Summer nights at the Starlite Theater always seemed magical.
The excited buzz would start in the large parking lot off Columbia Street Extension and grow to a crescendo past the box office window on the venue’s sprawling grounds. Smaller musical acts would greet fans at an outdoor gazebo located conveniently close to an open-air bar.
Inside the circular amphitheater, an opening band would play for a
little more than an hour as the crowd settled in to the 2,972 seats. With only 52 feet extending between the quirky rotating stage and the rear exits, there wasn’t a seat in the house that seemed like a bad one.
Sometime around sunset, ushers would fling open the sliding doors surrounding the stage, allowing the cool night air to wash across the crowd. And when the main act would take the stage, the Starlite would erupt with a roof-shaking cacophony of cheers.
“You’d hear the people roar, it didn’t matter if you were anybody or somebody,” recalled Al Bruno, who performed at the theater for more than 25 years. “It gives you such a great feeling that you wanted to give them all that you got.”
For nearly four decades, the performance space just a short distance off the Northway drew some of the largest names in show business, especially during the 1970s and 1980s.
Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett all played at the theater, as did bands like the Temptations, the Four Tops and REO Speedwagon. Bob Hope booked shows there, as did comedians George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield.
An up-and-coming Mike Tyson fought boxing matches at center stage in some weeks and would appear at concerts with his entourage in others. Later in its history, the Starlite became a favorite for country music acts, including Reba McEntire, Travis Tritt and Billy Ray Cyrus.
The theater was a summer destination for years before the first girders were laid for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and what is now the Times Union Center.
“It was almost like a who’s who of the music business who played there,” said Jim Anderson, who did everything from cook in the concession stand to book acts during his three decades working at the theater.
But today, the Starlite is a mere shadow of its former grandeur. Shuttered in 1998, the theater has slowly fallen into serious neglect, a victim of inactivity.
Paint peels from the dilapidated buildings throughout the shattered complex. Like all of the structures, the amphitheater remains open and has become a haven for vandals.
Smashed glass and pigeon droppings cover the area surrounding the stage, which is missing about a third of its floorboards. Programs from the 1998 Shaker High School graduation remain scattered around the concrete platforms, a remnant from one of the Starlite’s final acts.
The gazebo has collapsed along with an awning that once hung over the bathrooms. Trenches are dug throughout the grounds, where it appears as though piping has been stripped.
Soon, the entire landmark theater may vanish. Plans are afoot to redevelop 58 acres of the Starlite property into an office building campus with 430,000 square feet of space.
Members of the Colonie Planning Board reviewed preliminary plans for the six-building development this week. And while the Starlite conjures a degree of nostalgia for many, hardly anyone would argue that it needs to be demolished.
“It’s long past its usefulness,” said Joe LaCivita, the town’s director of Planning and Economic Development.
New York City producer Eddie Rich opened the first theater-in-the-round beneath a canvas tent in 1958. At the time, it was called the Colonie Tent Theater and hosted many famous shows during the summer.
When Rich died in 1968, local contractor Joseph Futia took over the operations and decided to modernize the facility. He replaced the canvas tent with a permanent structure and expanded to nearly double the seating capacity.
Soon after, the venue renamed the Colonie Coliseum began to draw some well-known names in show business. It also started to take on some more racy shows.
Colonie police raided the theater in 1973 and 1977 during performances of the play “This was Burlesque.” Both times, police arrested performers for baring their breasts during the performance in violation of the town’s anti-nudity laws.
During the late 1970s, a mechanism was constructed to slowly revolve the 35-foot stage. Every 15 minutes the stage would spin 360 degrees, so every seat in the house could catch a glimpse of the headlining act.
“The thing that it had going for it was that it was the most intimate theater,” recalled Anderson. “People would say there wasn’t a bad seat in the house and that was the truth.”
That intimacy also meant that very little went unnoticed, as Bruno learned one night when he opened for the legendary Rogers. After listening to Bruno’s band in his dressing room, the Gambler decided to catch a few bars from the rear of the audience.
Only it was impossible for him to listen without someone noticing. Pretty soon, all eyes were on Rogers and not the performance.
“The next thing you know, I was worse than nobody,” Bruno said.
Rogers wasn’t about to ruin the night for Bruno, so he strolled to the theater’s rotating stage and threw his arms around an unsuspecting Bruno. Then to cheers, the Gambler introduced the somewhat-perplexed Bruno as his close personal friend, even though the two had never met.
“Everybody worked so hard to make it perfect,” Bruno said of the shows. “Everybody tried to make it a night at the Startlite that will never be forgotten.”
THE GOOD YEARS
The business climate for entertainment facilities got tougher during the mid-1980s, but the theater adapted. Bob Belber, who served as its general manager until 1993, helped arrange a consortium with other regional theater-in-the-round facilities, allowing them to book better acts.
“The theater started making money and it was a very viable venue at that time,” he said.
But in 1987, the theater, under the operation of Allan Gandler, Phillip Cohen and Robert Denero, abruptly canceled all its slate of shows and closed. The state Attorney General’s Office subpoenaed business records from the Colonie Coliseum, but they were destroyed in a suspicious fire at Gandler’s law offices that fall.
The grounds reopened in 1988 under the name of the Starlite Music Theater and enjoyed sporadic success during the early 1990s. With headline acts becoming increasingly pricey, it became more difficult to sell seats at the Starlite and make a profit.
“You’d either catch artists on the way up or on the way down,” Belber said.
The last performances came in 1997. Anderson said Ed Smith, the last general manager to operate the Starlite, also operated the Melody Fair, a failing theater-in-the-round he owned outside Buffalo.
Anderson said he tried to convince owner Eugene Weiss to allow him to operate the theater for 10 years, but he wouldn’t have it.
“He just left it,” Anderson lamented.
For years, the Starlite remained virtually untouched. Everything from sound boards to old records remained frozen inside the Starlite’s buildings.
“They still had signed contracts for performances in some of the draws,” said Joy Senecal, who sometimes visited the Starlite while on break from her job across the street. “It was like everybody was here working and they all just left one day.”