When Radio City Music Hall Was "Center of the Universe" for Movie Premieres
Forty years after the iconic New York venue almost shut down, Doris Day (in her final interview), Elliott Gould, Bruce Davidson and Kim Cattrall remember its glory days: "It's our version of the pyramids."
The venue for NBCUniversal's May 13 upfronts, among others, New York's Radio City Music Hall has enjoyed an incredibly storied history since opening in 1932. Highlights include premieres of some of the 20th century's most iconic films (1933’s King Kong,1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird) as well as legendary concerts hosted following resuscitation in 1979 from near closure the year before.
Elliott Gould remembers arriving at Radio City Music Hall in 1976 for the premiere of Harry and Walter Go to New York, the Mark Rydell film in which he starred with James Caan and Michael Caine. “There was very little fanfare — we didn’t have a red carpet, and the photographers and reporters were just standing in the lobby,” Gould says. “This wasn’t a film I would have expected to premiere at Radio City, but being there made it seem special.” Adds Bruce Davison, who starred with Lucille Ball in 1974's Mame, which premiered at Radio City: "It’s like our version of the pyramids — we have so little of that golden-era tradition left. At its height, it was like the center of the universe."
But by the mid-1970s, MPAA ratings "hurt Radio City because suddenly people couldn't bring their children to certain movies — when you need to fill a 6,000-seat theater, you need the whole family," says Patricia Robert, who handled marketing at the time, adding that the expensive stage shows bookending the films meant "we were losing a million dollars a year."
In 1979, after the landmark was nearly shut down (with plans to replace it with a more profitable office building), Scott Sanders added concert events, from Liberace to Grateful Dead. "When I got there, it was viewed as a white elephant — a very large theater that was very expensive to run," says Sanders (whose new musical, Tootsie, now plays blocks away at the Marquis Theatre).
While producer Robert Jani oversaw a much-needed refurbishment of the theater, Sanders focused on bringing in musical acts: “At 6,000 seats, filling that thing was a beast, and you had to go 365 days a year.” Sanders, initially offered $350 a week to be a talent coordinator, lured Liza Minnelli from Carnegie Hall by noting that sketches from the 1930s by her father, director Vincente Minnelli, were stored in the venue's archives. He also offered Bette Midler 30 shows, pointing out that her earnings from filling what would end up being 180,000 seats would be the equivalent of making a Disney movie. “It sold out and was a huge success — we took over the Temple of Dendur [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art] and threw her a huge opening night party,” Sanders notes.
These days, films and TV shows like Game of Thrones (the final season premiered in April) still open at Radio City. But few premieres rival the frenzy of 2010's Sex and the City 2, with its closed-off streets, screaming fans and stars in haute couture.
"By the time you got to the theater, you were exhausted," says Kim Cattrall. "But I had just watched a documentary about how the Rockettes had lived in the building and even had a cafeteria. I hoped that someone would take me on a tour but also knew it wouldn't happen while I was wearing a ball gown."
A version of this story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.