The remarkable Jewish St. Louis history of the Rockettes


Courtesy WikiCommons Photos

Late last week, the Radio City Rockettes announced the cancellation of their Christmas Spectacular this season due to increasing challenges from the COVID pandemic.

No matter your religion, this cherished tradition helped usher in the holiday season in New York City and Radio City Music Hall for generations. It also reminded me of the dance troupes’ history, which is both Jewish and related to St. Louis.

The Missouri Rockets

After serving in World War I, Russell Markert began his professional career on Broadway but soon moved to St. Louis, where in 1925 he founded the women’s precision troupe called the Missouri Rockets.

The Rockets were a 16-member dance line that performed before feature films at the Missouri Theater on Grand Avenue.  The dance troupe thrilled St. Louis audiences for years before Markert took them to New York City to perform in a Broadway show called “Rain or Shine.”

It was during these performances that the troupe was discovered by a Jewish New York City talent scout named S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel. He convinced Markert to form another all-female dance line in New York.

In 1932, Rothafel assembled a team of Jewish men who would create the annual holiday event, the “Christmas Spectacular” featuring at Radio City Music Hall  The team consisted of producer/choreographer Leon Leonidoff (who persuaded Rothafel to bring the St. Louis-based dance troupe the Missouri Rockets to Manhattan in the first place); composer Charles Previn; conductor Erno Rapee; and Russian-Jewish immigrant David Sarnoff, the president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) — the corporate sponsor.

The Missouri Rockets, now known as the “The Rockettes,” starred in the first Christmas pageant, and have been ever since.

The team 

Two of the Rockettes best-known production numbers — the only two that are repeated every year — were created by Leonidoff: “The Living Nativity” — which for years included live camels and elephants — and “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” based on music written in 1897 by German-Jewish composer Leon Jessel.

Leonidoff oversaw every stage show at Radio City until his retirement in 1974. He also developed the traditional Easter pageant (“The Glory of Easter”) as well as a short-lived “Kol Nidre” stage show for the High Holidays.

Composer Charles Previn — son of a Brooklyn rabbi and great-uncle of pianist and conductor Andre Previn — wrote original music for the programs.

Erno Rapee, the Hungarian-Jewish conductor also brought over by Roxy from the Roxy, led the Radio City Symphony Orchestra from 1932 until his death in 1945.

S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel

When Rothafel passed away in 1936, The New York Times commented that “he assembled the arts for an ever greater greatest show on earth.” Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, who presided over Rothafel’s funeral, took the sentiment even further.

“He produced real beauty and dignity for millions by widening the limited scope of their lives and giving them beauty,” Wise said. “Roxy had a great joy in the things that he did, and he transmuted that joy, as the alchemist transmuted baser metals into gold, into dignity and beauty.”

More Jewish connections

The shoes the Rockettes wore even had a Jewish connection. They were made by Capezio, a company co-owned by Estelle Sommers, who transformed her first husband’s Cincinnati fabric store into a dancewear specialty shop. Later she married Ben Sommers, who ran Capezio Ballet Makers — those shoes were (and still are) worn by the Rockettes.

Over the years, the Rockettes have featured several Jewish dancers whose stories stand out. Christine Frances Masave Horii, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, was born in Honolulu in 1968. She moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a dancer in music videos and onstage in pop concerts by Jody Watley and Belinda Carlisle. She then moved to New York City and became a Rockette.

Before she married TV commercial producer Todd Factor, Horii underwent a Conservative Jewish conversion. In time, the Factors became more traditional: Todd became Tuvia, Christine became Rachel Factor, and they moved to the religious Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood in Jerusalem. Today, she chooses to dance only before all-female audiences.

Rockettes who light Hanukkah menorahs

In 2018, Jenny Powers, of the Forward, wrote a story about a 30-year tradition that took place backstage at Radio City Music Hall on Hanukkah.

“Five minutes before the curtain goes up, Eric Titcomb, the hydraulic control board operator affectionately dubbed ‘Rabbi Eric,’ dons a yarmulke and hands out Hanukkah gelt for the occasion. Among those joining Eric to celebrate the holiday are Nicole Baker, Alyssa Epstein and Megan Levinson, the three Jewish Rockettes that are part of the 80-member team.”

The group of about seven would recite Hanukkah prayers in unison and light a menorah to celebrate the holiday.