There are long-running shows and then there's the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Originally performed as a holiday “gift” between movie screenings back in 1933, the Christmas Spectacular began its full 90-minute format to overwhelming public response in 1979. The 2002 edition of the Christmas Spectacular featured a cast of more than 140 people, including a 35-piece orchestra. Today, there are several touring productions as well as the main production on the home stage of the Radio City Music Hall. Ken Billington is the longtime designer for the Radio City production, while David Agress serves as the LD for the touring productions.

Agress approached this year's Spectacular with a specific problem in mind: how to maintain the artistic integrity of his lighting design when multiple companies are touring the production simultaneously. A second objective for his design team was to cut the load-in time at each move. Agress, working with programmer Paul Turner, turned to three separate building blocks and put them together in preproduction to accomplish both goals — Prelite Studios in New York, XYZ positioning on the Wholehog II, and WYSIWYG.

They began their work with the show file from the 2001 production. Two focus grids had been constructed, which the team called a Map. The first focus grid was built on the downstage 20' of the deck, with 4' centers stage left to right and 3' centers downstage to upstage. The second grid was further upstage, with the left to right on 5' centers and downstage to upstage on 4' centers. Each of the 96 moving lights in the rig needed to be included in each of the 95 focus points provided by the grid.

In 2001, refocusing each light in each focus point (96 lights times 95 focus points) took about 16 hours. It was critical to the team to reduce this time. Also, because separate programmers were individually modifying the preset data, each show had the potential for looking different — for example, if one programmer used a flip command when another one did not. Agress and Turner wanted to remove this variable to assure that each production maintained the original look of the design.

The first step in the process was to convert the positional information for the moving lights from pan and tilt data to XYZ. The moving light rig consisted of 47 Martin MAC 2000 Profiles, 51 High End Systems Studio Color® 575s, 10 High End Studio Spot® CMY 575s, and five Coemar Panorama Cycs.

Because in XYZ programming individual and manual updating of each focus point isn't required, it is much easier for the design team to maintain the look of the show consistently from company to company. The Hog programmers who would assume responsibility for the show for the Cleveland, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Dallas companies were brought in during the first technical rehearsals to learn the show and how the show files were constructed and were to be maintained. In addition to the Map focus points, there were also about 70 scenery focuses and 70 special focuses that were built.

Says Agress: “When we finished the XYZ Map focus at the first venue and punched through the show, it was obvious to everyone that the time spent at Prelite had paid off. The carpenters had more stage time, there were no overnighters, and the director got the cast onstage sooner. It is my hope to convert our other Christmas Spectaculars into XYZ, even though they were not originally built on a Map focus.”

For the Radio City production, Billington essentially kept things as he has for the past 20 years, the only difference this year being a new fiber-optic stardrop, provided by TPR Enterprises. The big change this year was in the audio department, as sound designer Dan Gerhard chose JBL's VerTec Line Array speakers powered by Crown amplifiers.

Gerhard specified the VerTec/Crown system after successfully using a system at another event. “VerTec provides excellent full-range sound for music from the orchestra as well as pristine clarity for spoken word, which is crucial for this show,” said Gerhard. “The requirement at Radio City is for a sound system to cover from top to bottom, which is about a 90° vertical throw when the speakers are flown above the set, as they are for this show, which VerTec is very capable of handling.

“Also,” he continues, “from an audio standpoint, the Christmas Spectacular uses a lot of headset lavalier microphones which can cause many problems. The more coherent the sound is in the room and the more impact it therefore has, you can keep a lower overall level, which is important. The greater the clarity, the less volume you need for the audience to hear the details of the show.”

Two Midas H3000 consoles are operated by sound engineers Tommy Arrigoni and Russ Lynn. The orchestra requires 75 inputs, with a dozen live microphones for performers onstage, and many channels dedicated to prerecorded program. The entire show is run to time code to allow audio from the 3D introductory film (by Kleiser-Walczak), prerecorded materials, and sound effects to be precisely integrated with the live music, dancing, and acting onstage. The VerTec system is made up of two arrays flown above the stage. Each array contains 15 VT4889 and two of the new compact VT4887 line arrays; 42 Crown MacroTech 5002VZ amplifiers provide the power. Processing is handled by two BSS 366 OmniDrives.

The VerTec sound system was installed in October as preparation began for the shows. Sound rental company Promix provided the system and assisted in the installation. “Setting up the VerTec rig was a breeze. The rigging and its simplicity blow away the other line arrays,” says Arrigoni. “Tuning the system was simple and painless. There was very little change from the factory setups for the VT4889, mostly to compensate for the needs of an orchestra compared to the average amplified musical performance for which the system would generally be used. If I was doing a rock show, I don't think I would have made any changes.”