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There's Magic Even Without the Moonlight
at the Rainbow Room

In 1931, while Guiseppe Cirpirani was inaugurating a restaurant in Venice with the unlikely name of Harry's Bar, John D. Rockefeller was in the midst of creating a futuristic midtown-Manhattan complex with the predictable name of Rockefeller Center. Its crowning jewel would be a slender stepped tower that would house the offices and studios of the Radio Corporation of America, its top floor - sixty-five stories high - being reserved for dining and dancing.

The Rainbow Room and Harry's Bar began life in the 1930's on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Through the tumultuous decades that followed, they shared the distinction of surviving, even thriving in the face of changing styles and trends. Then in 1998, the Cipriani family took over operations at the Rainbow Room, and the loose connection between the two legendary destinations was transformed into a formal link.

When a favorite spot changes hands, you always worry that what drew you to it in the first place will change as well. Fortunately, the Ciprianis have had the good sense to leave the Rainbow Room intact. It still is, to our minds, the most beautiful and glamorous place in New York, the epitome of a kind of luxury and sophistication we first encountered in the silver-screened movies of our childhood where men in white tie and tails swirled women in glittery gowns across a ballroom floor. On a recent visit to the Rainbow Room, we saw only one man in tails, but more than a few in tuxedos. Nearly every woman was dressed to the nines. A twelve-piece orchestra played non-stop; a stunning singer in a svelte gown sang the songs we love best, and couples danced the night away - in each other's arms.

The orchestra at the Rainbow Room - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
The orchestra at the Rainbow Room
photo by Harvey Frommer

What has changed though is accessibility. The Rainbow Room, along with the other suites on the 65th floor, is reserved for private events - except for select Fridays and Saturdays and special times like Valentine's Day and Easter Sunday. But as luck would have it, we were in town on a rainy Friday night that happened to be one of the times the Rainbow Room was open to the public. The date was close to our wedding anniversary. We hadn't been there for years. Deciding to book a table was, as our kids say, "a no-brainer." 

As we stepped from a cab onto West 48th Street and walked under the canopy into 
30 Rock, it struck us how this building, named for a broadcasting company when radio was still cutting edge technology, may be seventy years old, but in its art deco design it remains eternally modern. Passing through the marble corridor lined with little lit shops to the gleaming bank of elevators, it was like we were kids again on the Rockefeller Center tour with our parents, thinking we were walking into the future.

But up on the sixty-fifth floor, it was more like time stood still. There it was - the grand ballroom with the circular dance floor of parquet-patterned wood, the starburst in its center reflecting the light from the many faceted crystal chandelier that dropped from the orbed ceiling above, the mirrored pillars throwing back the orchestra and dancers, the ring of floor to ceiling windows that looked out on a panorama of New York City up through Central Park, across to the East River, down to the Battery. True, on a rainy night such as this, one could not see forever. But even in the gloom, the colored lights of the Empire State Building shone through the mist. There was no moonlight; still the city had a magic all its own.

Unmindful of the weather, the orchestra was playing "Magic Is the Moonlight" as we got to our table on the edge of the dance floor. We looked at couples doing a rumba with elaborate breaks and turns. Would we have the nerve to complete with our basic box-step, we wondered. But first, dinner selections. There are two menus at the Rainbow Room: a pre-set for $110 and a price fixed with extensive choices for $140. We made our decisions swiftly: champagne, of course, Osetra caviar, filet mignon. Any other place would fund us mulling and deliberating over all the interesting items. But we had come to the Rainbow Room for more than the food. We had come for the ambience, the music, the chance - once we worked up the courage - to dance.

While doing so, we struck up a conversation with the couple at the table beside us. (It was possible to have a conversation while a twelve piece orchestra played maybe five feet away without shouting.) They live in Palm Springs, California. Business brings them to New York about once a month, they told us, and whenever their visit coincides with a special occasion, they try to work in an evening at the Rainbow Room. Tonight was the woman's birthday. They have been here so often, they said, they can spot the dancing teachers who have brought their pupils, giving them the chance to try out the fancy footwork they've mastered in public. 

The orchestra was playing a tango now. In mute admiration we stared at the pairs confidently performing dips and spins with expertise and flair. The tango was far too intimidating. But next came a fox trot, then another rumba, then a lindy. Familiar territory. Inconspicuously, we hoped, we slid onto the dance floor. The rest was easy.

Is there another place where you can dine in style and "dance in the old fashioned way" all night long? The Rainbow Room may be the last of the sophisticated supper clubs that once dotted New York. But thankfully, under the capable care of the Cipriani family, it's still here.

laudia Reinhardt-Johnson, the stunning singer in a svelte dress who sang the songs we love best  - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Claudia Reinhardt-Johnson, the stunning singer in a svelte dress who sang the songs we love best 
photo by Harvey Frommer

By the way, should you get a yen to see New York from the middle of Manhattan up at cloud level and the Rainbow Room isn't open, don't despair. The Rainbow Grill, right across the floor, is open daily for lunch and dinner. You won't be able to dance, but a jazz trio will enhance the mood, and a view of the city from the Empire State Building south to the World Trade Center will be spread before your eyes.

Rainbow by Cipriani
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112

Phone: 212-632-5000 (Reservations for the Rainbow Room and the Rainbow Grill)
Web: http://www.cipriani.com 

Dates the Rainbow Room is open to the public are available six to eight weeks in advance on the website or from the Reservation Office

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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