Polishing a Radio City Tradition


We all have holiday traditions — things that connect us from one generation to the next. One of the most popular wintertime traditions is the 75-year-old Radio City Christmas Spectacular performed on the massive stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where it has been a must-see for several generations of Rockette fans. In 1933, the Christmas Spectacular was originally designed as a holiday “gift” between Radio City movie screenings and was expanded into a 90-minute extravaganza in 1979. In 1995, touring versions of the show began, including performances in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and Toronto.

When lighting designer David Agress was invited to design the show, he brought a deep understanding of Radio City's tradition. “When I first came to New York, I was pushing scenery on the Easter Show in 1979,” he says. “So I feel that I know every inch of that hall.” Agress has lit the road show productions of the Christmas Spectacular since 1995 and has worked extensively at Radio City and with The Rockettes. “I actually lit my first show with The Rockettes in about 1990,” says Agress. “I had done a Liza Minnelli show at Radio City with a lot of moving lights in the early moving light days, so they brought me in to do some specials with The Rockettes. When Radio City produced a tour for the 60th anniversary of The Rockettes, I lit that; then I lit the show in Las Vegas; then I started doing the road shows of the Christmas show. The road shows became very successful, but also very different because they evolved.”

It was some of those differences that led Radio City to invite Agress to design this year's New York show at the Music Hall. “The people in charge of Radio City realized that the show in New York had not evolved and changed enough in the ensuing years, and they wanted to have a fresh look, so the director, Linda Haberman, and I came in this year to help bring some of the looks into New York that we'd worked on for 12 years out on the road.”

Among key changes to the New York production were two new numbers that were taken from the road shows. One was a new opening number, “Sleighride,” and the other an elaborate production number, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” with the 36 Rockettes decked out in glittering red and gold candy-colored costumes. “It's a very intensive tap number where the concept is that we need to separate all of the groups of tapping girls from each other. Remember, the road show has 18 Rockettes, and the show in New York has 36,” says Agress. “So there is a girl in different positions for each of the 12 days. We have been doing it on the road for the last 10 years, and the first time it took 16-and-a-half hours to light it. There was no way we could take that much time at Radio City, so I used Prelite to solve a lot of my time problems.” Programmer Cory FitzGerald also worked on the production.

Besides adding new numbers, Agress also reworked the rest of the show, bringing in more moving lights, thereby introducing a fresh look to the overall production. He used a Vari-Lite package with just less than 100 VLs for this production. “Because the show is billed as a ‘spectacular,’ moving lights let me participate more in every aspect of the show, especially the movement with the dance. The lights now move with the dancers,” comments Agress. “The costumes are fabulous, full of sparkles; the scenery is dazzling. There is not much subtlety available to you at the Music Hall. I always cite as an example ‘Wooden Soldiers.’ It has been there since the very beginning. From a lighting point of view, I reinvented the number. Every position is only lit with moving lights, and they follow the girls as they go through the different patterns. The whole idea of the number is that it looks like a little clockwork, the entire piece looking somewhat different, like something that we haven't seen before — very mechanized, very rhythmic, very in time with the music. Even though it's the same number, you see it now and say, ‘You know, it looks different.’ You see it with fresh eyes. That follows through to the rest of show. This is my little part of it — my contribution to the tradition.”

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