We stood on line to get inside Radio City Music Hall, where the grownups purchased our tickets at the next available booth for the afternoon’s feature presentation. The movie was called Song Without End, and the stage show featured the Rockettes: an ultra-talented, long-legged dance troupe, consisting exclusively of a lengthy chorus line filled with gorgeous showgirls, dressed in skimpy, glittery outfits, enough to open my youthful eyes wide with amazement and innate desire. The lobby, or grand foyer, was like that of a magnificent royal palace, adorned with exotic carpeting, ornamental chrome, mirrors, leather and aluminum throughout the interior, stairways, rest rooms, concession stands, structural columns and furnishings; fashioned and themed by the popular Art Deco movement of the ’30s, as mentioned previously. Exquisite sculptures graced the premises, as well as monstrous murals and fine frescoes painted on the walls up to the ceiling.
Notorious for being the largest indoor movie theater in the world, the magnanimous auditorium in all its overwhelming grandeur was designed to appear as the setting sun, which was immediately evident upon our entering the massive odeum, capable of seating up to 6,000 spectators, spread out on all three seating levels of the four-story structure—the fourth was strictly for lighting and the projection equipment.
Our seats were on the ground level midway to the stage and screen. My eldest cousin from Canada, who evidently wasn’t familiar with theater seating—presumably from her being a country gal not getting into town that often—sat atop the raised-bench portion, towering over everyone. She looked so silly in doing so. I thought Lise was kidding around, remembering her conical-beehive hairdo that seemingly was the tallest object on the first level of the showplace. Her mother scolded her in French, telling the obviously embarrassed young lady sit down properly.
The expansive interior illumination slowly extinguished, but not before I got a substantial dose of my incessantly inquisitive gazing about, taking in the opulent splendor of this gigantic music hall, studying all the fascinating, unique faces of the thousands of surrounding theater-goers, wondering where they might have lived. Was it New York City, or across the Hudson River in New Jersey, like me; from another country like my relatives accompanying my mother and I; maybe even immigrants who just landed recently at Ellis Island? However, one thing was certain: I had never seen such a vast assortment of different skin tones and colors, complete with idiomatic facial structures and distinctive expressions together in one place.
The feature film was subtitled The Story of Franz Liszt, a biographical epic about the late-nineteenth-century Hungarian pianist and composer, whose fans considered him to be godlike, often going into total frenzy during his European concerts. “Lisztomania” is how the musical phenomenon has been dubbed by historians, comparable to Beatlemania of the 1960s, or the adoration of Elvis Presley and the many rock-and-roll acts that followed.
The flick was also about the musician’s many romances and his ultimately becoming a Franciscan Friar until his death, but I really wasn’t interested at the time in such flowery subject matter, nor high-brow music. I preferred to stuff my face with candy from the brown-paper bag, of which my red-headed cousin next to me was guardian, and to cut up with my other Canadian cousins, being explicitly told by my parent after our becoming rambunctious, to hush up or my dad would take out his razor strap when we got home. Back then, it was politically correct and legal not to spare the rod, making me settle down immediately.
Having opened up the wrapper of a cherry sour ball just taken out of the illustrious sack, I stuck the hard candy in my mouth and slowly began to suck on it while watching what I considered to be an extremely boring film on an enormous cinema screen, listening to the terribly mellow, orchestral-music score, while thinking I wished we were up on the seventieth floor of “The Rock,” perusing the Big Apple from the clouds. That was the last thought I remembered until awakening abruptly after having dosed off and not being able to breath. The unintentionally swallowed sour ball was lodged in my throat over my wind pipe, and I couldn’t take in nor expel any air.
Utter pandemonium took place instantly as I began to flail my arms excitedly like the fluttering of a bird’s wings, poking my fingers into my mouth, hoping the lodged candy was within reach. I couldn’t speak or yell. Instinctive fight-or-flight behavior took over and had me fighting for my life while fleeing from my seat, crashing through and over mounds of movie-goer’s legs along the way to the aisle, where I took a quick right and made a mad dash for the lobby, running as if my pants were on fire, being followed by my mother, two aunts and three cousins close behind me.
Once in the grand foyer, not so grand to me anymore, my mom pounded vigorously upon my back, attempting to dislodge the candy from my trachea. An usher had grabbed hold of my trunk and turned me upside down, shaking me all while my mum was slamming me still in the back, vitally attempting to save me. I could hear someone’s saying my glowing red face was now turning a bright blue; another was screaming for aid, asking for a doctor. Yet one insensitive individual was commenting about how I was going to die if not helped soon. I believed that was going to happen. Everything appeared fuzzy and was slowly fading to black.
“Out of the blue and into the black,” a line from a Neil Young tune, makes me think of my dire straits in Radio City Music Hall, every time I hear it: going from bad to worse; although, during that time, death was going to follow. Reciting Psalm 23 to myself, I suddenly heard a woman say a new respiratory method might help and to upright me on my feet. The Heimlich maneuver had yet been discovered. She placed her mouth over mine, into which the lady began to blow air determinedly down my throat, apparently forcing the life-sustaining essence past the hard candy and into my lungs, allowing me to build up enough volume and pressure to finally exhale, expelling the sour ball from my esophagus as a result. I recall clearly the dramatic trajectory the candy took as it propelled out of my mouth, soaring like a tiny cannonball, landing several feet away on the exotic carpeting, and being able to breath once again freely.
My mom and relatives were so excited about the glorious outcome, hugging and kissing me, making a big fuss that I was OK. My throat was horrendously sore from the terrifying episode, otherwise I was ready to go back to my seat and rest. Looking around I said, “Where’s that lady? I want to thank her for saving my life.” The woman was nowhere to be found. It was as if she was my guardian angel who had miraculously manifested to help me and disappeared as fast as she showed up. To this day I remember her radiant face: a beautiful angel without wings.
By the time everyone made it back inside the auditorium, the dastardly film had ended and the Rockettes were taking the stage, definitely maintaining my avid attention for the entire, forthcoming, spectacular experience. Their choreographed routines to lively music, and the mile-high kicks while all assembled in line are indelibly etched into my memory, as are the events leading up to the sensational finale; not to mention again their skimpy, glittery costumes, closely noticed from my being on the threshold of new-found hormones, brewing inside me.
After the show, we took the subway back to Port of Authority Bus Terminal, another first for all of us. Everyone was hungry, prompting our elders to stop into a restaurant there for dinner. My abused throat was still too sensitive for eating anything. I could hardly even drink any liquids, but I didn’t mind. At least I was alive and my death was spared by an angel.
Everyone fell asleep on the bus ride home. Waking up in Hackensack, the town of my birth, I nudged my mother seated next to me, awakening her. She shook my aunt, the one who lived nearby; telling her sister-in-laws to wake up as well, giving us time to shake the sand from our eyes before we disembarked at the bus stop down the hill from my dwelling in River Edge. I went to bed immediately upon arriving at our apartment. The unforgettable occurrences of that phenomenal day had almost drained all the life out of me, literally. Surely I must have dreamt about the Rockettes overnight; for they too were radiant angels.