Story by Greg Haymes
Photograph by Sebastien Barre
The Dave Clark Five
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.
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…