It was time to kick his Rockette habit

Real Life

True Tales From Everyday Living

December 16, 2007|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Sun

It's the tap, tappiest time of the year.

Maybe you're soon headed up to New York City's Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Spectacular? The show is terrific, trust me. I've seen it dozens and dozens of times. But not this year. Doctor's orders, you see. I'm in Rockette Rehab.

Like most love affairs gone bad, mine with "America's dancing daughters" began innocently enough. In 1994, I was a hot-shot publicist, recently axed from my senior vice president's position at a global public relations firm. There I was, collecting unemployment, imagining my chin's stubble might become a beard, and pounding away on a novel. It was - surprise! - about a hot-shot publicist, recently axed by a global public relations firm.

Then, a friend recommended me for a month of freelance work at the Music Hall. I shaved and landed the job, and a month extended into seven years - or more precisely, seven Christmases, which on the Radio City calendar, begin at Labor Day and end Jan. 15.

I was hired to help solve a problem many theaters would kill for: Ticket sales were too good. Radio City's Christmas Spectacular was sold out months in advance, and no more performances could be shoehorned into its schedule,

unless they were to begin before Halloween. The solution? Spin off the Music Hall show into C.O.N.Y. (Christmas Outside New York), pared-down versions of the original that played simultaneously in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Mexico City.

My well-paid assignment was to fly in and out, repeatedly alighting in each market just long enough to consult with a publicist on buzz-building press events such as "Christmas in September," the "First Day of Rehearsals" and "Blessing of the Animals." Don't ask.

I also conducted videotaped interviews with each of the Rockettes, a roster that had grown to several hundred, to determine which were polished enough to be "spokeswomen" for each show. Did she have a sexy, but not too sexy, smile and laugh? Was she sufficiently articulate to, like, complete a sentence without, like, using the word "like" three times?

Renowned for their synchronized choreography - 36 women moving as a single entity - if you notice one Rockette, it's probably because she's made a mistake. Yet it was my charge to pick the prettiest of pretty, sparkliest of sparkly, and sweep her away to interviews on live television or to be featured in gushing profiles in local newspapers. As star-making power goes, admittedly this was pretty small potatoes. Nonetheless, it amused me, at first, to play Svengali.

There's no business like show (girl) business. The Rockettes were kid sisters I never had - quite the ditziest darlings imaginable. Since they craved the adulation of publicity, not to mention the extra pay my favor represented, they flirted with me shamelessly. We enjoyed plenty of barnyard humor, too, since in the wings backstage were sheep, donkeys and dromedary shuttled on for the famous "Living Nativity" that concludes each performance. Ever been licked by a camel? I have.

These were the good times. I mentioned that fat salary, didn't I? And, a seemingly limitless expense account that allowed me to fly first-class, stay at fine hotels and run up impressive bar tabs. No one back at the Music Hall ever complained. C.O.N.Y. was minting money. Keep up the good work, Stephen! What happened, then ... the seven-year itch? Maybe it was when I turned 40 and found myself old enough to be some of these girls' father. This realization made me feel cranky. Then, mean. I'd always run a tight ship, but my "rules" became strangely more stringent. I'd flip out if I caught one of the Rockettes chewing gum in public. I'd mimic their iffy diction. I began to pause longer ... and longer ... when a girl asked me if she looked fat. Just the sort of petty, spiteful things any man does at the end of a marriage. Eventually, I made dozens of women miserable, and myself most of all.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was supervising the setup of an outdoor stage on a plaza in Cleveland when a policeman told me that Manhattan was under attack. Without missing a beat, one of the Rockettes asked, "If this press event is canceled, we still get paid, right?" On the spot, I decided that would be my last Radio City Christmas.

Do I miss the girls? Yes. Can I sometimes still hear them tap-dancing in my sleep? Absolutely. Am I strong enough to see the Christmas Spectacular? Maybe someday. For now, I'm taking my life one sequin at a time.

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