Thursday, January 22, 2015

On the 4th Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
some Christmas lights and a cannoli.

Let's pause for just a second here and talk about how it's the 22nd day of January and NOT, actually, the 4th day of Christmas. First of all, it was lunacy to think that there would be time during the 12 days leading up to Christmas for me to sit and blog...DAILY. There's never any time for anything extra. I tried to do "The Kindness Elf" with Blue this year. That evolved into a couple of dollars crammed into the Salvation Army bucket and another stuffed doll sleeping in the bed every night. Thanks a freaking lot, Pinterest...the greatest irony ever - here, spend 2 hours pinning a bunch of crap that you are never going to have time to do because you're too busy pinning. Stupid kindness elf and all of his unfulfilled promise. And then Neal got sick with a ManCold that dug its back claws in for...uh...let's see...28 days now. And then Blue got sick. And then, because as iron-clad as my immune system is, it finally gave way and released the floodgates of snot. (Also, there is a story going around Facebook about a beautiful, 28-year old newlywed who got the flu and then got sepsis and died. Apparently, those who are most vulnerable to developing sepsis from the flu are the immuno-compromised, the elderly and those with asthma. I have asthma. For 24 hours at the beginning of this month, I was convinced I was dying of sepsis.) Also, being fresh off our trip, I was a little consumed by the details of all we saw and did and I wanted to convey each little piece to you completely and accurately. And that takes a lot of time. Now that there's about 6 weeks worth of distance, I am less concerned with the minutiae and more with just finishing what I started. So, here we go...

Is your house on fire, Clark?
No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.

It's like that in Brooklyn.

The year I was pregnant with Blue, Neal and I watched a PBS special about a particularly festive neighborhood in Brooklyn called Dyker Heights. Although the documentary covered several other neighborhoods nationwide, Dyker Heights definitely glowed. We spent that Christmas driving around our little military town, a thermos of hot chocolate between us and the shared expectation of stumbling upon some Dyker Heights magic.

What a trail of broken dreams we left behind us that December.

Come to think of it, that's probably what initiated our very first conversation about visiting New York City at Christmas. Thank you, Brooklyn.

Shana, hip to the Dyker Heights hype, booked us on a Friday night tour with A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours.  In addition to the Christmas lights tour, A Slice of Brooklyn also offers pizza tours, neighborhood landmark tours and a tour of famous movie locations...all in Brooklyn. As they say..."Manhattan? Fuhgettaboutit!"

The tour bus picked us in Manhattan and as we raced to the waiting coach from dinner, Neal and I experienced a moment of deja vu, both remembering when he had rushed off in London to meet a bar-hopping party bus. (Somehow, we never boarded that bus and instead spent the entire evening drinking vodka and dancing in the club. But that's a love story for another time.) As we found 3 seats together and peeled off our dripping rain coats, Paula, our illustrious hometown tour guide, welcomed us aboard. She chatted easily with everyone and joked with one of the tour "regulars" seated near the front. She is stereotypical Brooklyn, but in the best possible way. She plays to the character and it made the entire 3 1/2 hour tour a more relaxing and fun experience. (Shana warned us that her own inner Brooklyn might show through by the end of the night. She was able to keep it in check, surprising us all.)

As the bus pulled away from the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, Paula gave us a little more insight into the neighborhoods we would be visiting and the stories of the families living there. Paula's cousin and A Slice of Brooklyn founder, Tony Muia, mentioned in a blog post by that most visitors see the lights, but they see the stories. As Brooklyn natives, Tony and Paula can rattle off the names of each home's occupants and the reason they decorate (or don't), as well as any juicy gossip that arises from the competition that is sparked each year. Paula mentioned that we would be touring the lesser known (and more subtle) light displays in Bay Ridge first before heading over to Dyker Heights, just a few blocks away. With her spiel completed, Paula turned on a video of classic Christmas shows for us to watch on TVs spaced throughout the bus. She referred to them as "under-rehearsed and over-intoxicated", which perfectly described every Christmas special with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. Although most of the clips aired in the 1950's, they were new to me and Shana took great delight whenever I asked, "who's that?" (Admittedly, I didn't know Frank Sinatra by sight - or by sound, unfortunately - and I thought she was going to Facebook unfriend me right then and there.)

I'm just now realizing that I don't think I have any pictures from Bay Ridge. But suffice it to say, the Bay Ridge Christmas lights demonstrated an understandable level of Christmas spirit. Once we arrived in Dyker Heights, the needle shot straight over to Crazy Town. Let's just start with these guys...
Since I don't watch any zombie shows (because they actually do scare the Hell out of me), please insert your own "Walking Dead" snowmen quip here: __________________________. I guess they don't melt for anyone. And they definitely don't like warm hugs.

Other homes around the corner were tastefully done, although more ambitious than something I would attempt. 

But then you turn up 84th Street and whoooaaaahhhh, Nelly. Or, Lucy, as is the case here.
This is Lucy Spata's house (yes, there is a house under there...somewhere) and the residence most widely credited with beginning the annual tradition of decking the halls...and the roof....and the driveway...and every square inch between the two. Although there is some argument that the annual over-the-top displays actually began at the house directly across the street with the late Al Polizzotto, Lucy insists that her mother was the source of it all. As neighbors began to complain about the holiday glow emanating from the Spata's home, Lucy's answer was, "If you don't like it, move!" Except in Brooklynese, that's more like "Moof!" And accompanied by some kind of sweeping hand gesture. Lucy adds some new element every year and declares the entire display a tribute to her mother, who has passed away. As a professional observer, Paula can look at Lucy's home (or any on the tour) and tell you what's been added each year. But really, where do you start?

Shana, in the rainy dark, poses with a seated animatronic Santa.
And Ally...

If your eyes are having an impossible time taking it all in, you should see it in person. Eventually, I just had to walk away because the part of my brain that celebrates holidays was dangerously close to completely short-circuiting.

Satisfied with the 382738348272 photos we had just snapped of Lucy's homage, we frogger'd (people should not be allowed to drive down this street at Christmas. It's dangerous for everyone) across the street to the Polizzotto home, which is just as breathtaking.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus...and he is 14 feet tall and 800 pounds. He's also animatronic and equipped with a camera and speaker so that Al could talk to whomever was approaching.
The piece was commissioned during Mr. Polizzotto's battle with cancer and was intended to bring joy to the neighborhood children. According to NYCGo, the gesture was so appreciated that when Mr. Polizzotto passed away, Dyker Heights went dark for one night. Flanking Santa is a pair of 30-foot, animatronic, toy soldiers. Let me give you a better idea of size...
That arrow is pointing to the top of Shana's head. Yes, these people need a crane to erect their Christmas decorations. That is a concept that is completely foreign to me.

In addition to Santa and his henchmen, the yard is full of "toyland" carousels, each weighing a ton and each completely capable of full motion.

If "seeing Christmas through a child's eyes" was the intent, well-done! Elementary school Allyson wanted to hop on a horse and ride, at least until security dragged me away.

With one more look across at Lucy's house,
we turned the corner to photograph "the inflatables house".
Again, where does one focus first? Snuggled life-size M&M's. Snoopy in a canoe. Mater resting on the front lawn. The Hulk and Captain America looming behind a group of instrument-strumming animals. So many blow-up Christmas displays that I've never seen at Lowe's...and quite a few that make an appearance annually. This homeowner, though, began a tradition of collecting donations from visitors for charities dear to him. The first, I believe, was the American Cancer Society (or maybe the American Heart Association, I can't remember now) but has grown to also collecting for local politicians. It's not pushy, but it's available. He swears that it's not to cover the electric bill.

Part of me wanted to come back in the morning, just to see if he keeps them inflated 24-7 or, if by the light of day, it looks like the Death of Christmas with superheroes laying lifeless and Mater flattened by the pull of a plug.

Another breathtaking house is decorated by Sam "The Greek", who brings a smattering of diversity to the neighborhood. In an historically Italian neighborhood (indicated by, among other things, the lack of a baby Jesus in the creche until after midnight mass on Christmas Eve), he proudly displays the Greek flag, an electronic sign wishing visitors "Season's Greetings" in an array of languages, and an illuminated snowflake with the Star of David periodically lighting up from within.

See that plexi-glass enclosed display in the foreground of this picture? In addition to the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of lights, he also created this:
An entire miniature snow village that stories tall. I think I see a ferris wheel. (After finishing module 2 of the online photography class that Mom, Shana and I are enrolled in, I now realize I needed a different lens for reducing glare from the window. Live, take some classes and learn, I guess.)
I took this picture to remind myself many years from now that Sam "The Greek" decorates all four sides of his house. That, folks, is Christmas spirit that even Buddy the Elf lacks.

There is another house that celebrates diversity during a month that is, actually, about more than just those of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus (much to the chagrin of my more conservative friends and family).
Blue Christmas is the result of a "house divided": a Christian husband and a Jewish wife. Inside, half the house is supposedly decorated for Christmas, the other half for Hanukkah. And UK/UL couples thought they had it bad. They also hang an upside down Christmas tree in the front window. Although an upside down tree dates all the way back to a 7th century Benedictine monk who used the image to represent the Holy Trinity, it is finding its way back into pop culture. You can buy one at most major retailers (i.e. Amazon...I'm convinced that if it's not on Amazon, it doesn't exist) for less than $100. And on our flight to NYC, I was reading in my Kentucky Monthly about a university dean's wife who displays her own upside down Christmas tree in an effort to be unique and quirky. I fully expect to see one in the Pottery Barn Christmas 2015 catalog.

Although I have only shown you homeowner-decorated houses, professional light decorating is big business in Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge. It began with landscaping companies who realized that work was scarce when the grass quit growing. So, they began stringing Christmas lights and hauling in gigantic decorations. The 2 biggest names in professional decorating are B&R and De Meglio, which is obvious by the signs they post in each yard they do.

 It's pretty obvious, as you walk the streets of both neighborhoods, which ones are professional and which ones are, well...not. But one of my favorite memories of Christmas is the waist-high, lit, plastic carolers that my grandparents would put out each year and you just aren't going to find a faded plastic caroler in a professional display. Although it does afford many people who are just too busy to mess with it a chance to get in on the lights action.

Not pictured ( I know, hard to imagine, right?) is the teddy bear topiaries. One bush is planted each year a grandchild is born into the family. It is then meticulously sculpted into a teddy bear. As the child grows, the topiary grows. It's a streak of genius that I wish I could show you (actually, I'm sure there's a picture of it on Google Images somewhere. But I've worked too hard on this post to have to take it down because some photographer got his camera strap in a wad over me posting a picture of it here. So, consider it something to do the next time you're waiting for the pot to boil.)

Although Neal spent most of the tour walking alone through the neighborhood while Shana and I screwed around with our camera settings and tried to balance umbrellas over our heads but under our chins (never again will I make fun of the umbrella hat), I think we all enjoyed it. Soggy but surprisingly pleased with the entire experience. 

The evening finished with a cannoli and a hot chocolate at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
(Please excuse sock-cap hair. Actually, wet sock-cap hair, which is only slightly better smelling than wet dog.)
While some members of our tour group dropped shots from the bar into their cups and Paula worked the crowd, gliding from table to table with a flourish of the hand and a Brooklyn cackle that I had come to love, we dried out and warmed up. Sure it is possible to plan your own Brooklyn Lights Drive-By but it wouldn't be nearly as stress-free or fun. Drunk Dean Martin crooning from bus TVs on the way back to Manhattan is just the icing on the cake.

If you go, plan to be on the bus about 15 minutes before departure. If you prefer a certain seat, get there earlier. Paula is very entertaining so no reason to be worried about being bored on a bus while waiting for other passengers to arrive. Paula is also a photographer and is happy to help you with camera settings for the best pictures possible. Ours turned out pretty good, even in the dark, even in the constant rain. Thanks, Paula! I don't know when the tours start, but many homeowners don't start decorating until November so I would wait until December has descended before going on a tour (although book well before that). Many thanks to Paula and A Slice of Brooklyn Tours for such a memorable evening. I wish this post could do it justice but the truth is, you just have to see it for yourself!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the 3rd Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
a backstage tour of Radio City.

With noon tickets for a backstage tour of Radio City Music Hall and 1 PM tickets for The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, we pushed through crowds of meandering and awestruck tourists (OK, it's easy to be awestruck around Rockefeller Center. It's nothing like 98% of the rest of the country). Like Chicago, New York City is decked-out at Christmas and that often includes random and gigantic pieces of holiday art.
For scale, please check out the 2-story Chase windows in the background. Where does the city store these in July? The subway system?
And a child-sized floating steam train. Where does that go during the off-season? And is that where Jimmy Hoffa is buried?
What would the city be without the Statue of Liberty camped out on a plywood box, ready to greet the tired, the poor, the huddled masses looking to part with a couple of dollars for a selfie with someone painted cyan, from head to toe?

But enough about that, back to the task at hand...
We are here to see tall women with long legs kick simultaneously and in rhythm to our favorite Christmas carols. But first, please take us behind the scenes.

Without droning on too much about the history of the building and the purpose for constructing it, let's just say it was a pet project of John D. Rockefeller Jr, Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel (who had opened the Roxy Theater in 1927) and RCA chairman David Sarnoff. Built in 1932 and located in midtown Manhattan, this Art Deco-style building was named for one of the radio/tv complex's first tenants, the Radio Corporation of America. The Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932 with a lavish stage show, which was intended to be a return to high-class variety entertainment. But the show was lengthy and one-man acts bombed in such a cavernous space so within a month, it was converted to a venue for showcasing feature films accompanied by a stage show at intermission. Soon, Radio City was the exclusive venue for RKO-Radio City films. But by 1979, a combination of changes in film distribution and the fact that the theater preferred to show only G-rated movies resulted in the theater closing. It was almost converted into office space but was ultimately renovated and reopened to the public in 1980.

Today, Radio City Music Hall is certainly home to the Rockettes and their Christmas Spectacular, but it has also premiered major films (such as Harry Potter), hosted Cirque du Soleil, Barney & Friends, America's Got Talent and the NFL Draft. Several movies have been filmed here as well, including Annie.
The Great Stage, designed by Peter Clark is meant to represent the setting sun and was inspired (as the story goes) by a sunset he witnessed while on a ship crossing the Atlantic. The stage is comprised of 3 sections mounted on hydraulic powered elevators. The systems were so advanced at the time, the Navy incorporated the technology into WWII aircraft carriers. According to our tour guide, during the war, government agents were stationed in the basement to safeguard the technology against enemies. To this day (knock on every piece of wood within a 10,000 mile radius), the elevator system has yet to fail. A turntable center stage allows for scene changes and special effects (like the full size, double-decker tour bus featured in the Christmas show). The stage curtain is the largest in the world and has its own power source to form various shapes while open.

As our guide ushered us through the back halls of Radio City, he joked that tourists, accidentally separated from the group, have gotten lost in the meandering corridors. I can absolutely see how that would happen. We twisted and turned, climbing up a few stairs and stepping down a few more, stopping to look at artwork that featured costume designs

actual costumes

and a wall of fame of former Rockettes.

Perhaps the best photo on this wall, though, is a time-elapsed panorama of the toy soldier domino-effect fall at the end of  The Parade of the Toy Soldiers (if you have no idea what I'm talking, please go YouTube it right now. Or make yourself a note to watch it when the boss isn't looking/the baby is sleeping/or you have more than 17 seconds to yourself). The costumes and choreography of this piece, performed every year during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, are exactly the same as when they were created in 1933. C-L-A-S-S-I-C.
The first "wooden soldier", closest to the cannon smoke, is one of the original Rockettes. Each one that follows is from a year or more later, ending with one of the most recent dancers. I don't know the exact years for each one but this photo chronicles, in a very clever and cool way, the succession of dancers over an 82-year span.

After traveling several more hallways, we reached Roxy Rothafel's apartment, which was rarely used as living quarters and more often hosted swanky parties with Hollywood's elite.
Even today, the rich and famous who hang out in this room have left their mark in the guest book, which is under glass (probably of the shatter-proof variety).
The ceiling (waaaaay up there) is made of gold and all of the furniture (which is removed for parties) is original. This room can also be rented but I can't imagine for what mind-numbing price. Maybe...1 million dollars?
Just a little of the iconic Rockefeller Center architectural trim peeking around the Christmas tree.

Our backstage tour concluded with a short video about the history and importance of Radio City Music Hall and a Q&A with a real live Rockette! Visitors who had already seen the Christmas show asked her to describe how the toy soldier fall is executed (it's pretty complicated but I will tell you that due to the wide brim of their toy soldier hats, they can only see 4' directly in front of them). I asked her how she keeps in shape during the off-season (strength training, running, barre, Pilates, tap and ballet classes). Then we had the opportunity to have a picture taken with her. Well...we didn't. It was 12:55 and we had 1 PM tickets for the show. So, we were rushed back down all of those corridors and to an elevator, which delivered us to the appropriate mezzanine. As much as I would have liked to have my picture taken with a Rockette, I'm pretty sure that would've made my ass look huge.

The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular is, in short, SPECTACULAR. There is literally something in it for everyone. It started with a little plot development and a short 3D film (glasses included), then some ballet, which is not really my thing, but quickly picked up with a jazz number, followed by the classic wooden soldier routine and ended later with the nativity scene, complete with live animals. Someone in our tour group had asked if the animals on stage at the end of the show were live or animatronic. He quickly answered, "LIVE!" They live in stables in a sub-basement (which is less like a basement, apparently, and more like a gigantic cavernous space beneath the basement of the theater) during the run of the show. They must be walked daily so early morning commuters often witness Radio City staff escorting camels down the street. I can't imagine what that looks like to a tourist. Especially a foreign tourist. But truly, the last scene with the animals makes the show.
For about 4 seconds, I was that annoying person trying to take a picture with their cell phone. But the lady in front of me was that annoying person approximately every 4 seconds. Admittedly, I generally spend more time photographing my experience than actually experiencing it, but this is one of those times when you just have to put the phone away and soak it all in. And for the love of all that is good and holy, don't try to photograph the 3D film. That's just ridiculous. (Yes cell phone lady...I'm talking to you. Oh wait...there you are! You are in my picture, taking a picture. Yeah, don't be her.)

As the show wrapped up, Shana and I made a quick exit out the back and headed for the restrooms before everyone else down in the orchestra level had a chance to catch up. Can I say that if you are just the tiniest bit narcissistic, these are the bathrooms for you! As we stood in line in the powder room, I realized we were completely surrounded by mirrors. I was mesmerized. (And I may have made myself a note for our next house.) By the time we exited, the line had snaked out the powder room and almost into the theater itself.

Before we headed out, I wanted a couple of quick pictures of the lobby.

To the left of the crystal chandelier in the top picture, you can see a tiny bit of the stairwell where a scene from Annie was filmed. Behind the Art Deco chandelier, you can see a huge mural; a beautiful and subtle backdrop in a room of opulence.

We headed out of the theater in search of the gift shop and ran right into the 2 male leads from the show at the back stage door. One of them was dancing and I thought, "Wow! That kid's got moves!" Two seconds later, Shana said, "You recognize them from the show, right?" Um. Sure. Maybe I should start wearing my glasses to the theater.

I'm not gonna lie. The tickets for Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular are pricey. They are pricey even by NYC standards. But if you are committed to doing NYC at Christmas, they are worth every penny.

Tomorrow...We heard there were some Christmas lights in Brooklyn. Oh boy, were there!

PS I'm getting lots of comments asking if we are still in town. We've actually been home from New York for over a week. I just couldn't blog about it while we were there because we were too busy having all of this fun. Every night was a total collapse into bed sometime around midnight. I barely managed to get my teeth brushed. One night I slept in my bra because it was too much effort to take it off.