12 High-Kicking Facts about the Radio City Rockettes

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Getty Images

More than 2 million people see the Radio City Rockettes's Christmas Spectacular show each season—and it’s a wonder you have to see to believe. Here are some things you might not have known about the leggy dance company, which has become synonymous with the magic of the holiday season.

1. THE GROUP GOT ITS START IN ST. LOUIS.

Nope, this wasn’t always a Midtown Manhattan production. The Rockettes launched in 1925 as the Missouri Rockets, a Follies-style dance troupe out of St. Louis. Creator Russell Markert got the idea after he was impressed by the UK precision dance troupe in 1922’s Ziegfeld Follies. “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks,” he once said, “they’d really knock your socks off.”

2. THEY GOT THE ATTENTION OF A BROADWAY IMPRESARIO ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Theater magnate S.L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel caught a show while the group toured in New York and hired the dance team—then a group of 16 women—for his Roxy Theater (demolished in 1961, it stood at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue). The dance company went through a few names—the Roxyettes, the American Rockets, and even the Rosettes—before Roxy found a moniker and location that stuck.

3. THE ROCKETTES TOOK THE STAGE AT RADIO CITY ON DAY ONE.

Rothafel planned and designed Radio City Music Hall, a joint venture between John D. Rockefeller and RCA. On opening night, December 27, 1932, the precision dance team performed alongside 17 other acts, including Martha Graham and vaudevillian Ray Bolger (you might know him as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz).

4. A YEAR LATER, THEY DEBUTED THE ICONIC CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR.

The team behind the show, produced by Leon Leonidoff (a Radio City mainstay, whose "name on a production represented a warranty of grandeur") and designed by Vincente Minnelli (eventual husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza), had major star power. Back then, the Rockettes and other live performers served as a sort of opener for screenings of the latest films. Now, of course, Radio City is a premier concert hall, akin to playing Carnegie Hall.

5. THE ROCKETTES WENT ON STRIKE IN 1967.

The troupe picketed outside Radio City that September, rallying for better wages given their demanding rehearsal schedule and pay for rehearsal time (previously they were paid only for performances). The standoff lasted 27 days and the dancers won out in negotiations, just in time for the holiday show to go on.

6. RUSSELL MARKERT STAYED WITH HIS GIRLS FOR DECADES.

At Radio City, the group’s creator continued on as their director, lead choreographer, and stern drill sergeant until his retirement in 1971. A father-like figure to about 2500 Rockettes, he referred to his employees as his “dancing daughters.”

7. PRECISION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME.


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Markert’s vision was a drill team that performed and moved as one dancer. For each member of the Rockettes to learn precisely how to hit her marks, choreographers assign a grid-like system of labels to the stage; one Rockette recently likened it to a game of Battleship.

8. THE DANCERS’ ATHLETICISM IS A THING OF BEAUTY.

Sure, people may write these girls off as “Stepford dancers, objectified women reduced to nothing but legs and teeth,” per The New York Times. But in the same story, the Times points out that the Rockettes’s physical accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at: “Even in a city full of sweating, striving talent, the Rockettes may well be the hardest-working women in show business.” Case in point: Before opening night, November 13, the troupe rehearses for six hours each day, six days a week, for nearly six weeks. On any given day, when the Rockettes perform up to five shows, a single dancer can do more than 1000 high kicks.

9. ONE OF THE TROUPE’S MOST CLASSIC NUMBERS HAS REMAINED UNCHANGED SINCE 1933.

“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a perennial favorite in the Christmas Spectacular, has been part of the holiday show since its first year. Dancers, who take tiny, precise steps in straight formations, say it’s one of the hardest numbers in the show. Spoiler alert: The dance ends with a slow-motion backwards fall, where each soldier knocks down the next in a domino-effect move. Talk about Christmas magic.

10. THE COSTUME CHANGES ARE PRETTY INTENSE.

Speaking of the toy soldiers: the Rockettes have a mere 78 seconds to change out of those starchy white pants and impossibly high hats (which actually cover their eyes), and into their next costumes: the sparkly red and green dresses and white coats of the "Christmas in New York" number. The dancers also have to fit shoe, hat and, earring changes into those 78 seconds, and quickly remove the red felt circles that they adhere to their cheeks with double-stick tape during the toy soldier number. In one holiday season, the Rockettes go through 15,000 pairs of those red cheeks. Also, of their numerous other outfits, the Santa Claus costumes—which weigh 40 pounds each—are the only one they get to wear flat shoes with.

11. THE ROCKETTES ALSO EMPLOY LIVE CAMELS, SHEEP AND A DONKEY.


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For the Living Nativity number, which closes the show and involves a parade of robed dancers and animals walking below the North Star, the production trots out a few four-legged celebrities, including Ted the camel, who’s held his role for two decades and is said to be a bit of a prima donna. In 2015, for the first time, the Archbishop of New York blessed the show’s animals before opening night. During the show’s run, the animals actually live in Radio City and take walks outside on the streets in the wee hours each morning.

12. IT'S INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO MAKE IT AS A ROCKETTE.

Hundreds of women audition every spring for 80 cast-member spots (though just 36 dancers perform at each show), and even Rockettes who want to return for another season must re-audition with no guarantee of a placement. Applicants must be skilled in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern dance, and must stand between 5’6” and 5’10½” without shoes. Plenty of hopefuls audition multiple times before they make the cut. Over the course of each show, every dancer changes costumes up to eight times, does more than 200 high kicks, and handles her own hair and makeup—multiple times a day for more than a month. Plus, they do all of this while maintaining chipper smiles, doing promotional appearances, and spreading good cheer.

The Disputed Origins of Publix’s Chicken Tender Subs

Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

After Popeyes released its new chicken sandwich last week, a heated battle broke out on Twitter over which fast food chain offers the best one. Favorites included Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and KFC, but the Publix chicken tender sub was mostly absent from the dialogue. Maybe it’s because Publix is a supermarket rather than a fast food restaurant, or maybe the southern chain is too specific to Florida and its neighboring states to warrant a national ranking.

Either way, the chicken tender sub is a cult culinary classic among Publix customers—there’s even an independently run website devoted to announcing when the subs are on sale (they aren’t right now), and affiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers. So whom do sub devotees have to thank for inventing the Publix food mashup from heaven? A Facebook user named Dave Charls says, “Me!,” but Publix begs to differ.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in May of this year, a man named Dave Charls posted a message on the “Are Publix Chicken Tender Subs On Sale?” Facebook page recounting his origin story for the menu item, which allegedly took place in 1997 or 1998. At Charls explains it, he and his co-worker Kevin convinced their friend Philip, a deli worker at the Fleming Island Publix location, to assemble a sub with chicken tenders and ring it up as one item—something that deli workers had refused to do for Dave and Kevin in the past. According to Dave, Philip then convinced his manager to make it a special, publicized it via chalkboard sign, and the idea spread like hot sauce.

“You’re welcome,” Charls said. “It was actually Kevin’s idea and Philip brought it to life.”

Publix, however, told the Tampa Bay Times that its recorded documentation for a chicken tender sub recipe and procedure goes all the way back to 1992 or 1993. Based on that information, Publix spokesperson Brian West confirmed that Charls's heroic account of the origin is more fairytale than fact (though West, unfortunately, doesn’t have an equally thrilling origin story—or any story at all—with which to replace it).

Charls didn’t respond to a request from the Tampa Bay Times for comment, so we may never know how much of his claim is actually true. It’s possible, of course, that Publix’s 1992 (or 1993) chicken tender sub recipe hadn’t gained momentum by the time Kevin’s moment of culinary genius struck in 1997 (or 1998), and the lack of date specificity suggests that neither party knows exactly how it went down. What is incontrovertible, however, is the deliciousness of Publix's beloved sub sandwich.

"I'm just happy to live in the same timeline as this beautiful sandwich," says die-hard Pub Sub fan (and Mental Floss video producer/editor) Justin Dodd. “Copyright claims aside, it's truly a wonderful thing."

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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