Russell Markert, the former chorus boy who created a statuesque corps of chorines that he called the Rockettes, died Saturday in a hospital near his Connecticut home.
Markert, who personally auditioned the more than 2,500 women who aspired to his high-kicking precision line at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall over a 40-year period, was 91.
He died in Waterbury, Conn., and had been living in retirement in Southbury since 1971.
Markert, who studied tap and acrobatic dance in Brooklyn as a boy, first danced on Broadway in 1923 in that year’s edition of “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.”
He staged dances for such Broadway musical comedies as “Animal Crackers,” the Marx Brothers hit.
In 1925, at the urging of the three Skouras brothers--Spyros Skouras would go on to fame as head of 20th Century Fox--he organized his first chorus line of unison beauties, calling them the Sixteen Missouri Rockettes. They were featured as an alternating attraction at the Skouras’ movie theater in St. Louis.
For the next three years they toured as the Sixteen American Rockettes and appeared on Broadway in 1928 in “Rain or Shine.”
Markert then began to stage dances for S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel, who took over management of the Radio City Music Hall shortly before its opening in 1932.
Markert more than doubled the size of the corps--all of whose members had to be between 5 feet 4 and 5 feet 8 inches--and ran the group as a closed corporation.
There were always 46 Rockettes available (10 were on rotating vacations subject to call in the event of illness or emergencies among the performing 36.) And they were even forbidden to have suntans so as not to detract from the uniformity.
They worked four shows a day, seven days a week at Radio City except for Christmas and Easter when there were five.
And each stage performance changed as new films moved into the theater.
Markert also choreographed early innovative sound films including “King of Jazz” in 1930 which featured the Paul Whiteman band and a young singer named Bing Crosby.
Markert, who leaves no known survivors, included anonymity among the standards for his Rockettes. While there never were individual stars, Muriel Hake, a Rockette for 30 years, was singled out when she retired. She was 60 at the time and still capable of the eye-high kicks that became the Rockettes’ signature.
Although many of the women grew restive under his firm control, Markert remembered each at Christmas with gold charms and what he considered friendly guidance on a daily basis.