On Dec. 27, 1932, a new theatre debuted in New York accompanied by its 100-piece orchestra. The theatre was Radio City Music Hall and its orchestra and famous organ have brought music to millions for 73 years.
In those days the Radio City Orchestra was a full symphony orchestra. The 52-week season included live weekly radio broadcasts, bringing its great symphonic repertoire to the general public. Music Director Erno Rapee conducted the first complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies during these broadcasts. He would later start on the first U.S. cycle of Mahler symphonies, a project cut short only by his untimely death in 1945. Ferde Grofe was among the Radio City staff as composer and arranger when the theatre opened.
Downstairs from the broadcast studio, in the great auditorium, the orchestra provided more varied fare to the patrons who lined 50th Street waiting to see the stage show and the first-run motion picture that followed. The stage show featured the orchestra, the Rockettes, the Corps de Ballet and the Glee Club — all resident full-time entities at Radio City until the 1970’s. Sometimes condensed “tableaux” versions of operas and operettas were presented. Jan Peerce was a regular in these productions.
In the orchestra the trumpet and trombone section had split lead positions to cover the hot arrangements that often accompanied the Rockette routines. The woodwind section contained “legit” (i.e. classically trained) section leaders as well as doublers who covered the saxophone work on the swing charts. Individual players from the orchestra were featured in the program each week with photos and biographical sketches.
A brand new stage show was often introduced on a weekly basis in those early days. This kept a full-time, in-house staff of arrangers, copyists and librarians busy in the sub-basement music library. (Radio City has a complete set of parts and scores for all of its stage shows from 1932 to the present.)
A job in the newly formed orchestra was so lucrative that Fred Geib, tubist with the New York Philharmonic, left his position there to work at Radio City.
Prior to the orchestra’s overture, the Radio City audience is privy to a pre-show by Radio City’s organists performing on the twin consoles of the world’s largest theatre organ, the mighty Wurlitzer. The consoles, on either side of the theatre, are a full city block apart. George Wesner and Fred Davies, the current Radio City organists, refer to themselves as the “uptown” and “downtown” organists respectively.
After Rapee, Charles Previn (Andre’s uncle) became music director. Alexander Smallens succeeded him. Raymond Paige followed and remained until his death in 1963. Staff arrangers Will Irwin and Rayburn Wright (who later taught at Eastman) then took over conducting duties. They were followed by Paul Lavalle who had a brief, but stormy, tenure. Conductors have been engaged on a production-to-production basis since that time.
The years following World War II saw the Music Hall Orchestra reduced in size — first to 80, then 55, then 50, finally 40 players by the 1970’s.
At one point, in 1949, the contractor — a man named Saunders — was replaced, along with the entire orchestra. It was around this time that Bob Swan began his 40-plus year tenure as orchestra contractor. He was also timpanist with the orchestra until 1979. When asked once to list some well-known musicians who passed through the Music Hall’s doors, Swan replied, “All of ‘em.” He probably wasn’t far from right.
Radio City scrapped its stage show and movie format in 1979 and began to produce full-length 90-minute stage shows with the Christmas Spectacular as its centerpiece. The orchestra was reduced once more to its current size of 35.
The Radio City Orchestra today is, however, a unique orchestra. Larger than any of its Broadway counterparts but smaller and more versatile than the ballet and opera orchestras, its roster players have astonishingly eclectic backgrounds and experience. The different instruments played in the orchestra outnumber those of a symphony orchestra, giving arrangers and orchestrators a diverse range of style and palette of colors. Add to that the mighty Wurlitzer, which functions as a part of the orchestra.
In the first few years of the new format the orchestra was engaged for 30 to 40 weeks of work yearly. This ebbed and flowed, and gradually shrunk to its current 10 weeks of the Christmas show.
The Christmas show was conceived and first produced by Bob Jani in 1979, and has remained in concept and essential elements unchanged since then.
The amazing appeal and success of the Christmas show have, in an ironic way, led to reduced employment opportunities there. In the 10 weeks that the show runs, there are up to 232 performances. With current ticket prices peaking at $250 in the 6,000-seat theatre, and with most performances sold out, the net profits from the show currently top $78 million. Cablevision, the current Radio City leaseholder, has opted to pocket the profits without investing in any other productions, thus turning the theatre into a kind of warehouse, which sits dark for most of the year.
The current chapter in the history of Radio City, its orchestra, organ and great traditions is even now being written by Cablevision. It is, so far, a dark chapter. But great traditions do not die easy.
Andy Rodgers is the co-chair of the Radio City Orchestra Committee.