Rockettes did not invent symmetry or precision, but they are synonymous with it, and all these years later, it's safe to say that nobody does it better. Or maybe: nobody else does it at all. The Rockettes barely do it themselves at Radio City, except for a few weeks at Christmas and a bunch of traveling shows and appearances at sporting events.
Back in the day, when the Rockettes were done dancing, we ascended to an even higher plane of heaven: movies on the gigantic screen: Bye, Bye Birdie, The Pink Panther, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Mary Poppins, Wait Until Dark. My mother must have taken us to nearly every movie for two or three years. It was a place to get lost, to be still, to feel waves of private joy, sorrow, and fear without having to account to anyone or explain myself. It was a wonder I could ever be pried away once the movie was over. But it only led to further depravity, a lifetime of slinking into movie theaters at all hours of the day and night, often by myself. Like an alcoholic passing by a bar, they are hard places for me to resist.
But last night there was only the stage show and the spectacle of the vintage Art Deco building itself, which wowed me anew. The foyer and the grand staircase were as huge -- maybe huger -- than I had remembered them. And when I entered the auditorium I felt like the six-year-old friend I had taken to see the circus at Madison Square Garden, who exclaimed as she feasted her eyes for the first time on the huge arena: "Oh My God!" The famous organs, one on each side of the stage, pumping away, Christmas lights galore, the silky golden curtain hiding the stage, and people in seats as far as the eye could see. From my seat near the stage, I turned and looked backwards, to thousands of pairs of eyes.
It was not long before the lights went out and the Rockettes appeared, dressed as reindeer, in tight brown leotards. My recollection from childhood is that they only did one number where they kicked up their legs in that famous line-up, but last night's show was an orgy of Rockettes, in everything from bathing suits to rag doll costumes to silvery see-through show girl outfits that must have been just what the audience ordered when the Rockettes used to performed at the Flamingo Las Vegas. They must have gathered together in that ruler-straight line twenty-five or thirty times -- with eight costume changes -- to bend and kick, bend and kick. The audience went wild.
I was sitting close enough to see their tight smiles throughout every number, and I wondered if I kept seeing the same dancers over and over. They did four shows a day, and I wondered how many shifts they had to work and how much they got paid, and how miserable they were. I know young dancers and young - and old - classically-trained musicians. I know that if you've been classically trained, the last place you'd want to end up is the Rockette line or the orchestra pit at Radio City. But they were all pretty young, and they weren't going to end up there; more likely, they were starting out. And maybe they were overjoyed to be where they are.
I don't mean to sound grumpy. It was a very good show, if you like this sort of thing. And I was not unhappy I went. I especially liked the high tech number involving a real double-decker Grey Line Tour Bus crammed with Rockettes that took a mock tour of the city. The bus either stayed still or turned in place (the stage is full of moving parts) while a film played in the background to suggest the tour was underway. At many points, both in and out of the bus, the Rockettes bent, kicked, bounced, and bopped to a song I've already forgotten.
Before I arrived, I imagined the setting would make me dwell on the movies of my childhood, but instead I was captivated by the subject of mastery, and how bowled over I used to be that these women can kick in perfect unison over and over and over. Of course it is, no doubt about it. But of all the things I've learned since the last time I was at Radio City, an entire lifetime of lessons, the ones I focused on last night involved the varieties and pleasures of mastery, from the Rockettes to the Williams' sisters' tennis, from Barack Obama's masterful presidential campaign to the violin playing of a young friend who is just becoming recognized. While Santa and the toy soldiers cavorted, my thoughts drifted to the subtleties and nuances of Miles Davis, Jane Austen, and Brahms. To the dances of Mark Morris, the poetry of Carolyn Forché, the prose of José Saramago. And I kept looking at my watch, hoping against hope that when the show was over, the movie would begin.
Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist, journalist, and the author of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers.