"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."
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."
As an example of the hall's current style, Jani cites the recent production of "Snow White," saying that "we presented it as a fairy tale, but we did it 100 percent straight. So it became a fairy tale for adults as well as children. By their response, the audience showed it wasn't just a children's show. It didn't become a cartoon of itself. It was played out as if it were the most important story of all, with the best talent we could find."
In order to pull off productions like this, Jani decided the hall must have the best equipment, as well as the best talent. "When we stepped in," he says, "the hall was 50 years old in its musical and theatrical communication system. Most theaters have this problem. But we took a giant step into the '80s.
"This was tremendously important. Today, most people have better sound in their automobilesm than most theaters have. The ear is much more discerning than it used to be, in matters of performance and style. What people used to hear in two or three octaves, they hear in seven or eight octaves now, because their listening abilities have been expanded.
"The public is even more sophisticated in these things than they realize. Yet for years, all the sounds here were practically shoved through a megaphone, and it all came out as slush. Now we have 24-track stereo that can mix and isolate all those sounds marvelously. So we don't need superstars to make a spectacular. The setting makes the difference."
Such considerations have allowed the Music Hall to make interesting experiments. Jani mentions a recent show with the Vienna Choir Boys. "They have been a concert attraction for a couple of hundred years or so," he says, "but this was their first time in a show.m They did the same things they've always done, but we cocooned it into a new kind of package. We didn't get a concert audience, but we did have certain concert qualities scrambled into the mosaic of the production. And we left the people wanting more: Folks left talking about the Vienna Choir Boys, even though they wouldn't have walked across the street to see the choir by itself!"
The resources of the Music Hall are amply displayed in the Rockettes presentation. The lighting of the dance numbers is truly spectacular, to use the hall's favorite word, and the vast space of the theater is emphasized by scenes that take place in niches along the side walls of the auditorium. As always, the orchestra glides majestically into view on its own huge elevator, and -- for the first time -- the bare stage of the Music Hall is visible in a "rehearsal" scene featuring the Rockettes.
It's an old-fashioned kind of show, and some of its elements -- especially its humor -- fall flat. But "old-fashioned" is what the hall wants to maintain, amid its state-of-the-art equipment and bustling new enterprises. "We feel a responsibility to the tradition of the hall," says Jani. "After all, it's part of the American tradition. There are so few places where that tradition -- that security blanket -- is retained. We want the integrity of that.
"We want to bring things up to date, so they're where we are, in today's world. But it's still the Music Hall that our mothers and grandmothers remember , and want to bring their youngsters to. We aim to create a patternless pattern , so the presentations will never bog down, and there will always be a reason to pay another visit. And by the time you leave, we want you to feel a number has been done on you -- visually, audibly, and in the ambience. We like to think that everything we have here is the best. That way, the whole place becomes part of the show. . . ."