NEW YORK “They still have the Rockettes?” asked Teresa Baughman of Mechanicsburg, Pa., as she waited in a long line outside Radio City Music Hall before the start of a Saturday afternoon performance of its annual “Christmas Spectacular.”
They sure do.
Some things don’t change at the art deco entertainment palace where the precision dance troupe has been high-kicking in unison since 1932. The dancers are the lavish Christmas show’s biggest draw. Well, the Rockettes and Santa Claus.
But in this latest edition, Santa sends and receives faxes from his sleigh. Mrs. Claus communicates with her husband using a cell phone. And the big man himself arrives via a swirling, whirling 3-D movie that precedes his live entrance through the auditorium and onto the mammoth Radio City stage.
Yet even before the 90-minute extravaganza begins, things are a little different this year. Security personnel do a low-key search of bags and packages as people file into the theater nothing obtrusive or heavy-handed.
“We are trying to have a comfort zone for the audience,” said Howard Kolins, executive producer of the “Christmas Spectacular.”
“We are telling people, `Arrive early and travel light.’ It’s going very well, but security is just part of the landscape now.”
That landscape has changed since terrorists rammed two planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and destroyed the twin towers and thousands of lives.
Now, more than two months later, the attacks have affected the city’s premier holiday attraction, as well as such other well-known Christmastime events as “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden and the New York City Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center. All three shows are still looking for more theatergoers.
“We have experienced a slowdown from last year but it has been picking up,” said Kelly Ryan, a spokeswoman for the ballet which is performing “The Nutcracker” from Nov. 23-Dec. 31. “Many weekend performances are sold out.
The “Christmas Spectacular,” which attracted a record 1.23 million people last year, opened officially Nov. 2 and runs through Dec. 30, a week shorter than usual. “A Christmas Carol,” this year starring Tim Curry as Scrooge, begins performances Nov. 27 and runs for a month a 10 percent drop in performances.
“The January shows at Radio City are not the first to sell, and we are trying to move people into the shows in December,” Mr. Kolins said. “We are very upbeat on the season, but our sales are slower than we would like. Life stopped for all of us for a few weeks.”
Sales for the “Christmas Spectacular” usually take off in September and October, according to Mr. Kolins. Not so this year.
“Certainly, people weren’t giving a thought to anything but what was going on in the world,” said Mr. Kolins, adding that business has improved since opening night. “Now with the show open, we are, just like Broadway, saying, `Come see us. Your Christmas can’t be complete until you’ve been here.’ This and ‘A Christmas Carol’ are the two great Christmas messages that bring families together.”
And like Broadway, the “Christmas Spectacular” and “A Christmas Carol,” which Mr. Kolins also supervises, needs more tourists from outside the New York area, who usually account for about 35 percent of the audience. “That’s what we are not seeing tourists from outside the tri-state area,” he said.
Ms. Baughman, who arrived from Pennsylvania by bus, could be one of the exceptions. A veteran of past “Christmas Spectaculars,” she bought her tickets in August. Her group included several friends, including Kim Hartman and her 11-year-old daughter, Lyndsie, both of Lewisberry, Pa. Both had never seen the show.
“I told them they would enjoy it very much,” Baughman said “In the past, the bus was sold out, but this year, it wasn’t full. Several people did cancel.”
Reality has intruded in subtle ways on the Christmas show, but no changes were made in script, according to Mr. Kolins.
“The show has always celebrated New York,” he said. “In the show’s opening number, Santa sings about coming to New York and actually says, `I love New York City.’ Now the audience response is much more poignant than it was in the past.”
One casualty has been Radio City’s new spring show. Radio City has postponed until 2003 “Carnivale Spectacular,” which it had planned to premiere next May as a companion piece to the Christmas show. The idea is to run the show, which will be directed by Broadway director and choreographer Graciela Daniele, as an annual event.
“If the attack of Sept. 11 hadn’t happened, we would have certainly gone forward,” Mr. Kolins said. “The climate is uncertain. In the meantime, we are continuing to develop the show, which will also feature the Rockettes.”