There are a million things to do in December, but the most thrilling of all take place under a glittering 900-pound star topping a 72-foot-tall, 12-ton Norway spruce tree. It’s time for another Christmas installment of our “15 Hours in New York City” adventures!
Three million Swarovski crystals cover the new, nine-foot star architect Daniel Liebeskind designed for this year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Miniature versions of the star in the window of the Swarovski store inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza sparkled across the room as we had breakfast watching the 7:00am start of the First Skate of the Day at The Rink at Rockefeller Center.
We crossed West 50th Street to Radio City Music Hall, where we were among the first in line for the day’s first performance of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes. Every year, more than a million people make the show part of their holiday festivities. Now we know why!
Financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and overseen by live-theater promoter Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the dazzling Radio City was designed to offer quality entertainment to revive both the theater industry and its audiences during the Great Depression. When it opened in 1932, it became the largest indoor theater in the world, with seating for 6,000 people. Since then, it has held more than 700 movie premieres, including “King Kong,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Inside Radio City, it’s Art Deco at its most magnificent, with Bakelite, aluminum and chrome finishes creating its streamlined look. The four-story-high Grand Foyer has a geometric music-themed carpet, with a 35-foot-tall, 3,000-pound Christmas tree-shaped chandelier made of 10,000 Swarovski crystals hanging overhead. Metal bas-relief elevator doors open to reveal wood paneling adorned with Classical mythology motifs. Each public restroom has an adjoining lounge with its own unique mural, like Witold Gordon’s hand-painted History of Cosmetics and The History of Nicotine, commissioned by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and imprinted on aluminum foil. Noted Depression-era artists created sculptures especially for the building, like William Zorach’s Spirit of the Dance (Rhythm). Fabric-covered walls in the auditorium feature modernistic silhouettes of musicians, performers and horses.
But Radio City is best known as the home of the Rockettes, the legendary chorus line of 80 dancers known for their radiant smiles as they energetically execute their intricately choreographed routines and signature eye-high kicks with precision and uniformity. Proficient in tap, jazz, ballet and modern dance, the Rockettes separate into two casts, alternating to perform multiple shows each day during the Christmas Spectacular’s eight-week run.
As we settled into our orchestra-section reddish-brown plush seats, organists on each side of a proscenium arch framed by a series of bands — said to resemble a setting sun — played festive bell melodies and familiar Christmas songs. Then, the musician-filled orchestra pit rose up and out across the stage, and a 150-member cast began putting on an incredible 90-minute show in which every second is worth every penny paid to see it.
We put on 3-D glasses to see Santa fly in to New York in a charming animated sequence, and marveled at the 36-channel digital projections that changed on both a 90-foot LED screen and the walls of the auditorium. But nothing compared to those amazing Rockettes! Wearing their signature MAC Russian Red lipstick and their hair in a French twist, the dancers performed a series of numbers, one more dazzling than the next. They pranced on stage dressed as reindeer with jingling bells and sparkling antlers, then pulled Santa in his sleigh. Wearing candy cane-inspired costumes and custom-soled shoes, they tapped their way through “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Microphones stored inside the heel pick up the sound of the rhythmic taps, amplifying them so that the audience can hear. They put on their microphone tap shoes again for their “Rag Dolls” number, which ends with an amazing surprise.
Wearing plaid coats, later revealing sparkling red and green dresses underneath, they boarded a full-scale double-decker sightseeing bus in “New York at Christmas.” Positioned on a rotating section of flooring in the center of the stage, the bus moved past images of the city projected on a 90-foot LED screen. We loved watching the precise formations in “Here Comes Santa Claus,” where the dancers rose and rotated above the stage – even grabbing handbells – making an incredible sight. Try to duplicate this number at home in this workout!
Two numbers have been part of the Christmas Spectacular since 1933. In the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” with its extraordinary finale in which the Rockettes slowly fall backwards like dominoes, the dancers wear red buttoned jackets, stiffly starched white pants and hats nearly three feet tall, a costume that has remained unchanged since it was originally designed in 1933 by Vincente Minnelli. Live animals join the Rockettes on stage for the “Living Nativity.” Three camels, two sheep and a donkey – blessed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan – take daily early-morning and late-night walks on the streets outside Radio City for their exercise.
In this year’s new finale, “Christmas Lights,” aerialists and 100 Intel Shooting Star mini drones provide an incredible choreographed light show. The Rockettes wear costumes custom-embroidered to resemble tangled strings of Christmas lights, in 11 jewel-toned shades, with over 3,000 Swarovski crystals and sequins. Their custom-made shoes are painted to match their unique skin tones, with almost 600 crystals hand-glued on each pair. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the finale in this November 23, 2018 NBC Nightly News segment.
We emerged from Radio City into an equally spectacular crowd, with barricades on the sidewalk and in the streets to shuffle everyone along like farm animals in a corral. Clustered on the corner, waiting for the light to change, we saw it was only 10:45. Where to next?
Cutting through the Edison Hotel, whose lights were turned on for its 1931 opening when Thomas Edison flipped a switch in Menlo, New Jersey, we emerged right in front of the Richard Rodgers Theater, where Hamilton is currently playing. Passing the bronze sculpture of entertainer George M. Cohan in Times Square, we gave our regards to Broadway and scurried along to our next destination: Bryant Park.
First a potter’s field, then a reservoir that supplied water for the city, next a Crystal Palace exhibition hall and observatory, and finally a Civil War encampment, this Midtown Manhattan square became a public park in 1884, when it was named for William Cullen Bryant, the Romantic poet who led the campaign to create Central Park. In the 1930s, the park was redesigned to feature a large central lawn, complemented by formal paths and terraces, stone balustrades, allées of London Plane trees, and an oval plaza with a fountain. It went through a rough patch during the 1970s and 1980s, but improvements in recent years have brought a carousel; chess, ping-pong and pétanque, a French game similar to bocce ball; a porch equipped with swings and lounge furniture; a restaurant and outdoor cafe; and hundreds of the park’s signature moveable wooden bistro chairs, painted a custom shade of green and engraved with “BRYANT PARK” on the top slat of the backrest. There’s even a new version of an outdoor reading room the park’s neighbor, the New York Public Library, began operating during the Great Depression. In warm-weather months, the library provides books, newspapers, magazines and literary events here for all ages.
The holidays transform Bryant Park into the Winter Village, a popular attraction with free ice skating and a Christmas market of over 170 custom-designed kiosks selling food and artisanal gifts. It was so packed that as we shuffled our way to our next destination, a man shuffling along next to us said, “That should take about four hours to walk over there!”
We were bound for the Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library, which became Bryant Park’s neighbor in 1911. In fact, two floors of book shelves, known as the Bryant Park Stack Extension, are beneath the park’s lawn.
Checking in on Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends was the excuse for our visit, but other pressing business got taken care of too. I applied for my very own limited, special-edition ‘Knowledge is Power’ New York Public Library card. Released in late October, it’s a reminder that all citizens must be informed, and libraries are the place to help us learn, grow and succeed in society. And I finally acquired a long-admired red bronze bracelet from the Rose Main Reading Room Rosette Collection, inspired by the decorative plaster rosettes that ornament the ceiling of the library’s largest, most splendid room. Ceiling murals of billowing clouds in an ethereal sky are surrounded by carved plaster cherubs and scrolled woodwork.
Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, a special exhibition on view through February 17, 2019, introduced us to the Victorian-era Englishwoman who created the first book to be illustrated with photographs. Anna hand-printed each page of Photographs of British Algae (issued in parts, 1843-1853) using the cyanotype, that vibrant blue photographic image produced without a camera that we know today as the blueprint. You can see more of Anna’s cyanotypes here.
“Time marches on,” so off we went to check in on Christmas gifts at Scandinavia House. Next came 346 Madison Avenue, the 10-story building on the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 44th Street. Completed in 1915, it is better known as the flagship store of the oldest haberdashery in the United States: Brooks Brothers.
Celebrating its bicentennial year in 2018, Brooks Brothers has been an innovator of American style, from its trademark Golden Fleece logo (a symbol of fine wool since the 15th century), to how to display and sell quality ready-made clothing. It introduced Scottish Harris tweed and Shetland sweaters, Indian Madras fabric, the English button-down polo shirt, and the Lacoste pique polo shirt from France to United States. It partnered with Dupoint to produce “Brooksease,” a quick-drying cloth fabricated to look neater longer. When Vogue featured its classic pink button-down shirt, resized to fit a woman, on the cover of its August 1949 college issue, it became a best-seller.
An English bear lives at one New York landmark, but an American one in green overalls lured us to the Museum of the City of New York. On view until June 23, 2019, A City for Corduroy: Don Freeman’s New York explores examples of how the author of the classic children’s picture book, Corduroy, documented life in New York City during the 1930s.
Freeman, a native Californian, moved to New York City to study art, making his living as a jazz trumpeter. When he lost his trumpet on a subway train, he began writing and illustrating children’s books. His lesser-known drawings of New Yorkers hanging laundry and eating at the automat hang alongside original artwork from other Freeman books, such as Pet of the Met, about a mouse who lives at the Metropolitan Opera House, and Norman the Doorman, the rodent who stands watch at the door of the Majestic Art Museum, based on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. There’s also an issue of Newsstand: One Man’s View of Manhattan, his magazine, for which he printed limited-edition offset lithographs and bradded them together between colorful paper covers between 1936 and 1941.
Across the hall, we peered inside a remarkable two-story, 12-room dollhouse created betwen 1916 and 1935 by Carrie Walter Stettheimer, whose Upper West Side home was one of New York’s artistic and intellectual centers. Renowned avant-garde artists of the day contributed original works especially for this miniature replica of her home, including Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Gaston Lachaise’s alabaster Venus. A miniature Mah-Jongg set in the library, a nursery collage frieze depicting the animals hurrying into Noah’s Ark, a bath thermometer and outdoor furniture made from carved chalk are other charming features.
Before we left, we got engrossed in Timescapes, a 28-minute documentary film narrated by Stanley Tucci. Projected across three screens, animated maps and archival photographs from the museum’s collections present the history of New York City. Watch clips of it here.
Stopping next at the Frick Collection, I remembered something Don Paterson wrote in “Sanctum in the City,” his essay about the museum in Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums. “Wandering in off the street – the sirens, the shouting, the car horns used instead of brakes – you discover the architectural equivalent of a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. The place is so quiet, the effect is less of silence than of deafness. How could such a still space be carved from such a noisy city?”
We had wandered in here, not only for a restorative break in our action-packed day, but also to see two things in particular. One was the beautiful Rococo panels in the Fragonard Room; the other was Hans Holbein’s 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and counselor to Henry VIII who is also venerated as a Catholic saint. Frick Diptychs, a new series of books published by the Frick Collection, pairs an interpretive curatorial essay about an important work in the collection with a related literary contribution. The first volume, released in April, features Holbein’s magnificent portrait of More, so precious to Frick that after he acquired it in 1912, he hung it to the left of the fireplace in the Living Hall, where it has hung ever since.
An exquisite table centerpiece of gilt bronze inlaid with precious stones and miniature representations of ancient Roman monuments, crafted by 18th-century silversmith Luigi Valadier, is on view with other fine examples of his work through January 20, 2019. The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos, one of the New York Times’s “10 Art Exhibitions That Should Be on Your Must-See List” and on view until January 13, 2019, reunites two masterpieces of early Netherlandish painting for only the second time in their history. The panels are presented with objects providing context to the monastic charterhouse, in a small gallery recalling a monk’s cell. Watch this short video about it that we watched in the Frick’s Music Room.
As dusk fell on the city, we attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then devoted the rest of our evening to seeing a few holiday window displays. Bergdorf Goodman’s “Bergdorf Goodies” windows were fanciful displays inspired by gingerbread houses, soft-serve ice cream, macarons, chocolate truffles and nonpareils. “The Holidays Made by Tiffany” pays tribute to Gene Moore, Tiffany & Co.’s late artistic director who introduced chrome drawing figures into some of the windows he decorated for the store for 39 years.
Our last stop was Henri Bendel, at 714 Fifth Avenue, near 56th St. Constructed in 1908, the building was converted into an emporium for the Parisian House of Coty perfumery. In 1912, Coty commissioned Parisian glass master and jewelry designer Rene Lalique to replace part of the facade with an elegant three-story window installation. Over 275 14-by-14-inch panes of glass form an Art Nouveau relief trellis of vines and poppies. Foot bridges in front of each set of these rare windows create observation levels on each of the three floors. Antique perfume bottles, powder boxes and labels Lalique designed for Coty are displayed in a corner of the first floor.
For more on the places we visited, see The Radio City Rockettes: A Dance Through Time, by James Porto; The Radio City Music Hall: An Affectionate History of the World’s Greatest Theater, by Charles Francisco; Sun Gardens: Victorian Photographs by Anna Atkins, by Larry J. Schaaf; Brooks Brothers: 200 Years of American Style, edited by Kate Betts; Brooks Brothers Centenary 1818-1918: Being a Shirt History of the Founding of Their Business together with an Account of its Different Locations in the City of New York During This Period; The Prints of Don Freeman: A Catalogue Raisonné, by Edith McCulloch; A Fabulous Dollhouse of the Twenties: The Famous Stettheimer Dollhouse at the Museum of the City of New York, by John Noble; and The Stettheimer Dollhouse, edited by Sheila W. Clark.
“Sanctum in the City” is an essay about the Frick Collection by Don Paterson, in Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson. The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos, by Emma Capron with Maryan Ainsworth, Till-Holger Borchert; and Luigi Valadier, by Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios, are the catalogues for the special exhibitions there. Holbein’s Sir Thomas More, by Xavier F. Salomon and Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall), is the first book in the Frick Diptych series; the recently released second book focuses on Johannes Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, with an essay on the painting by Margaret Iacono and “Two Letters a Day in the Early 1660s,” by film director, writer and producer James Ivory.
New books about the New York Public Library and its collections include Lost in the Library, a picture book about the library’s famous lions, Patience and Fortitude, by Josh Funk and Stevie Lewis. With a foreword by Roseanne Cash, 100 Christmas Wishes offers a selection of vintage holiday postcards from the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, a free, online picture resource. The Story Collector, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, is a fictional account of the adventures of the Fedeler children, who lived in the New York Public Library for a time, when her father was its superintendent from 1910 to 1941.