New York -- The price of a soft drink at Radio City Music Hall is $5, with or without beverage. Most people fork over the five spot for the souvenir cup.
Everything is big at 6th Avenue and 50th Street, where the annual "Christmas Spectacular" is in hyperkinetic frenzy until Jan. 8. The show, as well as the theater where it plays, have become American entertainment treasures.
People line up in the cold for the chance to sit in the vast, streamlined auditorium to see the Radio City Rockettes kick and pound a stage so big it looks larger than the state of Delaware.
In its heavy advertising promotion, the 1994 edition of "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" promised a heavy dose of glitz: new costumes, music and choreography. To a skeptical mind, it sounded as if the show could be a lot of sizzle and not much steak for a top ticket price of $46.
So it was, on a cold and windy Manhattan evening I walked as a confirmed doubter into the Radio City Music Hall lobby. How many of us haven't been to Christmas pageants, choir concerts and school assemblies? Could this be any different? Could this be as good as the perfect Midnight Mass, when the organ is in tune, the incense isn't offensive, the sermon is short and the choir sings all your favorites?
An hour and a half later, I exited on 50th Street a confirmed believer in a Radio City Christmas. It was a show that beamed as bright as any Christmas tree, a genuine entertainment bauble. I was an immediate convert to all that sizzle.
How many audiences leave the doors of "Phantom of the Opera" or "Les Miserables" this charged up? The ones I've seen often look somewhat disappointed at the conclusion of the Broadway spectacles. Maybe it is the Christmas spirit that the Radio City show induces. Maybe it's the content.
The show is timed at exactly 90 minutes, not counting the tooting Wurlitzer pipe organ, whose console and musician pops out of the wall. Thousands of pipes are hidden in chambers behind the concentric roseate circles of the auditorium walls. As his fingers shot across the keys for "Angels We Have Heard on High," I began to warm up to the evening.
The actual show fills the gaping stage from the bottom of the orchestra pit to the top of the circular arch. It soon abandons the Christian classics of hymnody for "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," featuring Santa Claus, the Rockette precision dance line and a high school full of costumed players.
The show had a clean and fresh look, not at all like last year's dusty artificial wreath. This was real Broadway, full of energy, optimism and a good time. The show moved like the speed of those sets of Christmas tree lights that flash then chase each other around the circuit.
Thanks to the magic of hydraulics and stage machinery, the orchestra ascended out of the pit, reached the stage level and moved across the stage floor.
The audience reacted as if it were a perfect Christmas morning. Nine complete scenes and no dragging intermission move quickly.
We got a "Nutcracker" sequence, another from Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol," Christmas in New York, Ice Skating on the Plaza (with real ice and terrific effects), Santa's toy fantasy, carol of the bells (not as bad as it sounds), and a finale, a living Nativity, complete with a barnyard of live animals.
Audiences ate up "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" sequence, wherein the Rockettes dance in starched white pants and crimson tunics. Viewed live and on stage, it's better than Busby Berkeley and Warner Brothers, which flourished at the same time (the 1930s) as the early Radio City pageants.
I realize the Rockettes are today something of a signature act for New York. You won't be disappointed. When those women start kicking, you think this is what show business is all about. They also avoid the cloying cuteness that causes some people to become allergic to the charms of the Walt Disney Studios.
Part of the Radio City experience is the temple itself, a well-maintained 1932 art deco playhouse built along the proportions of the Empire State Building and King Kong -- whose movie namesake incidentally had its premiere here.
The hall is one of the finest classic movie palaces to survive. Visitors like to see the Nicotine Room (no smoking allowed today), created by industrial designer Donald Deskey. There's also a room where the walls are maps of the world.
The lobby's chandeliers weigh tons. The stage has a magnificent curtain that drapes and falls, ascends and descends with the flourish of Renaissance pageantry.
Part of my fun here was just watching the crowds, the tour buses from Dundalk and the bundled families from New Jersey. They pounced on the lobby souvenir stands. They gobbled up the $8 souvenir programs. They forked over the $5 for popcorn in Radio City plastic tubs. A few mulled the $125 Radio City starter jackets. For the budget-minded, there are always peppermint Lifesavers at 75 cents.
A few days later, back in Baltimore, I was on a No. 3 bus working its way through Charles Street traffic. A pair of older women were audibly discussing their holiday plans, which included a bus trip to Radio City.
"I still get a thrill when I first hear that organ," one said to the other.
Now that I've seen one of these pageants, I know exactly what she meant.
IF YOU GO . . .
For information about "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular," call (212) 247-4777.
Ticket prices range from $25 to $46 depending on the seat.