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Don’t Mess with Rosie: How One Dancer Spearheaded the Effort to Save Radio City Music Hall

by Bonnie Rosenstock
April 28, 2020
New York, NY
On January 5, 1978, The New York Daily News headlines proclaimed that Radio City Music Hall was going to close its doors in April. The unsettling news sent shock waves through the 400 unaware employees: The Ballet Company, the Rockettes, technical staff and other personnel. At the press conference later that day, Alton Marshall, President and Chief Executive of Rockefeller Center, Inc. and Radio City Music Hall, declared that the Easter show on April 12 would be its last, and the magnificent 1932 Art Deco palace would be turned into a shopping mall, department store, amusement park or be demolished.

“His tone was pompous, arrogant, and patronizing,” recalled Rosemary (Rosie) Novellino-Mearns in her 2015 tell-all Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story. Rosie had been dancing at the Hall since she was 18 and loved it. She rose to become the Dance Captain of the professional Ballet Company and assistant to legendary choreographer Peter Gennaro. “I knew every inch of the building,” said Novellino-Mearns in our April 19 telephone interview. “I had worked there for 12 years doing four shows a day in between the featured movie. I would wander around on the third break to explore its wonders.”

Rosie wasted no time in organizing the employees and was elected president of The Showpeople’s Committee to Save Radio Music City Hall. Her unwavering dedication and sheer determination inspired her fellow workers, friends, the public, as well as the New York and national media, cultural leaders and politicians. Against all odds and in only four months, the tall statuesque brunette David and her cohorts defeated the Goliath money interests and “The Showplace of the Nation” was declared a National Historic Landmark. ”I did not do this alone,” said the modest Glen Rock, New Jersey native. “I was the one who started it. I was the ringleader, but we would not have succeeded without all the people that I mentioned in the book.”

While she saved the building, she couldn’t save her job. After the victory lap, she and four others, including her soon-to-be husband Bill Mearns, who was a singer, were fired. “We went to the union. It was a waste of time,” she said. “My family constantly urged me to write the story, but I went into a real funk after we found out we were blackballed.”

After touring with Michael Bennett’s Ballroom, she decided she didn’t want to dance anymore. “I had a nice career from ages 18 to 33 every day of my life. I didn’t know what to do,” she admitted. She and Bill got married in 1980, and they started writing musicals together. Later, they worked in administrative jobs for a cruise line to pay the bills.

Then one morning another newspaper article changed her life again. She read in the NY Times that Alton Marshall had died on January 24, 2008. “Something released in me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Write the book.’ I came home and started it. Whenever I had free time, I worked on it.” When the cruise line downsized and let them go in 2013 after 12 years, “it was a blessing,” said Rosie. ”We were going to quit anyway. But now we had unemployment for six months and a package.” The book was already about half done, and Rosie completed it two years later.

Rosie had kept a scrapbook of every newspaper article and some of the letters from the famous and public. In addition, she had a trove of photographs of the event, many of which ended up in the book, along with professional and personal photos from her childhood, dancers and other sources. Fortuitously, an usher married to a Rockette had a VCR and had taped every TV show and newscast in which Rosie, as spokesperson, appeared. All together, the book is part autobiography and love story, said Rosie, and is interwoven with back stage stories, gossip and intrigue, villains and heroes and the rich history of the Hall, making for a crisply written, personable and personal tale of heroism and courage.

The Hall is now run by Madison Square Garden as a concert venue, with special events like the Tony Awards and sports-related functions. The Ballet Company (1932-1974), the first permanent ballet company in the U.S., is long gone. The Christmas show is now an hour and a half. “The Rockettes work their tails off,” she noted. ”It’s big and splashy, and parts are lame. The Spring show was really bad. Also, you can’t see the grandeur of the lobby because of the concession stands. But it’s making money,” she conceded.

What inspired the spunky ballet dancer to take on the Rockefellers was simple. “I thought it was wrong,” she said. “It was pure passion. I wasn’t really trying to save my job. I was putting my neck in a noose. I had no idea what we were going to come up against. Even with all the pain, heartbreak, being blackballed, I would not change a thing.”

Since the book came out, Rosie and Bill have traveled around the country with a theatrical documentary style multi-media presentation about her story, with historical facts about the Hall, its architects, designers and artists that contributed to its grandeur. Touring is currently on hold due to the corona virus.

Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story, published by TurningPointPress (2015), available on Amazon.com,barnesandnoble.com, turningpointpress@gmail.com and other sites. For more information, go to savingradiocitymusichall.com
Rosemary Novellino-Mearns and husband Bill Mearns at book signing of 'Saving Radio Music Hall, A Dancer's True Story'.

Rosemary Novellino-Mearns and husband Bill Mearns at book signing of "Saving Radio Music Hall, A Dancer's True Story".

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


'The Night The Music Hall Was Saved, April 12, 1978'.

"The Night The Music Hall Was Saved, April 12, 1978".

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Rosie in armor, 'Fighting to Save Radio City Music Hall from Demolition' while soliciting signatures and public support, April 2, 1978.

Rosie in armor, "Fighting to Save Radio City Music Hall from Demolition" while soliciting signatures and public support, April 2, 1978.

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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