MWS spoke with Wardrobe Supervisor Gillian Kadish and Hair Supervisor Kaylan Paisley about what it’s like backstage at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This legendary show has a huge cast and crew, with multiple shows 7 days a week. A small army of professionals work tirelessly to bring joy and entertainment to the holiday season!
Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Tradition
MWS: The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is a legendary show. It must be a thrill to be a part of such a NY institution! Has any element of this experience been surprising to you?
Kaylan: I am thrilled to be working at Radio City. I remember coming to the Christmas Spectacular as a kid and it’s a dream to be a part of such a memorable production. The sheer volume of the project is the shocking part. Everyone tells you it’s a HUGE show, but until you’re in it, you have no idea the truth behind that. There are two casts of Rockettes, so everything is doubled. For example, we have four Mrs. Claus wigs, one for each company and then each understudy, and we maintain more than 100 Santa beards.
Gillian: Growing up in England, I was not very familiar with Radio City Music Hall. It was not until accepting the position as head of the wardrobe department and moving to NYC five years ago that I quite realized what a privilege it was to work at such a prestigious and iconic venue. One big surprise when starting my new job was to find out that Radio City Music Hall is the largest indoor theatre in the world, commonly referred to as “The Showplace of the Nation”. I am constantly in awe of the history and tradition of Radio City, and so very thrilled to be part of it all. This is especially true of the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes. With the enormity of the stage (one city block long) and the show (32 shows per week at the height of the Christmas season) the truly surprising element for me is how seamlessly the cast and crew work together to put on such a spectacular production as often as six times a day!
MWS: Each year there are traditional numbers, for example the Toy Soldiers number, and new ones. Is there any degree of reinvention around the traditional numbers? Are there some years when changes have been made that made for greater challenges?
Kaylan: This year we did a redesign on the Santa beards that the Rockettes and ensemble wear in the number “Here Comes Santa Claus.” With the new technology in the show, which includes digital projections on all eight of the venue’s arches, we reshot a lot of the footage. We used that opportunity to update and improve the look of our Santas!
Gillian: The “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” costume, designed by Vincent Minelli, has not changed since it was originally designed – nor has the choreography. However, efficiencies have been made with textiles and how the costumes are produced. The trousers for the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” costume is a classic example of this. Originally the soldier pants were made out of a very heavy cotton and starched to within an inch of their lives. This required lots of maintenance and constant starch baths/pressing to keep the pants looking pristine. Within the last ten years, the pants have been replaced with a new improved fabric. It is a similar cotton used for the original pants, with the addition of a thin layer of bonded foam to the fabric. This makes the pants stand up and box like, but without having to constantly wash, starch and press them.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Size and Scope
MWS:How many people are on staff in the wardrobe and hair department during performances?
Kaylan: We have nine members of the hair department. On a six show day, each “team” does three shows.
Gillian: There are more than 60 people working in the wardrobe department at Radio City Music Hall – dressers, stitchers, shoe specialists, etc!
MWS: You both have Broadway musical backgrounds; does this show differ from those experiences? Are there unique challenges?
Gillian: The enormity of this show, the volume of shows and the turnaround vary enormously from most shows on Broadway. The typical Broadway show will have two matinee performances per week and maybe a five-show weekend. We do 16 shows on the weekends! When one show ends we are immediately re-setting for the next show with no break. It is truly a sight to behold, with all the dressers making it look like the easiest of tasks. The truth of the matter is it is actually quite complicated. As large as the theatre is, there is no cross over backstage. Therefore, all costumes being returned to their original starting point to be re-set for another show or put away for the day must return on racks, in hampers or laundry baskets via the basement. We have specific elevator cues built in to the show to help dressers get to locations in the basement or up to the dressing rooms with racks/baskets of costumes. Our laundry baskets take a beating, and thank goodness we have MWS to provide new baskets to us at a moment’s notice!
Kaylan: This is more of a desk job for me. I am used to running track backstage but here it’s all about schedules, payroll, publicity, ordering and simply keeping up with the day to day of the department.
MWS: Since there are multiple shows a day, there are also multiple casts. Are there also multiple crews?
Kaylan: We have set it up so that there is a blue team and a gold team in the hair department to mirror the Rockettes two casts.
Gillian: The 50 dressers are split in to two teams of 25. One team typically covers the morning and early afternoon shows, and one team the late afternoon and evening shows. The show runs seven days a week!
Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Technological Elements
MWS: Does the technological element of the show, for example microphones in the shoes, have an impact on your job?
Gillian: Of course! With any new technology there are new costuming challenges! We have to figure out how to fix and maintain fabrics, and items that are sometimes not commonly used in costuming. Much of the new costuming requires team work between departments other than wardrobe. As you mentioned, in both the “Rag Dolls” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” numbers, microphones are hidden in the tap shoes. For “Rag Dolls,” the heels are 3D laser printed to an exact specification especially for that purpose. The advancement in this process creates a more precise space for the microphone which is extremely sensitive. Prior to the 3D printing, the heels were painstakingly made by hand, and as such, had the occasional fit issue. With these advancements, we are always looking for vendors to supply a wider variety of tools and accessories to help maintain and fix unusual costume pieces. MWS is a go to vendor for me because of the incredible variety of products offered.
Kaylan: Santa Claus has two microphones in his beard. The beard must be styled around the microphones to make them inconspicuous while still picking up Santa’s voice.
MWS: Have any numbers been particularly challenging? Do any stand out as being a particular feat or triumph?
Gillian: I don’t think one single element stands out as being a challenge. Live theatre in general is a challenge, because you never know quite what is going to happen from one show to the next. With so many elements, one always hopes for a perfect show, but sometimes that is not the case. That’s what makes it so exciting to be backstage every day! As far as stand out triumphs are concerned, the dressers triumph every day in my opinion just by making it all look so easy and contained. They appear like ducks in a pond. Calm and serene on top of the water while legs swim frantically underneath!
Kaylan: For the hair department, it’s always the “Here Comes Santa Claus” number. We have 48 Santa Wigs and beards on stage. Keeping those looking consistent and beautiful is a daily task.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Unique Challenges
MWS: Are there typical issues that arise backstage that you regularly troubleshoot? Can you give us an example of a time you had to be truly resourceful?
Gillian: There aren’t any “typical” issues. As for being resourceful “necessity is the mother of invention.” One must always be prepared to think outside the box about how to fix a costume at a moment’s notice.
Kaylan: The elevators are the most unpredictable thing in the building. We have four elevators that are all manned with operators and as savvy as our operators are, the original elevators of the building can sometimes just choose not to work. Sometimes taking the stairs from the 8th floor is the only way to not miss a cue on deck.
MWS: The Rockettes are known for their dazzling glamour as well as incredible athleticism and precision, and the costumes and hair need to stand up to both of those attributes. Once in performance, do changes ever happen to accommodate the element of functionality?
Kaylan: We are constantly trying to keep the beards as comfortable as possible. This involves replacing elastics and the mole skin on the inside of the beards.
Gillian: The design team and the team who run our costume warehouse in Long Island city do an incredible job of choosing fabrics that can withstand wear and tear and don’t need to be preciously ironed or steamed between each show. When costumes are designed, functionality is always taken into consideration regarding ease of movement for the performer and how they get in and out of the costume. The team at Long Island city also make sure that every sequin, every rhinestone and every button are back in place on each individual costume before we start a new show each Christmas season. They are an amazingly talented group of professionals.
MWS: Can you share an interesting anecdote with us from your years on the show?
Gillian: An incident I will never forget is from my first time working on the Christmas Spectacular when in Los Angeles back in 1998. While we were loading out of the rehearsal space (which was in a church), an assistant came in and said they could not locate one of the panda feet and one of the polar bear feet from the “Nutcracker” number. We searched frantically but came up emptyhanded. The next day, a security guard said he had located the bear feet – it turned out that a homeless man had snuck into the church and thought the bear feet looked cozy – so he had been using them as pillows nearby!
Kaylan: Every week we wash all the beards and wigs for each company. On Tuesdays, we wash the gold cast’s beards and wigs and on Thursday, we wash the blue casts. We need 3 large wig dryers in order to complete the wash for the day and one Tuesday afternoon, we had a wig dryer start acting up. By the end of the day the dryer was broken and we could not use it. I called Tommy at MWS and he said he would get us one asap. Thursday came and ANOTHER dryer busted (it was not my year for wig dryers) So now we have 48 wet beards and 50 some wigs that needed to be dry by the next day and only one wig dryer…. I called Tommy in a panic and we had a new wig dryer at the hall by the afternoon and another one by the following Monday! Thankfully we weren’t here overnight with hair dryers in hand!
MWS: Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into the inner workings of this incredible show!
The Christmas Spectacular runs through January 1.