Lines of Business: Roxy, the Rockettes, and the Radio

You pretty much have to line up for anything in a busy town like New York City. It is hard to believe that when I first visited the city I did not know how to queue. Not that this kind of orderliness is entirely unknown to the Germans, who call it “Schlange stehen” (literally, standing snake). We used to do it for bread, but we don’t do it for the circus or for the busses and trains that get us there. Perhaps, that kind of discipline is too closely associated with days of famine and fascism, in which more than an evening’s entertainment was on the line.

Anyway. I didn’t mind lining up in front of the Radio City Music Hall to see those gals whose line of business is . . . standing in line. The Rockettes, whose fancy legwork is the highlight of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, now celebrating its 75th season. Of course, my disorderly mind went wandering. I was thinking about “Roxy” Rothafel, the man to whom we owe this spectacle.

Back in 1925, when entertainment by radio was still in its pre-network infancy, Roxy, then Director of the Capitol Theater in New York City, experimented in on-air theatricals, marvelling (in Broadcasting: Its New Day) that radio was the

great spiritual anodyne of the time. None but the hungry hearts that need it most can appreciate, even dimly, what it means. It is a new sunshine, a new hope in life, bringing with it immeasurable joy. It is all hopelessly beyond the understanding of the blasé who are bored by even the most sensational amusements that modern life has to offer.

According to Roxy and his co-author Raymond Francis Yates (who had already penned the Complete Radio Book),

[t]here is a deeply human side to broadcasting that cannot help but reach far down into the conscience of an impresario fortunate enough to win public acclaim. The searching nature of radio makes this so; radio is a magic fluid that finds its way into every crevice of human life. At the same instant it is seeking out the little family group in the cabin of a snow-covered sand-barge wintering in the dreary North River at Hoboken as well as those who are lounging in the luxury of a Fifth Avenue mansion. The lonely souls in an ice-covered, wind-lashed lighthouse on the North Atlantic coast are fellow-listeners with the humble folk in the murky tenants of New York’s lower East Side. The little farmhouse nestled in the snow-clad hills of Maine, the lonely trapper of the silent Yukon, the patient sufferers on hospital cots, the meek inmates of almshouses, all are reached by radio. To some, radio is but a small part of racy life of varied sensations, but to hundreds of thousands it is a great part of a life of spirit-crushing monotony.

Surprisingly, the enterprising Roxy argued that “advertising by radio does not offer a solution to the problem of making broadcasting self-supporting on the scale that is necessary for national success.” Ruling out “voluntary contributions from the public,” they envisioned “equipment that will confine reception from certain studios to those who pay a monthly or yearly fee.”

He was off there. Meanwhile, I am off again, standing in line for some classic cinema treats (and a bit of art) at the MoMA . . .

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