Six-year-old Judine Richard was spellbound by the sight: The ramrod-straight line of smiling women dressed in glittering holiday costumes danced in perfect unison. "I'll be one of them one day," the child promised.
Her parents nodded, pleased that their holiday visit to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York was a success.
Twenty-one years later, Richard is one of those women, dancing and kicking her way into children's holiday memories.
Some youngsters are lucky enough to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular every season. Others go just once. I remember being taken as a child. I enjoy the production more now that I can see my own holiday memories reflected in my children's faces.
Whatever their ages or circumstances, the youngsters in the audience think this show is a winner. What's not to like? There are dozens of teddy bears dancing to "The Nutcracker Suite" and Rockettes performing their precision routines as wooden soldiers. Don't forget the parade of camels, sheep and other animals who journey to the manger during "The Living Nativity" or the ice skaters gliding across the stage.
It's so popular that Las Vegas has a show featuring the Rockettes. The Christmas Spectacular continues to expand its reach outside New York with tours in Branson, Mo., Detroit and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Discussions are under way to bring the production to Los Angeles.
No wonder. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is probably New York's biggest holiday attraction. More than a million people from around the world see the Christmas show in just eight weeks, making it, the producers say, the most successful theatrical production anywhere.
(The show runs until Jan. 7. Tickets range from $24 to $54. Call  247-4777 or Ticketmaster at  307-1000.)
Though not as big (no one sits more than 50 feet from the action) or glittery and without a Santa anywhere close, the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus also has emerged as a New York holiday tradition. Founded in 1971 to preserve and advance classic one-ring circus arts in the United States, it too is proving its mettle outside New York with a national tour stopping in Boston, Charlestown, R.I., Chicago and Cleveland, among other places. (The show, performed under a heated five-story-tall tent behind Lincoln Center, runs in New York until Jan. 12, when it departs on tour. Tickets range from $10 to $49. For information about the tour, call  268-2500.)
What both shows have in common, of course, is kid appeal. The Big Apple Circus, with acrobats and clowns, trained dogs and elephants and especially its intimate setting, is a certain winner with the younger crowd. Even preschoolers who may be frightened of a big circus will love this one.
The Radio City Spectacular, on the other hand, will please all the grade-schoolers in the house who will love being taken to a "grown-up" theater, especially one as grandiose as Radio City Music Hall. (Of course, you can pop across the street to Rockefeller Center to see the skaters and the tree.) Especially if you're visiting New York, I think there's no better time than the holidays to splurge on an outing with the kids.
"I love performing for the kids," says Rockette Richard. "I feel like a kid in the toy store." She recently became a Rockette after an open audition she saw advertised in the newspaper.
When you watch Richard and the other members of the troupe, appreciate how hard it is to get to that stage: More than 1,000 women tried out for perhaps 50 open spots (there are two 36-member casts for the New York show). Not only must they dance ballet, tap and jazz, but they must be able to sing as well. How about making multiple costume changes -- sometimes in mere seconds?
Of course, over at the Big Apple Circus, one magician changes her costume right on stage at least a half-dozen times. I couldn't figure out how she did it. The eyes of the two kindergartners near us practically popped out watching her.
Then there were the balancing feats of acrobats Sophie and Virgile. Could you balance upside down on top of someone's head?
The kids' favorite: the acrobatic clown who "almost" fell from the high wire time after time.
What I liked best about the Big Apple Circus was that I knew some of the funds raised go to support "Clown Care" programs for children in hospitals, "Circus of the Senses" for blind and deaf children and "Circus Arts in Education" for inner-city youngsters.
We all left happy, the kids wearing their red clown noses.
We left Radio City happy, too, thinking of the holidays to come, though I had to drag 5-year-old Melanie away from the Rockette Barbies display.
No matter. She's certain Santa will bring her one.
Pub Date: 12/01/96