Around this time of year, New York gets dressed up for the holidays. The shop windows proclaim the symbols of the season. Otherwise dull office buildings are decorated with wreaths and holly. Tourists flock to Rockefeller Center, and the many other public displays of Christmas. In fact, people come from all over the world to spend Christmastime in New York.
I think the first time I ever was brought into Manhattan was for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show. It was probably the late 1950s. I remember standing on a long line in freezing temperatures. But it was worth it. Once we got inside, I was in awe of the jaw-dropping majesty of the hall. And then a man appeared in the corner of the stage and began playing a marvelous organ that had bass notes that rumbled in my stomach.
After a while, the curtain opened and there were the Rockettes dressed as toy soldiers. And wasn’t it just so cool the way they fell down! Needless to say I practiced that move with my cousins at my grandparent’s house on Christmas Eve that year. It was a lot of fun, but we found out just how hard it was to fall slowly like the Rockettes did.
After the Rockettes, there were some Ed Sullivan-type acts like jugglers, ventriloquists and singers. Little did I know that I was seeing the death throes of vaudeville right before my eyes.
Next there was a big Christmas-themed musical production number that usually featured snow men, reindeer and of course, Santa Claus.
And then there was the grand finale – the living Nativity. Camels! Real, live camels walked across the stage led by Wise Men along with shepherds. And at center stage was a manger with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. After seeing this, I remember thinking that what our school Christmas pageant needed was camels!
As if all of that was not enough, soon after the stage show ended, the lights went down again and we saw a movie. All this for $1.50. No wonder there were lines around the block.
But wait, there was more. We always ended our trips to Radio City with a visit to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. We watched the skaters glide across the ice as Christmas carols blared from speakers. And then finally, we walked to get some food. Where? Why the automat of course!
Horn & Hardart’s coin-operate diners were a fascinating place for a kid to eat. Just putting in the nickels was fun. I don’t remember the food being particularly tasty, but I remember having a piece of blueberry pie that was my first ever. I would never have ordered it, but I remember the little door holding the pie was at my eye level. It must have been pretty good because blueberry pie is a favorite of mine still.
The automats are long gone, but the Rockefeller Center skating rink and tree are still with us. And fortunately, Radio City Music Hall is as well. Of course the movie is gone, and the prices are competitive with Broadway, but they still have a stage show with camels!
Today I work in Manhattan, so I am there practically every day. It would be easy to be cynical about all the commercialism, and take all this Christmas finery for granted. But I find that even after more than 50 years, when I hear the jingle of silver bells on a street corner this time of year, I’m still the wide-eyed child marveling at the wonder that is Manhattan at Christmas.