The idea to set “The Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall came about after a former Rockette, now in her mid-80s, sent author Fiona Davis an email about the secret rooms there.
“And I thought, ‘Well, that’s fascinating. Because I love architecture and I love secrets,’” said Davis, who is known for centering her works around iconic Big Apple buildings. That letter not only led to her interviewing the former dancer, Sandra Lachenauer, but also her husband, who was once a lighting board operator at the famed music hall, and other Rockettes for the book, which was released on June 13th.
As in all her novels, Davis adds a mystery that needs to be solved, and in this case, the thriller component was formed through her deep dive into the history of the period. It was by sifting through old New York Times’ headlines from the ‘50s that she discovered that there was a man dubbed the Mad Bomber targeting buildings in the city – including Radio City Music Hall–and it took 16 years for him to be apprehended. When she learned that he was caught by the first use of criminal profiling, she knew she wanted to include that investigation in the book.
Her protagonist, Marion, a Rockette whose life gets intertwined with that of the bomber, lives at the Rehearsal Club, which was a real-life boarding house on West 53rd where women in the performing arts lived. Davis also incorporated smaller fascinating details into “The Spectacular’s” pages by sharing everything from the amount of kicks a Rockette has to execute per day–600–to the Midtown restaurant men took their mistresses to back then, Le Pavillon.
Davis is already working on her eighth novel, set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which involves an Egyptologist and an assistant to the Met Gala who team up to find a missing artifact. She said she had been considering that venue for some time. “There’s just so much there,” she said, “That I knew I’d be able to find something fun.”
Tell us how the location of Radio City came about.
I got an email from my author website from a woman named Sandy. And she said, “I’m a former Rockette in my mid-80s and I’d love to tell you all about the secret rooms in Radio City Music Hall.” And so I reached out to her and we had this wonderful conversation. And she had a lot of supporting materials, so she had programs and schedules and things from her time as a Rockette, which she very kindly sent to me. And that’s where I thought, “Ok, this could be really fun because there’s a lot of archival material to work from.” And I ended up interviewing a number of Rockettes and decided to set it there.
You based your protagonist Marion on an actress.
Yes, there was a woman named Vera-Ellen and she was a Rockette when she was very young. But she had a hard time fitting in, where if the [Rockette’s] founder Russell Markert wanted her to kick her legs shoulder high, she’d go eye height. She was just bigger than anyone else on stage. And he gave her a couple of weeks to get it together, but she quit before she was fired and went on to a spectacular film career. She was in “White Christmas” and a number of other movies. But I just love this idea of this character who desperately wants to be a Rockette but is just too much for it. You have to have so much discipline and technique to be able to do the exact same thing that your fellow dancer is doing and she’s just bursting with life and can’t quite do it.
Tell us what you learned about what it takes to be a Rockette. You included their required measurements and grueling schedule.
Today, when the Rockettes perform, it tends to be seasonal, during the “Christmas Spectacular.” And they do two to five shows a day from the end of November to January 1st. But back then, Radio City was a movie palace and it showed four movies a day. And if you bought a ticket to the movie, you got a ticket to the stage show. And that included a performance by the Rockettes, a choral ensemble, and a ballet corps. And so the Rockettes would do numbers that were based on the theme of the movie. So if it was a cowboy movie, they’d do a cowboy number. It was really tough because you danced four shows a day and then you did that for three or four weeks straight and then you would get a week off.
The history of the Rockettes was interesting. You said they started in 1925 and then their name was changed.
Yes, they started in Missouri in 1925. A guy named Russell Markert founded them. And it was 16 girls and they were very popular. They were called the Missouri Rockets. And then they came to New York and worked in a Broadway show where Roxy took them under his wing and renamed them the Roxyettes. They performed at the opening night of Radio City Music Hall in 1932. And then as Radio City became this film palace, that’s when the name changed to the Rockettes. And that’s when there were 36 girls, 46 total, but 36 working at any one time.
You also included the Mad Bomber in the book. Did you know about him prior?
No, it came as a complete surprise. And no one I know had ever heard of it, even people who have lived in the city for years and years. I found it by just doing a search for what happened in 1956 because that’s when I was pretty sure I wanted to set the book. And I went through old New York Times’ headlines and this Mad Bomber kept on coming up. To learn that there was this guy who had been setting bombs for 16 years in iconic New York City buildings, which you know are my favorite buildings in New York that I’ve written about, like the New York Public Library and Grand Central. And he set two at Radio City Music Hall and he injured 15 people, some very seriously. And it just took the police a really long time to find him. And then the coolest thing was learning that when they found him, it was by using criminal profiling for the very first time. And that’s when I thought, “Ok, this has to be an element of the book for sure.”
Another location in the novel was the Rehearsal Club. I saw you posted an old photo of its residents on Instagram and explained that women like Carol Burnett lived there.
The Rehearsal Club was a boarding house for women on 53rd Street, so right near Radio City Music Hall, so a number of Rockettes stayed there. It was a boarding house for women in the performing arts. The movie “Stage Door,” with Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, was inspired by it. And there were a number of rules. There was no smoking, drinking, no boys beyond the parlor. You got two meals a day for $17 a week in the ‘50s, room and board. And you had to be between 18 and 25, neither married nor divorced. And you had to be pursuing a career in the performing arts, either taking classes, auditioning or performing. Carol Burnett stayed there, Blythe Danner, Diane Keaton, Sandy Duncan. There was just a great article in The Times about it, where it’s not the same exact place, it’s down on West 34th Street now, but it’s a place where you have to audition to get in. But once you get in, you get a room and it’s at a decent rate, so you could actually afford to live in New York City.
To learn more about Davis and her work, visit www.fionadavisbooks.com