Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the 3rd Day of Christmas

...my 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.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the 2nd Day of Christmas

...my bestie gave to me,
a trip to Santaland at Macy's.

Although the Santa/Ralphie scene in A Christmas Story was actually filmed at Higbee's Department Store in Cleveland, I always think of the Santa at Macy's as the one giving the kid a little push down the slide with his boot. Of course, the Macy's Santa is best known for making miracles happen on 34th Street, where the building still resides today. After viewing the windows, we pressed our way inside and stopped, right in the path of traffic like good little tourists, to take a few pictures of the animatronic orbs suspended from the ceiling.
The center scene turned slowly clockwise overhead and it was just too tempting to stop and stare in childlike wonder.
Reindeer in flight over the city prepare for a landing near a group of excited children.
"Imagine" a time when pigs can fly. Oh wait...there they are. 
It's Christmas...the perfect time to make a wish. 
I paused to take a picture of this beautiful chandelier but, after uploading my photos to the computer, realized that perhaps I may have also been taking a picture of someone taking a picture of me. Sneaky, sneaky little security camera.
According to Shana, there was a spot (once upon a time) where you could stand and see Santa from afar. You could watch him gather the kids on his lap, listen to their Christmas wishes and then send them on their way (although probably not hurtling down a 2-story, slicked up chute). Not anymore, my friends (or so we thought. I just found a blog post by a "NYC Travel Expert" who mentions that the elves can point you toward a window where you can watch Santa. Maybe it was the first day on the job for the elf who talked to us). The line to see Santa snaked around "Santaland Junction", through women's clothes and almost to the escalator. This was as close as we got. We saw the train, which apparently used to have a bell you could ring but has since been removed (if I had to guess, I'd say by that elf on the right who had to listen to the damn thing all day for 4 weeks). We never saw Santa. But I've been pretty stinkin good all year and I think he knows that all I want for Christmas is a safe and healthy day spent at home with our families.

If you are traveling with little ones who do want to see Santa, though, I found this blog post that pretty well lines out the step-by-step process for doing that at Santaland AND some very helpful tips to make the visit run more smoothly (including a free online reservation program that allows you to "save a spot in line" instead of physically standing there for hourS). The blogger also mentions that Macy's has teamed up with Make-A-Wish and is donating $1 (up to $1 million) to the foundation for every letter written to Santa and dropped in the store's mailbox. Not in the city? Are you, in fact, 4+ states away and still wanting to participate? No problem. Write your letter here and submit it electronically! What an easy and fun way to benefit a charity this season!

On our way out, we took the other escalator down.
This particular Macy's, known as Macy's Herald Square, was built in 1902 and included the first modern day escalator. Although almost all of the wooden escalators in the 10 1/2 floor (yes, there is a 1/2 floor. We were there. I waited at least 15 seconds for the train to Hogwarts to pull up. Maybe it runs on Sundays) building have been replaced with standard metal escalators, you can still find this one running continuously between floors 8 and 9, in the middle of the building.
I am completely enamored by the wooden treads. I hope I look that good after 100+ years of use.

This beautiful and historic department store is well-worth a visit, even if it's not Christmas. It takes up an entire city block and is a shopper's dream realized. 

Next up: Radio City Music Hall annnnnnd a Rockette! 

On the First Day of Christmas

...my best friend gave to me,
a locally sourced breakfast in the city.
Friend of a Farmer in Gramercy area
Shana and I have both been on a whole foods buying, clean eating kick since summer (although when she completely gave up sugar for a month, she far exceeded my commitment to the task). My dedication to cooking whole foods and consuming less sugar and processed foods is mostly based on how cooperative Blue is being that week. Can I get the organic shopping done at our local Amish market (and by local, I mean at least a 30-minute drive in each way)? Do I have the energy at 5:30 PM to peel carrots and roast a butternut squash...or is it brinner...again? And most importantly, is there any thawed meat in the back of the fridge or did I forget to put it in there between playing zoo animals and cleaning up spilled milk? As a family, we agree that the food we purchase from local farms is superior in taste and shelf life to anything we purchase at a traditional grocery store. Sometimes it's organic and sometimes it's not, but it always tastes more flavorful. This summer I discovered that I actually do like raw tomatoes and fresh peaches. Huh...who knew? 

So, it was in that vein that I asked Shana to choose some farm-to-table restaurants for our visit. She answered with, "You should know that 'farm-to-table' is a catch phrase that's going to cost you a lot of money. Especially in New York." And so it was. A quick perusal of some online menu was...eye-opening. Arby's was sounding better and better. But she promised to find some great restaurants that served high-quality food, even if they weren't technically farm-to-table. This is one of the greatest advantages to having a lifelong local plan your itinerary, especially in a city with so much of everything that eventually you just throw your hands in the air and surrender. 

Friend of a Farmer is a cozy dining spot that feels a little bit squeezed into place. There is some outside seating, which had been completely abandoned because it is December, after all. Once inside, people slide from side to side, as they shift to let some people out the door and others in. I can't imagine what it's like in there during peak dining hours. The hostess lead us upstairs where, again, we danced around some patrons who had finished their meal and were heading down the stairs. The wait staff, while pleasant, was bustling around us with hot plates and hot coffee. But we've dined in NYC before (and in Paris, where restaurants are even tighter), so it was only a passing thought before we were seated. The roaring (wood-burning) fire and a quick fill of our coffee cups went a long way toward putting me at ease after a long morning of travel. 
Someone described the interior as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Granny's house and it is a bit like that. But more than anything, it has an Iowa farmhouse feel to me. Sturdy, classic and unpretentious. To save on space, they've stored ingredients in baskets throughout the restaurant, allowing them to do double-duty as decor. Once during our meal, a server excused himself as he reached over the head of a very bewildered elderly woman seated next to us to retrieve a pineapple. 
See? Pineapple. 
And once, someone from the kitchen rooted around in a bin behind Shana to dig out an armful of russet potatoes. The paranoid schizophrenic side of me could get all worked up about the general public being so close to the food I'm consuming, but I managed to just push that out of the way and enjoy the homey feel of being surrounded by locally sourced fruits and vegetables. (And they do pull from local farmers as much as possible since the owners are originally from a farm in upstate New York. Although I don't know if their menu is truly seasonal or if they just source ingredients from further regions as they go out of season in New York.) 

We all opted for plates of carbs for our brunch meal. (I don't know what it is...I have the hardest time eating eggs after getting off a plane.) I decided on the blueberry pancakes, which were truly mouth-watering and although I wasn't that hungry, I managed to polish off the entire plate. 
Also, did I mention French press coffee? Ermergerrrrrd. French press coffee!! And none of that bringing it to your table and then asking you to wait 4 minutes while it percolates. They deliver, ready to serve. They set it down, press the plunger and voila! Instant perfection. Neal had pumpkin pancakes, which he admitted were "pretty good" (this is one step up from "not bad" in Neal-speak. It has only taken me 8 years to master this language) and Shana had the waffles. It was all good. We ate past the point of being full. We obliterated rule #1 of being skinny but satisfied ourselves until an early dinner.
With brunch finished and noon tickets for a Behind-the-Scenes tour of Radio City Music Hall, we paid and headed out...again squeezing between tables and through clusters of customers waiting to be seated. This was all complicated by my cross-body, anti-theft messenger bag that was filled to the gills with cold weather gear and photography equipment. You would think that without a toddler in tow, I would travel a little lighter. Apparently, once a diaper bag, always a diaper bag.

On our way to Radio City, we walked through a farmer's market and made one stop at Macy's. Some of the markets run all year and are often set up for 12 hours/day on market days. The fruit, vegetables, flowers, local honey, sweets and wine all looked divine and if we had been cooking any of our next 8 meals, we would have definitely stopped. But we cruised on...until I saw this:
It's Brussels sprouts on the stalk, y'all! This is not how they display Brussels sprouts in our farmer's market and I had never seen them looking so...natural. And to be very honest, I kind of like the idea of plucking my own sprouts from the stalk. But it takes up a lot of table space (and probably truck space) so I can appreciate that I may not be seeing this any time soon. Also, it's Brussels sprouts...not Brussel sprouts. They hail from Belgium, and more specifically, Brussels. There, you will never again look like an ass at a farm-to-table event. Unless you ask for heirloom Brussels sprouts.

Our stop was at Macy's to see the Christmas windows. I wish "the windows" were a thing in Kentucky. It's just not and that's a damn shame. Even the just-OK-windows were still spectacular and gave me an entirely new appreciation for an artist and his/her vision.
If you can see this and not go a little misty-eyed over the miracles on 34th Street, well...you may not be my people.
The Macy's windows tell the story of a little boy and his dog, who traveled through the universe, experiencing Christmas on different planets. A couple of things interrupted my viewing pleasure: 1. We accidentally looked at these backwards so I never really enjoyed the bigger picture. And 2., being daylight, it was challenging to see them well and photograph them accurately. But we tried, dammit.
Although I think it's an interesting juxtaposition of New York's classic architecture against the "Earth" Christmas scene, I do wish these had been easier to see. Daytime is just not the greatest window-viewing time.
Rock figures with animatronic arms were featured on Uranus and Neptune.
Santa joins in on the fun, floating around Jupiter and Saturn.
Apparently, Santa's workshop is on Venus?
The first window, where Alex and his dog are granted an intergalactic tour with Santa serving as a guide. (For the record, I hope Blue's room is equally as nerdy when he's about 8. I would be thrilled.)
On the other side of the building at 34th Street, windows depict the story Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. I think perhaps these don't change as they were described as "classic" by a New York blogger last month.
1. Hats are good. 
2. Neal needs a scarf. His Adam's apple will get cold. 
These are Salvation Army bell ringers set up in front of Macy's. This year, the bell ringers throughout the city set up boomboxes and then danced and rang to the beat of hip hop music. The effect was intoxicating and if there had been any cash in my purse, I would have just handed it straight over. So many of the hot trends start in NYC and then trickle down. I hope this one makes it to us eventually. It's fun, it's interactive and it looks far less desperate. These ladies were full of the Christmas spirit and I hope they made a bucket load that day.

Tomorrow we venture inside Macy's, where Santa is camped out. Ho, ho, ho! And what's your name, little boy? 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The 12 Days of NYC Christmas

Last week, Neal and I embarked on a child-free weekend to New York City. It had been a trip in the planning stages since before there was even a need for a babysitter. A move to Georgia pushed us further away, a move to Virginia brought us closer but we were still unpacking boxes at Christmas, and then a move to Kentucky took us further away again, but with a promise that we would make it happen. Next year. Next year became this year, Neal purchased plane tickets and the deal was sealed. Christmas in the city...it's like Disney World for me...the most magical place on earth. If Neal had proposed at Epcot, perhaps I would feel differently. But he didn't. He popped out a rock at The Top of the Rock(efeller Center) and NYC has been magic ever since. It doesn't hurt that my sister from another mister, Shana, lives there, too. So, the itinerary was set, non-refundable show tickets were bought, 3-page babysitting instructions were typed (only 3 pages because he was watched over by his grandmothers) and then we had a plane to catch.

At  6:00 AM. And we had stayed up watching Brian Williams' daughter play Peter Pan the night before. While that was not time wasted, it was certainly not all that well-spent. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to, say, sleep.

So, we boarded a plane in Louisville, with airport Starbucks in hand, not yet ready for the whirlwind of Christmas activities Shana had planned for us. Without a child in tow, I had asked (perhaps begged) her to squeeze in as many traditional New York City Christmas-related events as possible and, oh by the way, we wanted to see Wicked. She is a logistical dynamo and if this whole accounting thing doesn't work out, I'm setting up a Kick-Start account to fund her tourism company. She's that good. I would not Kick-Start just anyone.

But first, the sun needed to rise on day 1.
Flying into the east, whether it's on a jet or a broom, definitely has its advantages. 
A rainbow sighting next to the dawning sun? Don't mind if I do. That's a good sign, right? One of great promise?

A very smooth flight, and (much more importantly) prompt (even early) arrival in La Guardia set the tone for the weekend. There may have been a mix-up about which terminal we were in as Shana was circling terminal C and we were actually in B (who names all of their gates C1-9 in a B Terminal? And is English their first language?), but we saw her sitting at a stoplight and jumped in. For future reference, it's not really a great idea to jump into someone's car, unbeknownst to them, at a NYC airport...regardless of how long you've known one another. It could get you Maced.

And we were off on a great adventure! With the exception of tomorrow (because tomorrow night is the Army Ball and I have (some) hair to get done and make-up to apply (which alone will take at least 7 tries) and some Spanx to squeeze into), I am going to post 12 great ways to experience Christmas in New York City everyday until Christmas Eve. I should probably do my own city, but honestly, I could run out around #4. And who doesn't want to see photos of ice skaters busting their asses in front of the big gold guy in Rockefeller Center?

So, let's do this...beginning with breakfast!