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The Rink Turns 80

By Naomi BarrNov 28 2016
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The Rink at Rockefeller Center is as emblematic of Rock Center as the Radio City marquee, the gold-leaf Prometheus overlooking the skaters, and the famous Christmas Tree, and this year it celebrates its 80th birthday. Since its opening on Christmas Day in 1936 (pictured), the "skating pond," as it was originally called, has become an enduring part of NYC culture, as well as literature and film. It's set the winter scene for everyone from Holden Caulfield to Jack Nicholson, and appeared in movies from Elf to the upcoming Collateral Beauty. Even Truman Capote skated here! Meanwhile, Olympians from Sarah Hughes to Serena Williams have glided on the ice, along with the 150,000 other visitors who lace up their skates on the Rink every year.

Back 1936, Rockefeller Center was only three years old and still establishing itself as a business and entertainment center in the city. As it happened, the Rockefellers were having a hard time enticing people to walk down the stairs to the sunken plaza, despite the holiday draw of the Christmas Tree and the year-round shops around its perimeter. According to legend, the idea of building a skating rink to help attract people came from a Depression-era skate salesman, who, as a sales pitch, would reportedly demonstrate his skates on the water frozen in the Rockefeller Plaza fountain. It’s thought that seeing this man skate on the makeshift rink inspired John D. Rockefeller Jr. to build a proper one. More likely, Rockefeller gave the green light to the project after learning of a newly invented system of producing ice that he then used for the Rink's construction. (It also helped that his family loved to ice skate too.)

As noted in the book Great Fortune, the Rink was initially planned as a temporary, promotional exhibit, but with appealing marketing slogans like “Skate when you feel like it...laugh at the Weather Man,” it became an instant hit with NYC residents and tourists alike, and quickly, a much-adored Midtown fixture. Visitors flocked to the ice, as well as to the adjacent English Grill on the north side of the Rink and Cafe Francais on the south, where they could sit at the bar sipping gimlets and watching their fellow skaters through floor-to-ceiling windows.

In the decades since, the Rink has hosted a range of boldfaced names—and generated its own as well. Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie would show up to entertain onlookers in the 1930s and '40s. In 1950, three-year-old Helen Ann Rouselle, daughter of a skating instructor at the Rink, gained so much attention for her skating prowess that she was dubbed a "prodigy on ice" and photographed for the cover of Life magazine. One of the very first remote TV telecasts from the site occurred when the 1950s music-variety show, Your Hit Parade, broadcast parts of a Christmas special from under the Prometheus statue. In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, both avid skaters, chose the rink to host a "thank you" party for his staff. In fact, the Kennedys loved the venue so much, they started hosting an annual ice skating party there for children from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood that continued until the early '70s.

The Rink also features in the NBC shows taped at 30 Rock—having made cameos on Saturday Night Live's Christmas shows since the beginning (sometimes with the cast in bee costumes). During past presidential elections, it's also served as a backdrop for NBC News' giant electoral map of the U.S. as part of its "virtual Democracy Plaza." Last year, Olympic gold-medal ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White performed on the Rink's opening day, and this year silver-medal Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen, who has skated there previously for the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting, hosted the ribbon-cutting ceremony for its 80th-anniversary year.

Since there's room for only 150 skaters at a time, skating at Rockefeller Center remains an intimate experience, despite the number of people who wait on line to pass through its gates every day. The Rink is open daily for eight sessions from 8:30am to midnight, and the season runs until spring 2017. First come, first serve admission, advance tickets, private lessons, season passes and group rates are also available—and it's a popular place for proposals too (complete with your song of choice). Reservations can be made here. Happy skating!

Photo: Rockefeller Center Archives

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