How New York Puts on the World’s Greatest Holiday Show staff

New York City puts on the greatest holiday show in the world, but our big, festive events don’t happen by themselves. Whether we’re celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving or the New Year, the City’s signature spectacles are possible only thanks to hardworking, dedicated creative people who do a ton of work behind the scenes so everything looks perfect when the lights turn on. Want the details? Read on.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Courtesy, MSG Photos

Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes

Director and choreographer Julie Branham started leading the Rockettes through rehearsals for this year’s big show on October 3; by the time we got a peek at their routine a week and a half later, they had already covered a lot of ground. “It’s a layering process,” says Branham of the grueling seven-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week routine leading up to the show. “We break it down [and] teach very slowly so they learn every move.”

Katie, a dancer who’s in her 12th year with the Rockettes, points to tape on the floor of the rehearsal space at St. Paul the Apostle Church, with numbered boxes. “It’s set up as a grid,” she says, corresponding to the show’s eventual home on the Radio City stage. “We write everything down, practice a ton. I wake up doing movements in my sleep. It never stops.”

Hailee, who’s making her Christmas Spectacular debut, knows that moving to the theater will bring its own challenges: “They make sure to tell us, ‘This is where you can step onto the bus, this is where the elevators are and you need to start getting this into your body so it’s not a shock to you when you get to the stage for tech rehearsal.” So when you see the Christmas Spectacular and notice the Rockettes nailing every intricate movement—down to the smiles on their faces—remember, it’s not as effortless as it looks. They’ve been dancing 42 hours a week to make it look that way.

Did you know? Rockettes must be between 5'6" and 5'10½. This is so they’ll all appear to be about the same height in the kickline.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Photo: Paul Kolnik

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Unity Phelan, a ballerina with the New York City Ballet, says the rehearsal process for The Nutcracker is demanding and compressed. “We come back [from vacation] for two weeks of rehearsal, and then we open for six weeks.” During the show’s run, dancers in TheNutcracker continue rehearsing six hours per day—“plus add on a performance at the end of the day,” Phelan says. To keep herself in shape, Phelan has a demanding preshow routine. “You get really tired once—you get woozy and kind of get the wind knocked out of you by working really hard,” she says, describing a ritual she calls a “puff.”

Any ballerina will know The Nutcracker, of course, but the scale and intricacy of the New York City production help make it special. Phelan singles out “the sheer size of the tree and the animation of the props,” along with the onstage snow that gets collected and reused after the shows. “They have a ton of it,” she says, “but they always sweep it up, put it in those big barrels and bring it back. I think you don’t see the snow you saw the first night until like the fourth week.”

Did you know? The first version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Before the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, it’s just a tree. Head gardener Erik Pauze decides which woody plant gets to take center stage. What’s he looking for? A nicely shaped Norway spruce, at least 75 feet tall and dense enough that you “shouldn’t be able to see the sky through it.” Being from the tristate area generally helps—long distance is a consideration, but it’s not a deal breaker (1998’s edition was flown in from Ohio). The selection process takes a while, during which time the winner generally makes itself known. As Pauze says, “Sometimes I visit a tree several times over the year [to] watch it grow or fill out. But when I see the perfect one, I just know it.”

Did you know? After the holiday season, lumber from the tree goes to Habitat for Humanity.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball Drop

Every year, around 175 million Americans and another billion people around the world watch on television as the ball drops in Times Square to mark the New Year. To make sure the gigantic show goes off without a hitch, organizers must attend to all the important details. We got the skinny from Jeff Straus of Countdown Entertainment, who helps produce the show. On December 26, the ball comes down to have new Waterford crystal triangles attached in a themed design (this year’s, “The Gift of Serenity,” features butterflies floating above a meadow). On December 28 and 29 there are technical rehearsals, followed by a dress rehearsal on December 30. One highlight is the confetti test, in which producers dump 3,000 pounds of confetti from Times Square rooftops—they don’t want to take any chances in creating what Straus calls a “colorful confetti blizzard” on the big night. And that’s how the descent of a 6-ton ball before a million in-person spectators goes off without a hitch. “I’m always nervous until the ball drops,” says Straus. “Then I’m celebrating with everyone else.”

Did you know? The first New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square took place in 1907.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Savvy visitors know that the night before the big parade, they can hang out near the American Museum of Natural History—entering the designated viewing area, if they like, at Columbus Avenue and 79th Street—to watch as workers inflate those famous balloons. Don’t worry; they use nets and sandbags to make sure Snoopy and Dora the Explorer don’t fly away before their big moment. This Forbes article from a few years back has details about other aspects of the preparations for the parade, which include a practice run the day before at a Meadowlands parking lot in neighboring New Jersey.

Did you know? In the late 1920s and early 1930s, organizers would release balloons after the parade. Those who found and returned them received prizes.