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Dressing Toys and Christmas Trees That Sing and Dance

December 22, 1989 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Zip. From Santas in tights to eight maids-a-milking. Zip. From Ebenezer Scrooge’s London to Christmas in New York.

And in they step, the high-kicking Rockettes and other performers, from one costume to the next in a backstage choreography with the precision timing of their on-stage routines as Radio City Music Hall puts on its annual Christmas shwo.

Dressers carrying plastic laundry baskets run with the clothes dropped by one of the 79 cast members as he switches from the London of Tiny Tim to the dancing rooftops of New York. Lined up for each dancer in the production number are his tuxedo pants, suspenders, fancy dressfront, bow tie and tailcoat in the order in which they’ll be donned. There also are black socks and patent tap slippers, and a shoehorn beside each pair.

″The backstage choreography - timing and rhythm - is as important as the choreography on stage,″ said Bree Daniels, who has been a dresser for seven years, three at the Music Hall.

Behind all this kinetic energy is the tiny, trim blonde whose costumes are constructed, built, sewn, stamped and stretched with this kind of activity in mind. And she’s been doing it for 40 years.

Leanne Mitchell, director of the Music Hall’s mammoth costume shop, constructs wings for Sugar Plum fairies, dresses Santa’s elves, sews buttons for wooden soldiers, stamps on sequins for Rockettes, fashions swaddling clothes and drapes the brightly colored silks of the Three Wise Men.

Mitchell left her home in Iowa to come to New York and, in 1949, at the age of 19, she was hired by the Music Hall as a seamstress. The rest, as they say, is show biz.

She still remembers her first glimpse, soon after she arrived in New York, of the enchanted stage where today live camels bow to the stable-born child, where the precision-dancing Rockettes bring wooden soldiers to heel, where Christmas trees spring to life. She even remembers the movie that played: ″A Date With Judy,″ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Powell.

She still seems slightly titillated by the glamour of it all and admits she was awed by the girls of the chorus line when she first joined the staff.

″I was their age when I came here,″ she says. Her mother told her later that at the age of 8 she had written an essay saying that someday she was going to come to New York and make clothes for the Rockettes.

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″They don’t want something that doesn’t fit them right. We have to live with those costumes, we have to make them so they’ll last,″ she said drawing a comparison between one-shot shows on television and the live spectacular on the Music Hall’s vast stage with its 43-foot turntable, 3-ton motorized curtain and 38-piece orchestra that rises from its pit and moves across the stage. Not to mention three live camels, and several sheep and donkeys that bed down in the basement waiting for their stage cues for the Nativity scene.

The hard-working Rockettes will do their Christmas show 188 times in the eight weeks of its run through Jan. 3. More than 1 million people are expected to see the show in the cavernous Art Deco theater that seats 5,874.

What’s changed? Not a lot, except stretch fabrics and punch-in rhinestones and iron-on sequins. he unforgettable collapse in slow motion of the line of 36 wooden soldier-Rockettes is pretty much what audiences of the first Christmas show saw in December 1933. Variety reported in 1934 that the slow motion had gotten slower.

Fabrics with added give have made life a lot easier, says Mitchell, whose work force varies from 6 to 30, depending on the season. They made the 350 costumes used in the Christmas show, but her $265,00 budget for this season was only for refurbishing and making totally new costumes for two numbers out of 12. The seamstresses are included in the 123 support staff for the 117 actors and musicians.

Her job is to make clothes that fit the body, move with the body and reveal as much of it as possible in the case of the high-stepping Rockettes.

During the scene preceding ″The 12 Days of Christmas,″ the women’s dressers drop long, puffy-skirted costumes at designated spots so each Rockette coming off stage in an abbreviated Santa outfit can strip to her bodysuit and step into a ″12 Days″ dress almost in a stride. A dresser moves in and zips.

Actors who switch in a wink from Nutcracker bears who cavort to Tchaikovsky’s ″Waltz of the Flowers″ to dancing Christmas trees with twinkling lights and green felt arms need fast changes and freedom to move.