Keagan Mercer, 10, checks out the lobby of New York's Radio City Music Hall with his family before a performance of its Christmas Spectacular on Nov. 25. Keagan's father, Brad Mercer, of Watertown, N.Y., was injured in Afghanistan during an Army deployment.

Keagan Mercer, 10, checks out the lobby of New York’s Radio City Music Hall with his family before a performance of its Christmas Spectacular on Nov. 25. Keagan’s father, Brad Mercer, of Watertown, N.Y., was injured in Afghanistan during an Army deployment.  Brian Harkin for USA TODAY

Visitors from upstate New York discover a holiday institution, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and get a backstage tour

NEW YORK — Since 1933, revelers from all over have made the trek to Radio City Music Hall for theRadio City Christmas Spectacular, taking in seasonal song and dance featuring the USA’s most famous chorus line, the Rockettes.

On a nippy evening in late November, Brad and Corinne Mercer and sons Keagan, 10, and Brendan, 7, enter the storied venue for the first time. Their eyes all lock on an enormous chandelier hanging over the central lobby, before the boys are lured to the gift booth, where they secure a souvenir program and, for Brendan, a small stuffed Santa Claus.

Unlike most of the other ticketholders milling about before the 5 p.m. curtain — the show is performed between two and six times each day through Dec. 30 — the Mercers are guests of the house. Brad, a military veteran, was referred by the Wounded Warriors Project to the Garden of DreamsFoundation, a non-profit charity partnered with the Madison Square Garden Company (Radio City’s parent) that provides opportunities for children and families facing a variety of obstacles, from disease to homelessness.

GDF arranges tickets and meet-and-greets for events at all MSG venues, and other opportunities to interact with entertainers and athletes, including a shopping spree with the New York Knicks at a Target store in White Plains, NY and Christmas dinner with the New York Rangers. There’s also an annual Garden of Dreams talent show; one of this year’s participants, Julianna Pierre, 7, got to perform on Radio City’s Great Stage as part of the opening festivities for this year’s Christmas Spectacular. (The foundation can be contacted at

Brad, 31, joined the army in 2001, fresh out of high school. Serving as a specialist team leader during Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he was injured trying to clear a fellow infantry soldier’s jammed weapon. The “round cooked off in the chamber,” causing him to lose all hearing in his right ear and 50 per cent in his left.

In addition to wearing hearing aids, Mercer suffers from memory loss, headaches — “to the point that I can’t get out of bed” — and post-traumatic stress disorder. He regularly sees a neurologist and a speech therapist, “to help me remember words and what they mean.”

He insists, “It’s not too bad. I thank God every day that I have a great support system. My beautiful wife and kids help me every day.” (Brad also cites the “great help” of theWounded Warrior Project.)

Corinne adds that they “try to make the best of” the tougher days. When Brad is stuck in bed, “we’ll play small, quiet games, or have a movie/pajama day, or a dinner picnic in bed! It’s made Brad and I closer as husband and wife also…Sometimes it’s difficult with Brad’s disabilities, especially with the kids, but everyday we learn from it, and grow as a family.”

Certainly, on this late afternoon, standing next to Corinne, 30, his wife of 11 years, and their elder sons — they have an 18-month-old, Avery (at home with his grandmother), and Corinne is three months pregnant with a fourth child — Brad is all smiles. They have traveled from upstate Watertown, near Fort Drum, where he helps manage the barracks for soldiers coming from and going to the base.

The honorably discharged solider is soft-spoken and polite, but shows a dry sense of humor. He notes that he was deployed just once — “One trip was all it took” — and refers to Corinne as his “translator,” though speaking directly and clearly into his better ear usually suffices. The couple has been to Manhattan several times before, once taking in a performance of Broadway’s Mamma Mia! It is Keagan and Brendan’s second visit, preceded by one this past summer.

“We did a lot of walking that time,” recalls Keagan, apparently the more reserved of the two, sitting on a sofa in the upstairs lobby before the show. “But it was fun walking around with my family.”

“It was great!” chimes in Brendan, wide-eyed and breathless. The highlight for him? The enormous ToysRUs store in Times Square, no question. “Yeah yeah yeah!”

The boys are dressed smartly but not fussily, Keagan in a black argyle sweater and Brendan in a grey vest over a patterned shirt. Entering the theater with their parents, they are led to a prime spot in the orchestra section; Brad insists that the reporter accompanying them take the choice aisle seat. Corinne is excited to see how the Rockettes “all keep their legs together when they kick.”

Once the performance begins, there is some quiet shifting of seats, to allow the children optimum views. Brad and Keagan swap places, and Brendan ends up perched on his mom’s lap. As the 90-minute show proceeds from the opening “Sleigh Ride” scene, where the Rockettes are revealed as Santa’s reindeer, to the climactic “Living Nativity” — in which three camels, two sheep and one donkey join the company — the boys sit rapt. Keagan guards a plastic bag without making crinkling noises, even when he applauds. (He could give a few grownup theatergoers lessons in etiquette.)

Brendan is particularly taken by “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a number featuring dozens of dancing Kris Kringles. When the principal Santa — Charles Edward Hall, who serves as narrator — takes his bow during the curtain call, the “almost-8”-year-old waves his stuffed replica high in the air.

“Did you see my face when they all came out?” Brendan asks later, as the audience starts to file out. “I was like…” He makes his eyes even bigger, and drops his jaw as far down as it can reach.

Brendan’s other favorite part was the camels. “I wonder if they know that Wednesday is ‘hump day,'” he quips, grinning impishly. Keagan has a tougher time narrowing down the high points — “I liked the whole thing,” he says sweetly. Brad agrees: “There was a lot of talent.”

But for the Mercers, the show isn’t over. The four are guided backstage, where two Rockettes, Sara Hoenes and Alexis Olson, still in costume, greet Keagan and Brendan with swag bags. The leggy ladies ask Corinne if she has another child at home, and she nods, adding, “and one in my belly,” eliciting squeals of delight from her hosts.

As they walk across the now-bare stage, Brendan begins peppering Hoenes, who is making her debut with the Rockettes this year, and Olson, a ten-year-veteran, with questions. “How did you guys end up in different clothes when you got off the tour bus?” he asks, referring to a segment in which the chorines board a double-decker bus that whirls through projections of Big Apple landmarks.

“It’s magic,” Olson responds, not missing a beat. “We’re friends with Santa, so we have all kinds of magical things going on here.”

Brendan also wants to know if they can all see the camels. They can, and end up posing for photos with two of them, named Ted and Carol.

The Mercers also check out one of the Rockettes’ dressing rooms, with its racks of glittering costumes. Back onstage, they pose for more photos. Brendan is happily positioned between Hoenes and Olson, ready for his closeup. Keagan is, predictably, more shy; but eager to oblige his parents, he ends up joining his kid brother for a number of shots.

The family leaves through the stage door, and heads through the cold, dark evening to the hotel where they will spend the night before returning to Watertown. The next day, Brad sends the reporter who trailed them through their special visit an email message.

“Thank you so much for the opportunity last night,” he writes. “We had a great time, and hope you received all the information you were looking for.”

He closes with, “Thank you again, and have a great day!” Brendan might have added an extra exclamation point, or a smiley face; but his father’s enthusiasm, and sense of appreciation, are just as palpable.