On the short list of buildings that are American icons, surely Radio City Music Hall is one of the greatest. On its opening in 1932, The New York Herald Tribune called it "the most remarkable auditorium ever built" and time has done nothing to alter that assessment. From the depths of the Depression to this side of the Millennium, Radio City Music Hall has remained an indelible symbol of show business glamour and sophistication, a peoples' palace of entertainment that rivaled any image of luxury shown on its giant screen.
For years, Radio City Music Hall has been billed as "the showplace of the nation," yet, by 1978, it was marked for demolition; changing tastes resulted in dwindling audiences for its standard fare of big-ticket family films preceded by a live stage show. Disaster was averted, however, when the building was granted landmark status. Still, time continued to erode its beauty; owners came and went, but no one was willing to pay for a major refurbishment. Now, a small army of architects and technicians have restored the venue; the result is so stunning that even those who are thoroughly familiar with the theatre will barely believe their eyes.
Built as part of the famous Rockefeller Center complex in Midtown Manhattan, Radio City Music Hall was originally slotted to be the new home of the Metropolitan Opera Company. When that plan fell through, it was taken over by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), with impresario Samuel "Roxy" Rothfael signing on as general manager. Rothfael, who had spent many years toiling in the glittery movie palaces of New York City, embarked in 1931 on a grand tour of Europe, accompanied by a team of architects and engineers, on a search for the best ideas in theatre design in Berlin, Moscow, Hamburg, London, and Paris. Architect Edward Durrell Stone was chosen to design the building (He worked for Associated Architects, a team of firms that included Reinhard & Hofmeister, Hood & Roulihoux and Corbett, and Harrison & MacMurray), basing his work on Joseph Urban's abandoned plan for the Metropolitan Opera House. Interior designer Donald Deskey took on the job of Radio City's many interior spaces-including lobbies, smoking rooms, and lounges-as well as providing furniture, carpets, lighting fixtures, and the auditorium's 112'w x 80'h curtain.
When it was completed, Radio City Music Hall was, in its way, an avant-garde theatre design. Most live-performance theatres of the day took their inspiration from 19th century models, while the great movie houses of the period were towering piles of decorative details stolen from every conceivable era of history. An architecture critic in The Herald-Tribune noted approvingly, "There is not to be found a single chubby wooden cherub, nor one bursting cornucopia of gilded plenty." Instead, Radio City was a triumph of modern design, with its gleaming metallic surfaces and cleanly designed and appointed spaces.
Architect Hugh Hardy, founding partner of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, has spent much of the last decade restoring many of New York's key theatrical landmarks, including the New Victory and New Amsterdam Theatres, both on 42nd Street. Those projects involved buildings that had fallen into terrible disrepair and had to be thoroughly reclaimed. Radio City posed different, but no less daunting, challenges. For the record, Hardy refers to the project as an "interpretive" restoration; in other words, allowances were made for contemporary sensibilities regarding lighting and other amenities. Nevertheless, the Radio City project involved painstaking research and replication. Many of the original Deskey-designed wall coverings, carpet, and furnishings were altered or missing; the HHPA interiors team searched through Radio City's archives, as well as the Museum of the City of New York and the Deskey archives at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, gathering information that would allow them to recreate the looks of various interior spaces.
Such work began inside the auditorium itself. The walls were covered in a pattern of singers, dancers, and other performers, titled "History of Theatre," designed by Ruth Reeves, an associate of Deskey's. The original plates to create the panels no longer exist, so the pattern was recreated by HHPA staff, who scanned photos of the pattern into a computer to work out the incomplete imagery. The auditorium carpeting, a Deskey-designed pattern called "Singing Women," had been replicated on inexpensive synthetic material, resulting in a faded, worn look. HHPA researchers discovered the original gouache of Deskey's design, and recreated it using a woven pattern in a wool and nylon fiber.
Thanks to improvements such as these, the Radio City auditorium doesn't look different-it just looks gloriously new. A new stage curtain, made of silk and Trevira by the fabric house Scalamandre, has been installed. All 5,901 seats have been replaced by American Seating Corporation, the firm that originally supplied the theatre in 1932. The ceilings underneath the mezzanines, which had been painted over repeatedly, were restored to their original Dutch metal surfaces, giving the impression of gold leaf. The theatre's original cove lighting, designed to illuminate the ceiling, has been significantly reworked. All of the reflectors were removed and cleaned, with new lenses fitted to ensure consistent color (the bulbs are red, yellow, and blue). Also, the sockets were modified to accept halogen lamps, which are brighter, more uniform, and more energy-efficient. HHPA worked with a number of other firms on the renovation, including theatre consultants Fisher Dachs Associates, architectural lighting firm Fisher Marantz Stone, and acousticians Jaffe Holden Scarbrough. In all aspects of the restoration, the brief was the same: to improve the theatre's functional ability without significantly altering its design.
One startling fact about Radio City's stage equipment is how much of it is original and how much of it still works. The "band car," the unit that carries the orchestra when it rises and moves to the rear of the stage, is as old as the theatre. The stage deck still contains the original steam curtain, which allows the Rockettes to appear through a wall of mist. Most surprising, the theatre's original hydraulic stage lift system is still in place.
This latter system, which consists of the orchestra lift and three lifts located at the rear of the stage, was in need of work. The main hydraulic valves were replaced; however, the theatre's 67-year-old electrical relay control system could not interface with the new valves. Furthermore, adds Joe Mobilia, project manager at Fisher Dachs, "The Radio City staff, including Eric Titcomb, who runs the hydraulics, wanted to keep the original system," a brass wall-mounted plate with clock-face dials that gives precise information regarding the location of each lift. So Radio City contacted the Syracuse-based company J.R. Clancy to replace the valves and design a new computer-operated control system. Duncan Mackenzie, working with Clancy, created a new industrial-grade programmable logic control, which allows for maximum flexibility. Now Titcomb can control the lifts using a computer console, or by original analog mechanical control panel (on which Clancy also did some restoration work).
Of course, the theatre's lighting system received a significant upgrade. A completely new dimmer system was installed, using the Electronic Theatre Controls Sensor racks. Five-hundred-thirty-eight 2.4kW house lighting dimmers were added to control the cove lighting, with nine-hundred 2.4kW and thirty 6.0kW stage lighting dimmers. A key goal was to create more lighting positions throughout the space; thus, seven 400A disconnect switches were added to the choral steps area, in doorways located on either side of the stage. The new system is capable of controlling over 4,000 devices. New balcony rail positions were added as well on the front of the mezzanines, although great care was taken to design and paint them so that they blend in to the room's design (in fact, you have to stare very hard to notice them).
In addition, an ETC ETCN2 ethernet system is being added to the theatre (as we go to press, this is scheduled to be completed by July). "With the ethernet system, they won't have to run so much cable through the auditorium," says Richard Hoyes, also of Fisher Dachs, who adds that the system will also reduce labor costs by as much as 25%. The overall ETC control package includes one Obsession II 3000 console with dual tracking processors, one Obsession II remote focus unit, 40 ethernet tap stations, six 3-com Superstack II 3000 ethernet switches, one 3-com Corebuilder 3500 ethernet router, 11 ETCNet 2 portable ethernet DMX nodes, and one ETCNet2 portable video node. For house lighting, the package includes one Unison external processing rack, one Unison portable LCD master station, and one Unison preset station. Lighting equipment for the venue was supplied by Production Arts.
The new dimmers are not only more powerful, they are much more space-efficient. Hoyes notes that the theatre's original dimmer system filled a room that was 20' x 90'; the Sensor system fits comfortably in a space that is 16' x 22'. The increased power and disconnects will also be helpful during TV broadcasts, which are happening more frequently at the Music Hall (many awards shows are held there, including this year's Tony Award ceremonies). To this end, a number of new camera positions, for high-definition TV, have also been added to the auditorium.
The acoustics of the room posed special challenges. According to Mark Holden, principal-in-charge of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, a number of artists had complained in recent years about a noticeable echo effect. Using a binaural dummy head, a mock human torso with mics for ears, Holden took some sonic measurements of the room. "There were two sources" of the problem, he says. Sound bounced off both the balcony rails, in front of each mezzanine, and also off the wall and doors at the back of the auditorium.
This effect was, Holden discovered, intentional; the room was designed to bounce sound of the ceiling arches, to help focus it towards the back of the room. The ceiling arches were made of Kalite, a sound-absorbent material which helped to manage the placement of the sound. Over the years, however, the arches were painted over, making the domes more reflective, which forced more sound to the back of the room, increasing the echo effect. "With the increased amplification of performers, the echo became much stronger," he says. "The sound was coming back half a beat late, which drove singers crazy."
The solution was to rework the rear wall, to make it more sound-absorbent. The Ruth Reeves "History of Theatre" wall covering was reproduced in cotton, which lets the sound through to a fiberglass core behind it; the fiberglass absorbs excess sound and reduces the echo. The fiberglass addition ranges from 4" on the first floor to 3' in the third mezzanine. In addition, fiberglass was added to balcony rails and on the doors. The restored carpeting also helps control the sound, and additional acoustic treatments were added to reduce the sounds of traffic from 50th and 51st Streets, which are just outside the auditorium walls.
David Robb, also of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, says that the firm originally designed a $2.3 million sound system upgrade for the facility, but the owners went with a much smaller version, reasoning that most users would bring in their own sound systems. Nevertheless, he says, "We added to the infrastructure, including wire systems to allow connection of audio devices at a number of new locations and to increase the capability of the current locations." Robb and his staff doubled the number of inputs on the stage elevators, and added a number of EAW JB80 speakers to side walls of the theatre, and under the three mezzanines. For control, two Midas Heritage 3000s consoles, each with 52 channels and 30 outputs, were added; the consoles were custom-built to fit in the house mix area, on the second mezzanine level, which could not be expanded without losing valuable seating space. (There are two other mix positions on the first floor, which are used by outside acts). Other audio electronics are located in portable racks placed in the choral steps area, along with two BSS 9088-LL signal processors and a QSC PL-1.8 amplifier. The sound contractor on the project was Signal Perfection Limited (SPL).
From a design standpoint, the auditorium is the only the beginning of the Radio City project. The venue is filled with ancillary spaces, each of which is unique. Downstairs, in the Grand Lounge, Stewart Jones, project director for HHPA, says, "Every surface has been touched-restored, painted, refinished, or altered," all in the cause of restoring its original glamour. The Grand Lounge is defined by black mirrored pillars and black walls with a mural by Louis Bouche titled The Phantasmagoria of the Theatre that features painted groupings of stage performers. Jones adds that concession stands previously in use have been replaced by sleek black and silver stations that blend into the room's overall look.
Upstairs is the Grand Foyer, the opulent main lobby area. Jones says that the original gold-backed mirrors were left alone; the new gold draperies reflect the originals, as do the red wall coverings and the releafing of the ceilings and grand stair fasciae. Also, he says, "The Landmarks Commission approved the addition of new lighting coves in the ceiling over the mirrors, to provide flexibility," as the Foyer is now used for receptions and press events. Wall sconces placed between the mirrors were removed, rewired, and polished. The main decoration in this room is the 60'-long, 40'-high mural Fountain of Youth by Ezra Winter. Previous attempts at restoration had left layers of transparent coatings on the painting, resulting in a darkened, yellowed look. Conservation experts were hired to remove these layers of varnish, re-adhere flaking paint, and paint in areas of loss.
Each mezzanine has its distinctive lounge areas. On the first mezzanine level, the men's lounge is covered in a tribute to maps of the world, designed by Witold Gordon. The ladies' lounge is a circular mirrored room, with yellow vanity tables; it looks like a set from the George Cukor film The Women (1939). On the second mezzanine level, the men's lounge is known as the "Nicotine Room," and is covered in wallpaper depicting the history of tobacco (or "Saint Nicotine," as a wall panel calls it). Appropriately, the foil was originally donated by R. J. Reynolds; Deskey block-printed the design. The ladies' lounge on this level was to have been painted by Georgia O'Keefe, who backed out of the assignment. She was replaced by Japanese artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who painted a mural of oversized flowers. It was overpainted in 1963, but HHPA found Kuniyoshi's original sketches and commissioned an artist to recreate it. On the third mezzanine level, the men's lounge has a Wild West motif (complete with cowhide chairs), courtesy of Buk Ulreich and the ladies' lounge features a mural of a crouching panther by Henry Billings.
Radio City has moved far beyond its days as a movie house with an added-value stage show. The venue's operators, Cablevision, keep it booked year round with an eclectic lineup of pop concerts, awards shows, television broadcasts, prize fights, touring spectacles, and of course, the famous Christmas Show (Rumor has it that the equally legendary Easter Show may soon be coming back from the dead.) It's now impossible to imagine that it was once close to destruction. Thanks to the new renovation, it retains its original allure while finding new ways to serve audiences well into the 21st century.
Architect: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates; Hugh Hardy, partner-in-charge, Stewart Jones, project director, Jonathan Schloss, project manager, Caroline Bertrand, project interior designer, David Andreini, project field representative, Carey Press, project architect, Serge Demerjian, project architect, Nina Freedman, project architect
HHPA design team: Winslow Wu, Hyungsup Sim, Steve Benesh, Marcelo Mendez, Arturo Padilla, Doug Pearl, Kari Overvik, & Chris Kaiser Ryoko Okado, interiors
Client: Radio City Productions, LLC
Structural engineer: Robert Silman Associates, PC; Joseph F. Tortorella, principal-in-charge, Erin Davis, project manager
MEP engineer: Meyer Strong and Jones Engineers, PC; Fred Lindquist, principal-in-charge, John Palucci, project manager, Trevor Ricketts, electrical engineer, Robert Schnarr, plumbing engineer
Theatre consultant:: Fisher Dachs Associates, Inc.; Joshua Dachs, principal-in-charge, Joe Mobilia, project manager/ stage rigging and hydraulics, Richard Hoyes, stage lighting/house lighting control, Adam Huggard: stage lighting/house lighting control, Barbara Spandorf: stage rigging.
Architectural lighting consultant: Fisher Marantz Stone, Inc.; Paul Marantz, principal-in-charge, Scott J. Hershman, project manager, Andrew Thompson, design team, Steven Heuss, design team
Acoustical consultant: Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, Inc.; Mark Holden, principal-in-charge, David Robb, electro-acoustics, Rob Likendey, project manager, Sam Brandt, assistant electro-acoustic designer
Construction manager: Barr & Barr, Inc. Builders; Donald Barr, principal-in-charge, Tom LePage, project executive