RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL enters a new era of family entertainment
"It's hard to put a label on family entertainment," says Robert F. Jani, producer and chief executive of Radio City Music Hall. "But you can feelm a certain quality in the circus, and other traditional entertainments. They have such universal appeal that they become timeless -- like magic, or the jester. That's why they last so long."Skip to next paragraph
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Radio City Music Hall, the self-proclaimed "showplace of the nation," has lasted nearly 50 years. More than a quarter of a billion people have poured through its doors since 1932, all in search of that elusive "family entertainment."
In recent years, the hall has fallen on hard times, with financial problems and declining attendance. Now, under Jani's leadership, it is bouncing back -- by taking a whole new approach to show business.
Instead of being locked into a movie- and-stage-show format, as in the past, the hall is now open to any kind of family-oriented production. Spectaculars, musicals, and concerts are on tap -- and, yes, a movie from time to time. Meanwhile, the hall has broadened its financial base by going into "related" businesses, from catering to scenerymaking to TV production. The institution is flourishing, and the future looks bright. You can't keep a good Music Hall down.
Recent shows at the hall include "Snow White," staged like a Broadway musical , and a huge celebration of spring featuring the Vienna Choir Boys. As of today , Ginger Rogers completes an engagement starring with the Rockettes in a joint singing and dancing venture, and Carol Lawrence steps into the show (which will continue through June 22). During a recent interview in the Music Hall's executive quarters, I asked Jani why the old movie-and- show formula became outmoded, while the new full-length "spectaculars" are thriving.
"Over the last 10 years," said Jani, "the motion-picture business has fallen away from family films. A great percentage of major pictures are R-rated, or not for kids. That makes them incompatible with our kind of stage presentation.
"Also, the old formula -- four shows a day, seven days a week -- didn't provide the economic resources you need to do a stage show that's exciting in 1980. This started the decline of the Music Hall, in terms of people's attitude toward it. Our master plan takes the approach that the hall -- as a piece of real estate -- can have a whole new life, theatrically. We still want to have film premieres here, but just for a week or two, as a special event. The rest of the time, we can be many other things!"
The Music Hall's commitment to live, "spectacular" family entertainment goes beyond economic and scheduling considerations. "Because of television," says Jani, "people have become several steps removed from live entertainment. Movies and comedies on TV have become like books or heavily plotted stories -- you can say it's entertainment, but it's not leisurem entertainment. In the middle of this situation, vaudeville is new again! In effect, our new summer show -- the 'Manhattan Showboat,' opening June 27 -- is the biggest vaudeville show ever staged. And that's all it is!"
In Jani's view, this kind of flashy entertainment ties right in with the elaborate Music Hall building itself. "For anyone who's 30 years old or younger ," he says, "the whole package is almost a new experience. They've been so involved with TV -- a flat medium -- that it's remarkable just to walk into something as large as this theater.
"It's the kind of environment that enwraps you -- like an urban 'theme park' has been so successful? It's a place where you can get out and touch the hardware and ride on things and really explore the place, almost on a one-to-one basis. Fifty years ago, there wasn't such a need for this: People could touch the singer on the corner or the hurdy-gurdy player, and somebody was always playing the piano in the living room. We have some of that quality in here. We want people to reach out and use their imaginations, not just sit passively back."