New York, NY – Radio City Music Hall, the legendary entertainment venue at 1260 Avenue of the Americas, opened to the public in December 1932. The spectacular shows employ a wide variety of workers and performers that keep crowds coming back, year after year.
LaborPress sat down with two of these dedicated professionals to learn more about the process and what it takes to be part of what both describe as a tightknit and enthusiastic “family.”
Eric Titcomb is a control board operator. His job consists of controlling the stage elevators, the pit elevator, the contour curtain – or main drape, the footlights and turntable. For part of his work, he still uses the original equipment that was built in 1932. There is also a computer-based auxiliary panel that dates back to 1999.
Titcomb’s ease at the boards didn’t come overnight.
“I knew I wanted to be backstage since fifth grade,” he says. “I was backstage in elementary school at an assembly production to help with lights, etc., and it just clicked. I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I was like a school nerd with the AV stuff. In high school, I had a class called Play Production. I had a teacher who said I was the most talented stagehand/technician they ever had. This was at Forest Hills High School. We had a SING production; I was an integral part of those productions, stage managing, etc. Then at Queens College, I was in the technical theater program.”
In 1975, Titcomb learned about IATSE Local 1’s apprentice program and took the exam.
“Out of 1700 applicants I came in at #41,” he says. “I interviewed at the union hall. They asked if I wanted to do sound, carpentry or be an electrician. I said electrician. I entered the three-year apprenticeship. They had a slot open at Radio City Music Hall [so I took it]. The person at the control board retired and recommended me. I took the job in 1981.”
Titcomb is more than enthusiastic about his job.
“I’m the luckiest man alive because of the people I get to work with,” he says. “I work with some of the most caring and talented people in the world.”
Titcomb also gets a chance to, “get feedback from kids and families on tours backstage.”
“It’s a love-fest back here,” he adds. “Over 1 million people will see the Christmas show this year.”
Titcomb’s schedule can be grueling, however. There are occasions when he works seven-days-a-week. He is a per diem worker, but he has nothing but good things to say about his union (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), Local 1.
“It’s a great union,” he says. “The union takes care of us. We’ve got great medical benefits – even my wife is on my plan. There are annuity and pension plans. The Radio City contract is a ‘mature’ contract that has evolved over years.”
Rockette Joanna Richardson’s pathway to Radio City also started early on. She is now enjoying her 14th year in the precision dance company. Originally from Atlanta, Richardson’s mother had – and still has – a dance studio where the youngster took classes from a very young age.
“[That] instilled a love of dance [in me]. I knew that I had to dance,” Richardson says. “[My mother] took me to see the Rockettes when I was in middle school. Before the show was even over I had tears in my eyes and I knew I wanted to be a Rockette.”
Like Titcomb’s entry into the IATSE Local 1 apprentice program, Richardson quickly learned that the competition to become part of the world famous Rockettes would be fierce.
“When I auditioned, there were 500 girls wrapped around Radio City [waiting to try out],” Richardson says. “The rehearsal process is extremely physical so, the audition reflects that. You have to show you have ballet, tap, and jazz [skills] and the flexibility and strength to do the high kicks. There are 300 kicks per show and up to four shows per day.”
As a Rockette, you also have to be lightning fast at costume changes. Between two shows, for example, the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and the Christmas Show, Rockettes must change from jacket, soldier pants, socks, shoes, gloves, hat, and red stick-on “cheeks” to a red or green dress, coat, gloves, muff, earrings – all in 78 seconds.
The Rockettes work six hours-per-day, six-days-a-week. There are also situations, such as special PR events or TV appearances, when even more work is required. But Richardson is happy with the work her union, the American Guild of Variety Artists [AGVA], does on her behalf. For example, there is “the 5-minute stretch” rule where the dancers have five minutes to re-warm up if they have been inactive for a while.
“As shows evolve, the union adapts the rules to make sure all are safe in our environment. Management and labor side – I think we all know we have a good thing going,” Richardson says.
Because the majority of work occurs during the bustling holiday season, and because of her affection for her colleagues – Richardson echoes Titcomb’s sentiments about working at Radio City Musical Hall. “The best thing is the sisterhood, the friendships,” she says. “[We] will be friends for the rest of our lives. There’s a saying: ‘Once a Rockette, always a Rockette.’ We are a family.”