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First Lady Lights Rockefeller Tree

December 3, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Revelers jammed Rockefeller Center Wednesday as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and country singer Garth Brooks lit the lights on one of the country’s most famous Christmas trees.

Thousands roared as the 26,000 lights on the 75-foot-tall Norway spruce twinkled on, heralding the official start of the Christmas season.

``This is so cool,″ gushed Friday Malcolm Ruiz, 8, of Elizabeth, N.J., who waited outside for nearly eight hours. ``It’s my second time, and I love it.″

The crowds that packed Rockefeller Plaza and the surrounding streets listened to Christmas music performed by singers including Brooks, Jewel and Cyndi Lauper and watched Olympic gold medal skater Kristi Yamaguchi do an elegant turn on the ice.

But the magic moment came at 8:52 p.m., when Mrs. Clinton and Brooks switched on the tree’s 26,000 lights.

``I always wanted to see it,″ said Latricia Barhan, 12, of New York. ``This is so wonderful!″

Many camped out for hours to save a spot with a good view, including retired schoolteacher Marie Rivera, 60, of North Bergen, N.J., who said she’d been coming to the annual celebration since 1948.

The celebration began humbly in 1931. Depression-era workmen building the now famous Rockefeller Center placed a small unadorned evergreen on the muddy site to lift their Christmas spirits.

Two years later, another tree was erected, this time decked out in 700 lights.

And in 1951, the tree-lighting was televised for the first time on NBC’s ``The Kate Smith Show,″ ushering in a tradition that has grown into a mega-media production.

Wednesday’s lighting _ on an unseasonably balmy day _ was televised live across the country.

The 7 1/2-ton tree arrived on Nov. 12 from Richfield, Ohio, where it graced the front lawn of Ethel and Adolph Szitar’s ranch house for 60 years.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Szitar, 81, was impressed with her tree.

``It looked larger and taller than even when I saw it at home. It’s very beautiful,″ Szitar said.

The Szitars donated the tree to Rockefeller Center, and in return Mrs. Szitar, her daughter, son, son-in-law, three grandchildren and a friend were flown gratis to New York on Tuesday.

Mrs. Szitar, resting in her hotel room before the big event, said she last visited New York City in 1947 ``when a lot of these buildings were not even up, of course.″

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