In January 1978, President of Rockefeller Center Inc. Alton P. Marshall announced that Radio City would close after the run of its Easter show. The 45-year-old theater was operating at a loss of over $2 million. Early financial struggles were brought on by the Depression and the decline of vaudeville, but the introduction of the Rockettes and motion pictures helped to keep the theater afloat. By the 1970s, Radio City had become an integral part of New York City but was facing money troubles once more. News of the closure and possible demolition of Radio City spurred preservationists and theater employees into action.
Two figures who were instrumental in the fight to save Radio City were former Dance Captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company, Rosemary Novellino, and her husband Bill Mearns, Captain of the Singers. On March 23rd, join Untapped New York Insiders for a virtual talk with Rosemary and Bill as they share their first-hand accounts of the fight for Radio City along with historical videos and images. This virtual live-streamed talk is free for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and gain access to member-exclusive in-person and virtual events!
Saving Radio City
Opened in December 1932, Radio City Music Hall is a prime example of Art Deco architecture and interior design. Designed by architect Edward Durell Stone with interiors by Donald Deskey, the theater features art by prominent figures of the time including Hildreth Meière and Rene Paul Chambellan. Within days of Marshall’s closure announcement, efforts were started to keep the theater open.
Lieutenant Governor Mary Krupsak told the New York Times, “Radio City Music Hall is the symbol of the tourist industry of New York City, and highly regarded worldwide. Clearly, it is worth fighting for. If it survived the Depression and wartime it can survive now.” The next week, meetings were already being held to come up with ways to make business at Radio City viable. Some ideas included letting the Rockettes tour around the country to generate income, offering subscription plans for the theatre, and landmarking the building.
Rosemary Novellino, Dance Captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company, formed the Showpeople’s Committee to Save Radio City Music Hall just days after the announcement of Radio City’s impending closure. The group was made up of all types of employees who made the theater run, from Rockettes and singers, to ushers and stagehands. Novellino made television and radio appearances and produced publicity stunts to garner support for the theater from celebrities and politicians across the nation.
On Sunday, April 3, 1978, Novellino and other Radio City employees donned suits of armor and stood outside the theater collecting signatures from guests in line on petitions to stop its closure. The costumes represented their battle to protect the historic site they loved.
At a spirited Landmarks Comission hearing, Marshall argued that landmarking the theater would lead to a court challenge and application for a demolition permit. Despite Marshall’s protestations, in March 1978, the interiors of Radio City became designated landmarks. Even though this was a win for the Showpeople’s Committtee and all of those who supported the theater, it still didn’t help fix the financial deficit. The stage went dark at the “Showplace of the Nation” April 12, 1978, just as Marshall had announced. In May of that year, an application for demolition was filed to the City Department of Buildings.
Join us on March 23rd for a virtual talk with Rosemary and Bill Mearns to hear first hand accounts of how the theater was ultimately saved and see news coverage from the time. This virtual live-streamed talk is free for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and gain access to member-exclusive in-person and virtual events!
Saving Radio City
Next, check out 10 Secrets of Radio City Music Hall