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radio city music hall rockefeller center west midtown manhattan new york untapped cities samantha sokolThis photograph was taken in 1934 by the Wurts Brothers.
Image via New York Public Library

Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27th in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. The beautiful theater was also designed with social equality in mind, selling tickets affordable to the average New Yorker. During its first four decades, it served as a movie theater, showing classics such as the original King Kong, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and even the Lion King. The theater also housed the Rockettes, who started performing their world-renowned Christmas Spectacular in 1933.

The theater served as the cornerstone of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Midtown complex, Rockefeller Center. Radio City was named after the “Radio Corporation of America,” an NBC radio and motion picture program whose mission was to offer diversion from the failing economy.

The interior designer, the little-known American Modernist Donald Desky, was selected by a competition. Desky was inspired by German and French modernist styles and adapted these methods by using more affordable materials. As such, his work appealed to Americans who were, at the time, turned off by the showcasing of wealth. Even though Desky was a staunch modernist, he had to cooperate with the project manager for Radio City Music Hall, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, who wanted a Rococo style. As a result, Desky called the design for Radio City “Modern Rococo.”

Be sure to check out a history of Art-Deco design in Rockefeller Center by the Downtown Doodler. Also, watch these video series of Hugh Hardy’s Theater of Architecture, where you can watch a video about how the BAM Harvey Theater and Radio City Music Hall juxtapose modernity and history.

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