Encore, Encore

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It was, wrote Walter Lippmann a few days after Radio City Music Hall opened its doors in 1932, "a pedestal built to sustain a peanut." Describing the entire Rockefeller Center complex in which the Music Hall sat, Lewis Mumford called it "the sorriest failure of imagination and intelligence in modern American architecture." And they were among the kinder critics.

Come the Music Hall's "gala reopening" on Oct. 4, the people who operate the place--Cablevision Systems, through its Madison Square Garden subsidiary--will be hoping that today's judges will be a bit less cranky. After a seven-month restoration that stripped it to its bones and then rebuilt it virtually from ruins, the grand old theater will look strikingly unfamiliar to nearly anyone who has been there before. It will look the way it did 67 years ago.

The Music Hall had three sires--John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the world's richest man, whose eponymous Depression-defying venture in urban optimism was the greatest accomplishment of his life; S.L. ("Roxy") Rothafel, a monomaniacal showman whose idea of appropriate scale ranged from enormous to gargantuan; and Donald Deskey, a design buccaneer whose best-known work, eclipsing even the Music Hall, would be the Crest toothpaste tube. But what these three unlikely collaborators built, and what renovation architect Hugh Hardy and his colleagues at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates have now reinvigorated, changed the course of American interior design.

Given that Deskey had first been inflamed by the idea of the modern at the epochal Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs in 1925--whence the term (and style) Art Deco--the clothing he draped over the muscular lines of the Music Hall was surprisingly American. He commissioned paintings from America's leading modernists, designed hundreds of furniture pieces in novel forms and added new materials--tubular steel, Bakelite, aluminum foil--to the design vocabulary. Up to that point, the fashion in theater decoration might have been characterized as Italian Baroque Moorish Greek Renaissance Pagoda. Pick any two, and you had a movie palace. Deskey resisted Rothafel's bludgeoning insistence on "Portuguese Rococo" and instead dressed the place for Fred and Ginger, crafting a sleek temple dedicated not to Old World solemnity but to machine-age speed and sheen.

Restoring an interior that in its original condition had never been documented in color photography proved to be nearly an act of archaeology. Hardy tested armfuls of swatches for the mammoth curtain, assessed carpet samples from several continents, appraised scores of variations on the foil wallpaper used in the hall's public areas. Misguided renovations in years past didn't help. The turbid purple-and-brown pattern on the auditorium carpet got that way because the first replacement had been matched to the worn, filthy colors of the original. Hardy's research revealed that in 1932, before 100 million shoes had shuffled through the room in its first nine years, the carpet had been light and buoyant, as if in entirely different colors. Out in the Grand Foyer, a regilded ceiling now gleams above; plummy new fabrics provide a frame for the gold-backed mirrors along the walls; and over the great staircase Ezra Winter's gigantic The Fountain of Youth has been restored to such dazzling color that for a moment one can almost forget what a truly dreadful painting it is--"a wormy intestine floating in a muddy cloud," a contemporary critic described it.

Oddly, the two finest works that Deskey commissioned and Hardy has reinstalled haven't been on display for years. Stuart Davis' witty Men Without Women was exiled a few blocks north to the Museum of Modern Art in 1975, when the Music Hall was in such a state of desuetude that at some performances less than 10% of the seats in the immense auditorium were filled. Hardy had a potent ally in his effort to yank the Davis painting back from MOMA. Jerry I. Speyer, the manager and co-owner of Rockefeller Center, is vice chairman of the museum's board.

Also back in its original place--sort of--is a luscious, enveloping four-wall mural by Yasuo Kuniyoshi. For reasons no one will confess to, an earlier renovation had someone bring the Kuniyoshi back to life by painting over it. Entirely. And in a style that someone thought was Kuniyoshi's yet was really more like what you might see on the homemade backdrop of a high school production of Oklahoma! But the handsomely repainted version by Yohannes Aynalem will delight no more than half the Music Hall's audience. It decorates the ladies' powder room on the mezzanine.

Factoring in inflation, the $70 million that Cablevision spent on the renovation is almost exactly what the entire building cost when new. But while most of us are gaping at Hardy's delicious restoration, Cablevision CEO James L. Dolan will be focused on where the bulk of the money went--into an entirely new electrical system engineered to transmit high-definition-television versions of Music Hall spectaculars over his company's cable systems. But what Dolan can't wait to see, he says, is the HDTV view of that other great work of Music Hall art--the Rockettes.