Radio City Music Hall

1260 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020

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JimRankin on September 29, 2004 at 7:20 am

Vincent finds it hard to believe that they didn’t have mics in the huge movie palaces, and that is hard to understand from today’s perspective when almost everything is miced. Firstly, movie palaces were mostly built for silent movies, not the live, spoken word. Such speech as one might hear there under normal situations was only choral singing, where the aggregate volume was sufficient to penetrate to the rear of the auditorium. While a few of the largest theatres apparently did have rudimentary mics working off of a rudimentary amplifier, most did not, and so live, spoken word was NOT the norm at all. Few famous opera stars would sing at too large a hall for the simple reason that it could damage their voices if they were expected to project or ‘throw’ to the farthest balcony. This is one reason that few large palaces were then suitable to becoming opera houses. Today, virtually everything is miced, both because of our now customary reliance on technology, and because it lets the producers and sound men have more control over what the audience hears, as well as sometimes making up for the limitations of the acoustics of the hall.

Vincent implies that they over use microphones these days, even for the orchestra, and in some measure he is right. Sound reinforcement is not as pure as the source, no matter how much money is spent on good equipment, but the temptation to have more control and the electronic power to dazzle and even cow the audience is something irresistible to them, but sad to say, this is often abused. We must also not forget the profit motives of the merchants of such who persuade venues that powerful amps and speakers on several planes are essential to versatility, if not verisimilitude. As to lip-syncing to recordings: it is to be expected these days, since it can compensate for an out-of-condition performer, and does not include the noises of the stage, so it is rationalized that the crowd hears a more ‘clean’ sound track. Whether or not such constitutes a truly ‘live’ performance is up to the listener.

MarkA on September 28, 2004 at 8:31 pm


You hunch is correct! Wow! According to the late Ray Bohr, RCMH’s last full-time organist before the change of format in mid-1979, perfomers did lip sync. The reason was for this was because of a cold/flu/epidemic that made its rounds one time through the performing staff and many came down with laryngitis which had a catastrophic effect on the currently playing show. So, the performers were recorded live to prevent future mishaps.

Simon L. Saltzman
Simon L. Saltzman on September 28, 2004 at 4:22 pm

Vincent: The first Broadway show to use a stage mike was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” in 1949. It was a decision made by the composers out of town before New York and was thought quite innovative. The first body mikes were subsequently used by Lena Horn in “Jamaica” (1957)and Anna Maria Alberghetti in “Carnival.” (1961)

MarkA on September 28, 2004 at 4:10 pm

Jim: I second what you have to say about theatre organist vs. classical organists arguement. There was as many bad classical organists and theater organists as well as good ones. As Ben Hall states in the his Best Remaining Seats:[i] “It [the Mighty Wurlitzer] was, after all, capable of producing honest music of compelling emotional force when [i]properly played and, in the hands of an expert, could work musical magic far beyond the limitations of any other instrument. Without it, the moive palace would have been souless as an armory.” (Italics are mine.) The chopter to which you refer in Hall’s book is, The Apotheosis of the Mighty Wurlitzer, page 179. Having played both classical and theater instruments, the theater organ, IMHO, is more challenging to play.

The Music Hall organ sounds great in its environment, but it depends where you sit. Since the chambers are situated fairly high on either side of the proscenium, the lower level of the third mezzanine puts the listener at approximately the same level of the organ chambers. There are places in the orchestra where the organ is terribly muffled especially since it, to my knowledge, is no longer miked, particularly the percussions and the piano.

RobertR on September 28, 2004 at 3:36 pm

Were the stage shows at the music hall miked or pre-taped? I remember the later shows in the 70’s seemed to have the look of the performers lip-synching.

VincentParisi on September 28, 2004 at 3:25 pm

But think of the large movie palaces in the 20’s like the Roxy and the Capitol. Were performers throwing their voices in 5,000 seat theaters?
I also wonder wonder what the first miked Broadway musical was.
Today even the orchestra at the Music Hall is miked making it sound like a an over produced recording. It distances the audience. Well, nobody seems to notice but me.

JimRankin on September 28, 2004 at 2:48 pm

“Miking” started with radio, of course, and was largely perfected with the arrival of sound movies, but most theatres were not “miced” until the late Twenties or after that. The arrival of sound depended upon the arrival of practical amplifiers, and Western Electric was the pioneer in introducing sound service to theatres with the first vacuum tubes (called electronic “valves” at the time), and it was not long thereafter that sound ‘systems’ were introduced to theatres on a limited basis. Prior to that, actors were trained to ‘throw’ their voices out into the reaches of the theatre, which is what limited earlier theatres to smaller audiences due to the limitations of the human voice. Many a would-be actor/performer failed on the early stage due to the inability to throw their voice. Early microphones, such as the carbon and the taught-band types were large, heavy and inefficient, and thus introduced much ‘noise’ into the amplifier to mix with the noise created by early amplifiers and speakers themselves. For this reason, there was no such thing as the portable, personal mics that are now clipped to a costume, nor were overhead mics practical until the 30s, and then only in the movie studios on huge boom cranes. With the advent of efficient sound reinforcement and electret miniature microphones in the 1950s, the tradition of the ‘thrown’ voice faded away as performers learned that they could speak in normal volumes and be easily heard anywhere if properly miced. The untoward affect of all this was the presence of ugly speaker clusters in our theatres since no one could hear the people these days without them.

VincentParisi on September 28, 2004 at 2:05 pm

Continuing on the subject of sound were the Music Hall stage shows miked when it first opened? Were many of the movie places miked? Or else how were the voices and instruments of the stage shows heard with any impact? If they were inititially mike free when did miking start?
I believe to the end of the movie/stage show era the orchestra at the Hall was not miked.

JimRankin on September 28, 2004 at 1:28 pm

The ornamentation and auditorium decorative draperies so usually seen in movie palaces was not just for show; it was essential to absorb and deflect the sound waves coming from the stage and organ/orchestra so that only one sound wave struck the listener. When sound hits an essentially smooth surface —such as the ceiling of an ‘atmospheric’ (stars and clouds) theatre— it is focused by that surface upon a single broad point in the audience, effectively amplifying the sound to those there, but dimming it for those elsewhere. Not only will others outside of that point not hear as much volume, but worse is the echo that develops as the main sound front hits the listener, followed by the delayed sound front reflected off the ceiling a split second later. Many smaller atmospherics had smaller effective reflective ceilings where the flanking false building fronts were closer to the surface and these absorbed or deflected much of the sound. In the over 3,000 seats in the PARADISE ( /theaters/344/ ), the vault of the ceiling was just too vast to have any ornament or draperies near enough to counteract the reflection(s); remember the laws of physics: the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection/refraction. Thus when the sound front hit the ceiling, it crashed onto the audience mid-floor, AFTER they had heard the other sound fronts from the stage and elsewhere. During music this may just cause muddled sound, but speech can be rendered unintelligible. How could the great architect Eberson miss this fact during planning? I don’t know, since acoustics was not an unknown science even then. It may be that the owner put too much pressure on him for a triumphal spectacular, which he achieved, as opposed to a good concert hall. After all, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’

AS to organists and organs: snobbery exists in all levels of society, but more so in the arts, where egos dominate. There are those who believe that the Theatre Organ was a crass warping of the ‘classical’ sound of traditional organs, and with their sound effects in addition to a distinctive sound such as the “sobbing” vox humana voice, the Theatre Organ was more than many ‘classicists’ could endure, especially if they saw multitudes going into a theatre to hear its organ while a pitiful few attended classical or church concerts. That theatre instruments were expected to also play the latest ballads of the day also made them declass in the ears of the classically trained ‘elite.’ It boils down to taste, or the lack thereof. The late Ben Hall well covered this matter in his chapter on organs in his landmark book: The Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace, 1961 and later editions at most libraries, via Inter-library Loan, or at

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on September 28, 2004 at 12:24 pm

The Chicago Paradise reportedly had bad acoustics, which might have been the fault of its atmospheric design. It was a problem not only with the organ, but also with the movies and stage shows presented there.

VincentParisi on September 28, 2004 at 12:17 pm

Questions for all you organites.
Why does the organ at the Music Hall sound so wonderful and yet the organ at what may have been the greatest movie palace in the world, the Chicago Paradise, was considered a disappointment? Also why do classically trained organists sneer at movie palace organs? Is it the music played on them or are they inferior to church instruments?

JimRankin on September 28, 2004 at 12:05 pm

Hello, Organ-ize: It is kind of you to reply to my message, but I will not dwell long on a reply here since it is not good for us to go too far off-topic on the RCMH page. I would have written you directly had you listed Contact information on your ‘Profile Page’ which is accessed for anyone on this site by clicking on their name in blue at the bottom of a comment. You will find my E-mail address in that way.

Just because I am geographically closer to the Minneapolis Civic than you are doesn’t mean that I know anything of its organ — or of the Civic Auditorium, for that matter, sorry to say. That place is about 400 miles from me. You are privileged to be part of that giant Dickinson Kimball installation. There are classical organs of that size in both the Marcus Performing Arts Center and the Cooley Auditorium of the Vocational School here, but no such huge theatre instruments survive (or were ever built here to my knowledge). I am not an “organ nut” per se (architecture is my specialty) but I do enjoy a good concert on a pipe organ, especially by such as Lew Williams who knows how to use the toy counter and percussions to great effect, or Clark Wilson who can make an organ sing.

MarkA on September 28, 2004 at 11:29 am


The Hippodrome is gorgeous. My wife and I attended the opening show, The Producers. The Hipp also had an organ in it … a transplanted M.P. Moller church pipe organ, installed UNDER the stage. (Yuck!) It didn’t last very long. (Mercifully.)

Kimballs are/were real beauties. W.W. Kimball continued to build church pipe organ up until W.W. II and always built instruments of the finest quality. My organ professor in college studied on a large late Kimball in Denver (St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral) and he always told me it was not to be forgotten. Of course, the Radio City Music Hall’s Wurlitzer, built to Kimball specifications (ranks and scales) benefits from the design, so that it’s a pretty versatile organ.

So you know about the famous Kimball string pipes? (Their reeds and most flues, except Tibias, weren’t slouches either.) The largest collection of Kimball strings is not in a church or theater organ. It’s the String Division (88 ranks) in the Wanamaker Organ in Phildelphia. Standing in the middle of that organ chamber was inspiring.

What ever happened to the huge Kimball that was in the Minneapolic Civic Auditorium and in storage? It had a five-manual main classic console and a four manual theater console. I heard it’s up for sale. I think it has 110 ranks, part classical, part theater.

I think Robert Headley lives in DC. He’s been asked by local here to republish his Exitbook, but so far, won’t do it. :o( . BTW, I only have a 60-minute drive to hear and play the Dickinson Theater Organ Society’s Kimball organ, as I am a member there and do some volunteer work for them. [url][/url]

JimRankin on September 28, 2004 at 7:23 am

Organ-ized: Your comment about the ORIENTAL here in Milwaukee is right on the money; it is perhaps unique in its approach to ‘oriental’ as being East Indian, rather than Chinese, Indo-Chinese, or Japanese. There is a group of photos of it here: but none are of the auditorium, unfortunately. The CT page about it is at: /theaters/443/ and this may help others to learn of its special place in America’s theatres. I must bow to your conclusions about the organ, though I too had heard that it was a twin to the one in the STANLEY, though it is now up to 38 ranks and growing, from its original 28. It is indeed a sweet sound, especially the strings! And you are quite right that it was originally in the WARNER/GRAND here ( /theaters/1903/ ) and while it may have helped re-use the WARNER had it stayed there, it is now ironic, given what happened to the theatre, that it was best that it was removed.

Your story about the STANLEY’s organ is sad to read; greed so often destroys beauty, but at least you have a recording of it before the end. If you track down the author of “Exit”, Robert Headley in the Baltimore/DC area, you might have a wonderful conversation, since he was also often here in Milw. and could no doubt tell you much.

And lucky Baltimore to have the restored HIPPODROME ( /theaters/1264/ )..

MarkA on September 27, 2004 at 9:32 pm

Seems that they used the Grand Organ to provide live music for the New York Liberty this past summer.

Jim: I’ve heard that the Oriental is quite a gem. Its organ, a Kimball, is said to be a twin, as originally built, to the one that was here in the Stanley Theater in Baltimore. I understand that the Oriental Kimball was orginally installed in the Warner (Center) Theater. If you look at the page for Baltimore’s Stanley Theater, I posted a story about the theater and its organ.

Lucky Milwaukee to have the Oriental!

RobertR on September 27, 2004 at 4:40 pm

Yes but mud wrestling accompanied by the mighty Wurlitzer. So sad isnt it?

VincentParisi on September 27, 2004 at 4:07 pm

Airport at the Music Hall.
March 17th 1970.
In the afternoon St Patrick’s Day Parade.
6 PM The Music Halls Great Easter Show followed by Airport in Todd AO.

Maybe next summer we can look forward to track and field events at the Music Hall? But perhaps this is too elitest. I suggest to the Cablevision execs hip hop topless female mud wrestling sponsored by Hilfiger, Diesel and Swatch with Barney and the Rugrats in the lower lounge for the family members under 4.

JimRankin on September 27, 2004 at 2:39 pm

Vincent has a point about being in a largely full movie palace and hearing an appreciative audience laughing, cheering, applauding or even singing along to the movie; it IS an exhilarating experience not at all akin to the noise of a sports or rock concert crowd. I last experienced it in 1970 when the shortly-to-be-split former WARNER here in Milwaukee was filled for the movie “Airport” and all 2500 cheered when the old lady slapped the hysterical guy, and laughed as one at other appropriate times. You didn’t feel isolated as a lone viewer as you do nowadays in the multiplex screening rooms regardless of what is showing. Occasionally I can still feel that audience response as when our ORIENTAL has an organ show with a silent film and a stage act, but not otherwise anymore.

VincentParisi on September 27, 2004 at 2:23 pm

While I would much rather see SOM in a 1500 seat road show house(The screen is much more head on) RCMH showed SOM in ‘75 or '76. The presentation was suberb. An immaculate, brilliant 70mm print with sound that was great(during the wedding I could have sworn they were playing the Music Hall organ.)
It was so empty however that between showings the lights were kept very low so as not to embarrass the scattered patrons.
And while I hate the idea of an SOM sing-along I went to the finale night at the Ziegfeld and it was one of the best cinema experiences I have ever had. The audience was totally demented-cheering and roaring its approval at every iconic moment. With Andrews first appearance on screen it could have been Jagger. And when they escaped into the Swiss Alps(well who cares if the actors were really heading into Germany) I thought we were going to blow the roof off the Ziegfeld.
Absolutely exhilarating.

RobertR on September 27, 2004 at 1:45 pm

Imagine it with The Hooray For Hollywood show that accompanied Bullit in 1968 :)

MarkA on September 25, 2004 at 9:08 pm

Yes!!! That’s an excellent idea. There’s no reason why Cablevision ought not consider screening it in Summer 2005. It seems to me there were filmings during the summers in the 80’s at the Music Hall.

RobertR on September 25, 2004 at 7:29 pm

Lets start a letter writing campaign to have a 70mm screening of The Sound of Music here next year. It’s the 40th anniversary.

MarkA on September 24, 2004 at 8:25 am

Hello SimonL,

Thanks for your comments. You are quite right about theater staff knowing who was at the organ at the Music Hall! At the time my friend was an Assistant Organist, Leibert, Miller and Bohr were indeed the primary organists. I have a number of recordings of all of them, and Liebert’s style, to me, was a bit “dark” sounding. Leibert did the “Supper Shows” and Bohr usually opened. (At least that’s what Ray told me.) Leibert studied the organ at the Peabody Conservatory of Music here in Baltimore. Miller, who still lives in New Jersey, holds a Master’s Degree in Music and Ray Bohr studied the organ with New York organist Harold Friedell. All were artists in their own right. They had to be … the Music Hall organ is a difficult instrument to play due to the location of the consoles in relationship to the pipes (in the ceiling).

Check this website out: [url][/url]. It’s a great story of the Mightiest of all WurliTzers at the Radio City Music Hall and I know that you will enjoy it. The picture of Bohr and Leibert at the Prompt Side console (thank God the rear-view mirror and clock were removed when the consoles was totally rebuilt} is great. Let me know what you think. It gives a good argument that the RCMH organ is a Kimball-designed organ will two WurliTzer consoles, all built by WurliTzer.


PS: As I write this, I am already planning my family’s annual pilgrimage to see the Christmas Spectacular. Who cares if it’s been changed from the “Old Format?” At least the show does go on.

Simon L. Saltzman
Simon L. Saltzman on September 23, 2004 at 6:26 am

For “Organized”: Although I never met “Ray”, the theater staff was often able to tell the difference in musical style between him and Dick Liebert and Ashley Miller. Liebert, who played mostly the evening shows was very big with special effects i.e. bells and whistles; Ashley was fond of show tunes and Ray seemed to like bright marches and was the best at exit music. What a treat to hear them at the twin consoles at holiday time. The biggest problem was getting the audience to leave during the break music, as many stayed to applaud and then leave as the curtain rose on the film credits.

VincentParisi on September 22, 2004 at 2:26 pm

I too remember the sound of MFL at the Cinerama. I went twice. There was enormous presence and warmth. At one point I walked around the theater to the various speakers to hear the separation. We will never hear it that way again. And no one but us will know.