Is there anything in show biz more iconic than the kick line of the Rockettes, legs flashing feet to eye level in perfect precision? Even the costumes are iconic when the wooden soldiers fall in a row like dominoes.
Sure, you’ve seen them on television at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade or maybe you’ve caught them in New York City or Chicago. But for the next two weeks they bring the Radio City Christmas Spectacular to Omaha and 18 Rockettes will kick and tap across the Orpheum stage for 34 performances.
How do they squeeze nearly three dozen shows into 16 days? By including four-show Saturdays and three-show Sundays.
As the publicists like to point out, 300 eye-high kicks per show total 1,200 kicks those days. And you don’t have to book a $300 per night room in Manhattan to catch the show that opened the Radio City Music Hall in 1932.
In a history rich in trivial delights, it’s fun to know that they were then called the “Roxyettes” after performing for showman Roxy Rothafel at his Roxy Theater. And that on opening Radio City they shared the stage with Ray Bolger (think “Wizard of Oz” scarecrow), Martha Graham and the Flying Wallendas.
But you don’t have to reach that far back for an Omaha connection: In 1972, Patrick Roddy had to miss some eighth grade classes while he tap-danced with the Rockettes for five weeks at age 13. Now dance coordinator for Creighton University, he was seen by Peter Genaro when his dance mom Jeanne Roddy took him to a dance convention.
Patrick has since seen them both in NYC and Chicago, “and I’m so happy they’re coming here.”
So is Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts, who is “especially proud” that the show is coming to Omaha for the first time as one of only three cities on this tour. “It’s an incredible opportunity for families…right here at the Orpheum.
“So many people have shared with us their own Radio City Memories” and Squires expects new audiences “to make their own memories.”
If anyone suggests that 16th Street in downtown Omaha isn’t Broadway, consider this: For the “New York at Christmas” number, the Rockettes ride a 34-foot-long, 12-foot-high, seven-ton double-decker bus on a guided tour of the Big Apple, passing landmarks on a 50-foot LED screen.
That’s a feature that wowed Kendra Ingram, vice president of programming and education for Performing Arts. She’s had a hand in turning this unique visit into a tour de force of education as well as entertainment, but more on that later.
Some features of the Christmas Spectacular are not only the same everywhere, they’ve been the same for 85 years. Those “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” costumes? The same ones that Vincente Minnelli (once husband of Judy Garland, father of Liza) designed in 1933.
Talk to local dancers and choreographers, though, and you hear more about their precision than their kick lines. Both Roddy and Roxanne Nielsen, past choreographer for the Omaha Community Playhouse, stressed the practice required. Nielsen says she loves the precision, “It’s old school that I really appreciate.”
Both have worked with kick lines as dancers and choreographers. “I’m always at the end of the line because I’m only 5-6,” Roxanne explained. Height is the only strict requirement for Rockettes, who must measure 5-6 to 5-10 and a half, the tallest in the middle and descending to each end.
(When Charles Jones arrived as director of the Playhouse in 1974, he hired Joan Cady as choreographer and reported to his wife Eleanor and scenic designer Jim Othuse that she’d been a Rockette, “the short one at the end of the line.” That wasn’t true, but Othuse believed it for years.)
Few Broadway musicals feature big kick lines, notably the finale in Chorus Line and that seated slap and kick number, “Our Favorite Son,” from Will Rogers’ Follies. Roxanne recalled others in Sugar Babies, 42nd Street and Can-Can.
Add Can-Can dancers to those, like the Tiller girls in The Ziegfield Follies and the more immediate predecessors, the “Missouri Rockets,” and you’ve got a capsule history of kick lines leading to the Rockettes. Julian Adair, head of her own dance academy and choreographer for more than 120 musicals, mentioned other dance numbers such as the Hot Box Girls in Guys and Dolls as she praised the workshop conducted in September by two Rockettes.
“It was wonderful,” when Rachel Borgman, a Nebraskan from Norfolk who joined the Rockettes 10 years ago, and Karilyn Surratt, a more recent addition from St. Louis, shared their training with young dance students. They taught the girls how to do the wooden soldier routine.
But the workshop was just one of an array of activities surrounding the visit. Last Friday they kicked on the lights for the Salvation Army Tree of Lights at 90th and Dodge. (No, that wasn’t the first time a Performing Arts show helped light the tree: the Grinch did earlier.)
Later, Rockettes will help fill the red kettles by ringing Salvation Army Bells, and they’ll make hospital visits and do some more teaching and talk-backs during the run.
When the show opens Thursday, Nov. 13, the Union Pacific mini train and the University of Nebraska at Omaha Marching Band will add to the festivities outside the Orpheum at 6:30 p.m.
If the ultimate iconic act isn’t enough, add one more touch of trivia: It was a big deal when The Lion King brought a run of 32 performances. The Rockettes top that with 34. That’s 10,200 kicks.
By the way, if you’re thinking you don’t know of any famous Rockettes, how about Vera-Ellen? Odds are you saw her with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas. She was 5-4 and wouldn’t have qualified when the bar was raised to 5-6.
The Radio City Music Hall Spectacular starring the Rockettes runs Thursday, Nov. 13, through Sunday, Nov. 30, with weekday performances at 7:30 p.m., and weekend performances ranging from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., 1:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, presented by Omaha Performing Arts at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St., in Omaha. Tickets start at $35, available online at TicketOmaha.com; by phone at 402.345.0606, or at Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St., Omaha, NE.