Rockefeller Center tour in New York: An afternoon's tour of the Rockefeller Centre

Blame Tina Fey. She conceived the comedy which made the iconic Manhattan address, 30 Rock, fashionable again.

The NBC series, which ran for seven years from 2006 to 2013, was a satirical glimpse of life backstage on a ho-hum TV series in the pre-Trump era – all the more hilarious because it was set in the building NBC has occupied for almost a century.

It's no accident Fey and her co-star Alec Baldwin are still regulars on Saturday Night Live, another NBC hit. Or that Jimmy Fallon, the current successor to Johnny Carson (via David Letterman), records in front of a live audience every night (apply for tickets well in advance).

Or that Today, the show that changed breakfast TV for ever, is broadcast from a separate fishbowl studio over the road.

Radio City, home of the Rockettes, and one of New York City's most iconic musical theatres, is in left corner (tonight's sold out concert: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons – the original Jersey Boys).

And in the right corner? Fittingly, that's the home of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, President Trump's favourite go-to network.

Outside, in mid-October, the world-famous ice rink is already dotted with first-time skaters clinging on for dear life (the rink stays open until March, so avoid the Christmas crush).

Plenty of time to see the skaters later, says Lindsay Boling, our guide for this afternoon's tour of the Rockefeller Centre. The Christmas tree itself, a feature of so many movies, won't be raised for weeks.

Even in the age of Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), John D Rockefeller is regarded as the wealthiest self-made individual in modern history, Boling explains.

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"JD" founded Standard Oil and controlled 90 per cent of America's oil production – until anti-monopoly legislation kicked in (when he made even more money).

Enter "Junior", as Boling calls him. After four daughters, JD handed the bulk of his fortune (natch!) to his last born and only son, John D Rockefeller jnr.

Shy and devout, Junior married the artistically minded socialite Abby Aldrich in 1901. They had six children together, but perhaps their greatest conception was "the city within a city" that became the Rockefeller Centre.

Both Junior and Abby shared a love of opera, and Junior's original plan was to provide a new home for New York's celebrated "Met" (Metropolitan Opera), Boling says.

In 1928, he leased a block in Midtown Manhattan, stretching between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, from 48th to 51st Streets, which was still owned by Columbia University but was then occupied by nefarious boarding houses and speakeasies. When the stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression, the Met pulled out and Junior was faced with a huge poker dilemma: fold or bluff?

He chose the latter, admittedly with an enormous pile of chips.

With no secured tenant, it was a risk. But today the billionaire is credited with keeping Manhattan working during the depths of the Depression. An estimated 40,000 construction workers built what is one of the greatest art deco complexes on earth.

When the Rockefeller Centre officially opened in 1933, Boling says, its key tenant in the central tower, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, was the National Broadcasting Company.

NBC had been founded in 1926 by RCA (the newly formed Radio Corporation of America), a subsidiary of General Electric which later gained naming rights to 30 Rock. (Officially, it's now the Comcast Building – the current owners of NBC – though no one ever calls it that.)

During our 75-minute walking tour (much of it outside) Boling spins an entertaining history of the "city within a city". Originally it was only meant to be 14 buildings gathered around a sunken shopping plaza (now the ice rink) and a private street address, Rockefeller Plaza. Five more buildings have since been added.

The New York Times, in a rare moment of humour, nicknamed the entire complex "Radio City" after the tenants, Boling says.

Now that's the title of the iconic "music hall" (built on the site of the abandoned opera house). The opening night in 1932 was not a success, lasting six hours from 8pm to 2am.

"Amelia Earhart walked out," Boling says – and the famous aviatrix was no quitter so it must have been awful.

A block north, Boling points out one of the two buildings whose owners refused to sell to Junior. Hurley's is now home to the Magnolia Bakery, but the four-storey brick building used to be a speakeasy in prohibition times. From the 1960s to its closure in 1975, Hurley's was NBC's unofficial "green room". So much so, Boling explains, that a studio sign was installed to summons Carson and his guests back for the live broadcast.

Presumably Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, would have drunk at Hurley's at least once (before dismissing the martini). He worked in the "British Building", which was home to MI6 for years.

If you've ever watched the opening credits of 30 Rock, that's the building on the right as the camera pans up from the central passage for the classic view of the center's main tower.

The identical edifice on the left is the French Building, which, Boling says, gave rise to another rare New York Times joke.

This afternoon "The Channel" – as the the newspaper nicknamed it – is bedecked in flowers and giant pumpkins (Halloween is just around the corner).

There were meant to be other "international buildings" too, Boling says.

But Junior was persuaded not to name those after briefings from the FDR government that Mussolini and Hitler might make the Italian and German buildings bad for business.

For an extra fee, you can rise to 30 Rock's spectacular rooftop, with views of Manhattan from Central Park to the Empire State Building.

But you can always do what New Yorkers do.

Book the tour in the late afternoon and go for sunset cocktails at Bar Sixty Five (on the 65th floor of 60 Rock). For $US20 you get a signature cocktail and feel like Rockefeller.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/new-york

TOUR

Rockefeller Centre offers various tours, rockefellercenter.com.

EAT/DRINK

Bar 65 is separate to the neighbouring fine dining Rainbow Room, but has the same spectacular Manhattan views. A craft beer costs $US10, with ground level shared plates (devilled eggs with American caviar or rib sliders, for example) around $US20 each: rainbowroom.com/bar-sixty-five

Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airline, Rockefeller Plaza and NYC & Co

Junior and Abby Rockefeller appear to have had a happy marriage. But they disagreed about art – and the Rockefeller Centre shows Abby (a founder of New York's Museum of Modern Art) generally won the argument. Here's a guide to six world-class pieces of art they commissioned.

ATLAS STATUE, LEE LAWRIE, 1937

Weighing in at over 6400 kilograms and at a height of 14 metres, this is the most familiar feature of the Rockefeller Centre (apart from the ice rink). The Greek titan is depicted carrying the celestial vault on his shoulders, pointing towards the North Star.

So far, so good. But the semi-naked demi-god also directly faces St Patrick's Cathedral, which caused uproar when the Catholic bishop demanded the removal of such a pagan insult in a god fearing city.

At Boling's suggestion, we move to the rear of the statue. "What do you notice?" she asks. "Atlas has a great butt," an Australian woman answers.

"Yes, he does, but that's not the answer the bishop was looking for," Boling replies. "See how, from this angle, Atlas is genuflecting? And it's not the world he's carrying, but a cross? Plus through that universe on his shoulders, what can you see?

"The cross of St Patrick's."

The bishop was won over: Atlas stayed.

2. MAN AT THE CROSSROADS, DIEGO RIVERA, 1933

Rivera (now best known as the husband of Frida Kahlo) wasn't the first choice for the grand mural confronting visitors as they entered 30 Rock. The Rockefellers had already asked Matisse and Picasso. Neither accepted, but Rivera, a committed communist whose wife counted Trotsky among her lovers, agreed. Perhaps someone should have smelt a rat?

The Mexican's three-panelled artwork comprised a central worker deciding whether to opt for capitalism to his right or communism to his left.Things turned legally nasty when Rivera included Lenin and a Soviet May Day celebration in his final work. It all ended in tears, with Junior eventually ordering its removal. Rivera later recreated the work (under a new title, Man, Controller of the Universe), with Junior among the capitalists.

3. AMERICAN PROGRESS, JOSEP MARIA SERT, 1939

Rivera and the Barcelona-born muralist Sert disliked each other intensely, Boling explains. Sert had collaborated with Sergei Diagilev for Ballet Russes sets, but this replacement for Rivera's rejected multi-coloured mural is the Spaniard's mainly monochrome masterpiece. Rather than Lenin, Sert's central figure is the top-hatted Abraham Lincoln, helping to make the historical transfer between brain and brawn. While you're in the lobby of 30 Rock, look up. Time, Sert's ceiling, changes perspective as you walk from west to east, with airplanes eventually flying into the vortex of the future.

4. WISDOM, LEE LAWRIE, 1934

A devout Baptist, Junior was uncomfortable with nudity. But he chose his favourite biblical quotation for the motto above the front entrance to 30 Rock: "Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times" (Isaiah 33). Strangely, Lawrie's depiction of the Old Testament God is (a) naked (b) clearly influenced by William Blake's Ancient of Days and (c) is separating heaven and earth with a Masonic divider.

5. RADIO, LEO FRIEDLANDER, 1934

Junior avoided entrances of 30 Rock that featured female nudity, Boling says – which means he rarely entered via 50th Street. Friedlander, a native New Yorker, had studied Beaux-Arts in both Paris and Brussels – and his depictions of the new media (such as radio and TV) feature voluptuous female nudes (and the occasional prepubescent boy).

6. FOUNTAIN FIGURES, RENE PAUL CHAMBELLAN, c1934

Even if you never venture inside any of the buildings, you can appreciate the art. For example, Chambellan created six fountainhead sculptures in "The Channel", representing Leadership, Will, Thought, Imagination, Energy and Alertness – featuring mermaids and tritons.

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