RIP: The Starlite Music Theatre (aka Colonie Coliseum), 1958-2012

The Starlight in 2010 (photo by Sebastien Barre)

The derelict Starlite Music Theatre in 2010 (Photo by Sebastien Barre)

Story by Greg Haymes
Photograph by Sebastien Barre

Milton Berle
The Dave Clark Five
Johnny Cash
Mike Tyson
Bob Hope
Diana Ross
George Carlin
Sammy Davis, Jr.

and, yes, even Megadeth

Once upon a time just off Route 9 north of Latham Circle, there was an entertainment destination that brought hundreds of the show business world’s best-known singers, dancers, musicians and comedians to the Capital Region every summer for four decades.

Although officially it went by many names over the years – the Colonie Musical Theater, the Colonie Summer Theater, the Colonie Coliseum and, finally, Starlite Music Theatre – a lot of the locals simply called it “The Tent.” But on Thursday (November 15), demolition crews and bulldozers rolled in and knocked it all down. The Starlite Music Theatre is no more.

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It all started more than a half-century ago, when New York City producer Eddie Rich erected a big, oval, green-and-yellow-striped canvas tent with seating for 1,800. Rich brought Broadway actors up to his summer theater and launched the Colonial Musical Theater in June, 1958 with a production of the classic musical “Damn Yankees,” starring James Mitchell and Jan Chaney.

That inaugural season also included week-long performances of “Happy Hunting,” “Can Can,” “Silk Stockings,” “Pajama Game” and “Kiss Me, Kate.” Ticket prices ranged from $1.50 to $3.85.

Rich died in 1968, and Joseph Futia took over the theater operations, constructing a more permanent building to replace the aging circus-style tent. The permanent theater-in-the-round structure with seating for 3,000 was re-named the Colonie Summer Theater, and it opened June 24, 1969, with a production of “Mame” starring Edie Adams.

During the ’70s, Las Vegas concert acts became more popular at the theater, and the frequency of musical theater productions began to wane. Pop singers such as Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jerry Vale stepped into the Coliseum spotlight for week-long stints.

“It was a great venue,” recalls Bob Belber, who was the theater’s general manager for 10 years (1983-93) and now manages the Times Union Center. “It was only 52 feet from the stage to the last row of seats, so it was a very intimate setting.”

The Coliseum fell on hard times in the ’70s. Dancers in Ann Corio’s “This Was Burlesque” revue were arrested at the theater in 1973 and again in 1977 after running afoul of the town’s anti-nudity laws. The Coliseum’s schedule was also beset by numerous performer cancellations.

But the show must go on, and so did the Coliseum. A 35-foot revolving stage was installed in 1978, making a complete rotation of the theater every 15 minutes. The theater also began hosting boxing matches. The concert business was changing, and rather than a week-long stay, performers were booked for one or two nights.

The Coliseum turned to more contemporary acts during the disco years. Country music became a staple at the theater, which hosted Alabama, Merle Haggard and Vince Gill.

“And it was a great venue for stand-up comedy. Rodney Dangerfield was always funny as could be, and Eddie Murphy, too,” Belber said.

Unfortunately, it all came crashing down in 1987, when the Coliseum abruptly shut its doors in mid-season. Theater operators Phillip Cohen, Allan Gandler and Robert Denero canceled the two dozen remaining shows on the season’s schedule, leaving thousands of furious ticket-holders without refunds.

The theater did, however, manage to back a return in 1988 under new ownership, Keith Beccia and Northeast Concerts, and a new name, the Starlite Music Theatre. The Starlite kicked off its first season May 4, 1988, with the double-bill of Three Dog Night and America.

In 1989, Schenectady developer Eugene Weiss bought the Starlite. But plagued by cancelled acts and mounting financial troubles, the theater struggled even more. Ed Smith – who also operated Melody Fair near Buffalo – took over in 1993 and managed to hang on through the 1997 season.

And then it was over. The theater didn’t re-open in 1998, and it remained shuttered ever since, falling into total disrepair.

And now it’s gone. Rest in peace, Starlite Music Theatre…

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16 Responses to “RIP: The Starlite Music Theatre (aka Colonie Coliseum), 1958-2012”

  1. Alan G. says:

    I always loved that place. Over the years, I’ve seen Chicago, Wayne Newton, Willie Nelson, ELO, and probably a few others that I cannot immediately recall. My greatest moment though, was seeing Johnny Cash & the Carter Family in my front row seat back in ’94, with the man in black flashing me a big thumbs-up in return. Ah… the memories!

  2. R Millis says:

    The first (and I think) the only time I set foot in the place was as a kid….a friend’s older brother drove us down to to see and hear George McGovern during his “Vs Nixon” campaign. Yep.

    I do recall that night’s musical warm-up distraction was: The Star Spangled Washboard Band…no?

  3. Greg says:

    R Millis: Damn good memory. I had actually forgotten about that one. SSWB played at the Coliseum several times, including once with the Amazing Mr. Dynamite!

  4. Tony Jones says:

    Apparently, your distaste for “Good Seasons” salad dressing has blurred your memory of Anna Maria Alberghetti … case closed.

  5. Oates77 says:

    Mike Tyson fought there 3 times, twice in one month.

  6. I saw Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band including his son Zach, John Entwistle, Mark Farner, Felix Caviliere and Randy Bachman, the highlight being able to sit directly behind Ringo and watch his drumming as the stage rotated. Another memorable show was John Mayall and his jazz-blues fusion band in 1972, with Delbert & Glen (Delbert McClinton) opening. I recall photographing at least one high school graduation ceremony there (I think for Cohoes). I think the only place similar in design in the area is the Auriesville Shrine.

  7. Martyn says:

    Saw James Brown there, and Rev. Al Sharpton got up and did a little dance with the band. If I recall at some point there was great controversy alleging that acts were advertised that werent actually booked, tickets sold then refunds denied and proceeds pocketed. Allegedly.

  8. -S says:

    So long Starlite…
    “demolition crews and bulldozers rolled in and knocked it all down. The Starlite Music Theatre is no more”: well it’s still there for a tad bit longer, I stopped on my way to work this morning, the main building/tent is standing, they are slowly demolishing smaller buildings next to it…

  9. J Hunter says:

    I covered two Starlite shows for the Glens Falls Chronicle back in the early 90′s: Bruce Hornsby & the Range, and Huey Lewis & the News. Hornsby kicked butt, as I recall, but Huey was not nearly as good as he’d been at SPAC a few years earlier. (Of course, he had the Tower of Power Horns at SPAC, but still…) I was never taken with the venue, but it’s definitely a piece of Nippertown history. RIP.

  10. Richard Brody says:

    My first trip was to see the Youngbloods in the early 70s and my last visit was to see the Neville Brothers. I just couldn’t get used to the moving stage.

  11. Mr. Eck says:

    Nice reporting Mr. Haymes. An intriguing piece about a sad day.

  12. Jack Frost says:

    Thanks for the Memories: James Brown, Dolly Parton, The Youngbloods, The Young Rascals,
    Luther Vandross, Smokey Robinson (twice), Buddy Guy (the last show I saw there and went back to meet him before the show — thanks to Rick Siciliano), and The Past Tense. They were a local band that I think opened for The Young Rascals. Nick Kaiser was the bass player. They borrowed my Ace Tone organ to play “Black is Black” by Los Bravos.

  13. I worked as an assistant press rep at the Tent during the summer of 1970 (the Futia years) and my first novel is set there during that same summer. I feel horrible about the demolition. I’m so sorry that producers were unable to revive the place as a working theater. I used to work in the trailer out back, and now it will be gone next time I visit. But my memories are happy, and during my two years working there (1970, 1971) we presented many fine touring shows–and many excellent performers.

    Susan Dormady Eisenberg, author of THE VOICE I JUST HEARD

  14. Frank says:

    what a place for a show, I had the pleasure of seeing Willie Nelson (with the family band) with opener Marty Stuart.

  15. LP says:

    I will never forget….Tower of Power in that intimate setting….and the full Average White Band opened
    the show……what a double bill….

  16. Ann says:

    I remember it best as a family destination for musicals, my first “Colonie Tent” experience being a matinee in the ’60s. That tent in summer was really hot! Still have my grandmother’s autographed program from the Engelbert Humperdinck show. Great story, Greg — thanks!

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