’Tis The Season
Last week I walked past Radio City Music Hall with its huge ad for the Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes. There were only few people standing outside on line. Have times changed! When I was growing up, my parents often took us to Radio City. I recently read that 75 million people have seen the Radio City Christmas Show. I assume that they aren’t accounting for repeat customers. I’m sure that I must be six or seven of them.
What struck me was that back in the 1950s and ’60s, Radio City had shows year round. There would be lines around the block for the Christmas Show starting at Thanksgiving and going until New Year’s. Tickets were 95 cents. My father would always say that it was the greatest bargain in town. You got a movie, ballet company, symphony orchestra, organist and, of course, the Rockettes—all for 95 cents (the equivalent of about $7 in today’s money). What happened?
For one thing, it’s not the greatest bargain in town anymore. Ticket prices range from $96 to $1299 per seat. This is out of range for most parents to bring their kids, or even themselves. What a shame! But it’s not just the price. Our culture has moved on and left shows like we used to see at Radio City behind. Although fine art is forever, popular culture is ephemeral and Radio City, for all its pretensions, was popular culture.
For young people today, the world Radio City presents is not a world they know. The producers and directors have tried to update the Radio City tradition year after year, but each year, it becomes less relatable. And yet, the NY Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, NYC Ballet and Jazz at Lincoln Center, not to mention the Metropolitan Museum of Art continue to thrill their audiences with pieces going back centuries and millennia.
I feel a little sad that I won’t be taking my grandchildren to Radio City. They won’t experience the world I grew up in. I can still take them to Fifth Avenue to see all the Christmas windows, and to Rockefeller Center to see the tree. New York City is special at Christmas. People seem friendlier as they shop for presents. Then there are all those chestnuts roasting. I don’t even like chestnuts, but I love the smell as I walk past the vendors. It’s all part of the idyllic, mythical America that I grew up loving.
It’s interesting that what started out as a pagan ritual, then was coopted by the Catholic Church and combined with Christ’s birth (actually in early June), has evolved into a national holiday of peace and good will to all men. Who could argue with those sentiments? Certainly not me! But it’s more than that. Christmas, like baseball (as James Earl Jones told us in Field of Dreams), connects us to our past.
This time of year I tell my grandchildren about the Christmas Eve that I stayed up all night putting together a dollhouse for their mom when she was five years old. I still have the photo of her playing with her present that morning. The look on her face was more than worth all those torturous hours the night before. I’m good at constructing music, but terrible at assembling little buildings with furniture.
For the past week or two I’ve been resisting all the Christmas movies on TV. Actually, I did watch one, in which a rich, but lonely Ben Affleck rents a family for Christmas. I’m sure I’ll wind up watching Frank Capra’s Christmas present to all of us (It’s A Wonderful Life), and maybe a few others. I’ve seen Jean Shepherd’s tale dozens of times, but who could resist Bumpus’ dogs eating the turkey? Jean Shepherd entertained us on the radio with his nostalgia from his youth way back in my youth. When it’s done that well, it never gets old.
Everyone complains about the ubiquity of Christmas music. Personally, I like a lot of the Christmas songs. Over the years, I’ve arranged more than a few of them for one show or another. Our Harlem Nutcracker was the height of Christmas shows. One day, I’d love to arrange a Christmas show with singers, dancers, and a choir, all accompanied by my band. I’ve pitched it a few times, but so far, no one has bitten. Like we used to say in Brooklyn: Wait ’til next year.
I realize that I’m a nostalgic sort of guy. I love thinking about all the wonderful things I’ve experienced in my life, but this time of year really brings it out of me. Perhaps it’s the end of the year—time to take one last look at where we’ve been before we move on to the future. The Romans created Janus, the god with two faces—one looking backward and one looking forward. They were onto something.
I have no idea what the future has in store. I’m sure some great new experiences as well as some losses, but no matter what, I’ll have my memories and my connection to our cultural heritage. No one can ever take those away from me. Hopefully, some of our past will continue to survive and grow in the physical world of the future.
Maybe what doomed Radio City was that they couldn’t keep it relevant because they were reluctant to change, and then when they knew they had to change, their energy had severed the continuity with the past. In the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter’s book, Three Wishes, Louis Armstrong wished that he could come back in 100 years and see where jazz had gone. It’s been 60 years now. I’m not sure that Pops would like all he hears, but I know he’d like that we are still connecting with our past and trying to express ourselves in our world, on our terms. America needs us. The world needs us—every one of us.
Wishing you a season of peace and good will to all.
Onward and upward