June 21, 2016 The NYCB Theatre At Westbury Celebrates 60 Years Of History
The list goes on and on, and it reads like a Who’s Who of entertainment superstars – The Who, The Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Cheap Trick, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Luther Vandross, The Monkees, Rodney Dangerfield, Pat Benatar, The Moody Blues, Yes, Little Richard, Jeff Beck, The Supremes, Buddy Guy, The Four Tops, The Zombies, Chicago, Don Rickles, Brooks & Dunn, Neil Sedaka, Regis Philbin, Merle Haggard, Dion, LL Cool J, B.B. King, David Lee Roth, Al Green, Diana Ross, Danzig, The Yardbirds, Andrew Dice Clay, John Legend, The Kinks, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Tony Bennett, ZZ Top, Milton Berle, George Carlin, Ray Charles, Johnny Carson, Heart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Alanis Morissette, The Carpenters, Crosby Stills & Nash, Sam Kinison, Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Liza Minnelli, Frankie Valli, Mike Tyson, Joe Walsh, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Melissa Etheridge, Aretha Franklin, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Above are just but some of the diverse group of Rock, Pop, Soul, Jazz, R&B, Country, TV, Sports, and Comedy stars who have played at the venue now known as the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Long Island, which now celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2016. Over the years, the venue has also been the home to professional wrestling matches, The New York Jets Town Hall, The Long Island Music Lover’s Faire, and other record and music collectors conventions, the Easter services of the Shelter Rock Church of Manhasset & Syosset, as well as numerous summer stock, national and regional tour performances of Broadway plays.
It was 1956, a leap year. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula and pushed Egyptian forces back toward the Suez Canal. The Winter Olympics were held in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The Summer Olympics’ Equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden while all other events were held in November in Melbourne, Australia. Undefeated Heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano retired. Don Larson threw a perfect game in the World Series. The Yankees won the series, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers in 7 games.
That same year of 1985, Elvis Presley entered the U.S. Billboard charts for the first time, with “Heartbreak Hotel,” and his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (his first) was watched by 60 million people. The Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) got together at Sun Studios in Memphis for the first and last time. Norma Jean Mortenson officially and legally became Marilyn Monroe. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed their last comedy show together. Bob Barker was the host of the game show Truth or Consequences. Around The World in 80 Days won the Oscar for Best Picture, Yul Brenner was Best Actor for his performance in The King And I and Ingrid Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Anastasia. The Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments was released. Roger Vadim’s film And God Created Woman, was released in France as Et Dieu…créa la femme. The film propelled Brigitte Bardot to “sex kitten” status. The Soap Opera As the World Turns premiered on CBS. My Fair Lady opened on Broadway.
And, on June 18th, in a tent set-up in and abandoned sand pit in Westbury, NY, the Westbury Music Fair commenced its 10-week season, opening with a performance of The King and I, starring Charles Korvin and Constance Carpenter. The Music Fair concept came to be when radio broadcaster Frank Ford and nightclub owner Lee Guber created Music Fair Enterprises, Inc after seeing a tent show production and deciding that they could do a better job and provide a better experience for the audience.
Along with another partner, TV news anchor Shelly Gross, Guber and Ford leased land in Devon, PA for what would become the Valley Forge Music Fair in 1955. Following their success with their initial venture, the trio decided to expand to the suburbs of New York City and the tent was erected on the sand pit located in convenient proximity to both the Northern State Parkway and the Wantagh Parkway. Other productions that graced the Westbury Music Fair stage in the summer of 1956 included Pal Joey, Brigadoon, Kismet, Guys and Dolls , Wish You Were Here South Pacific, and Plain and Fancy.
By 1965, Ford had left the fold and Guber and Gross had decided to expand. They chose to build a permanent structure, a 3,000-seat building that would be open year-round. This led to an expansion in booking practices. In addition to the musical theater performances and comedians, Westbury Music Fair began booking more contemporary Rock and Pop performers.
The new, state-of-the-art venue, which opened in the summer of 1966, featured heat and air conditioning, carpeted floors, and metal director’s chairs. Dan Kellachan, the venue’s marketing director, described it as “…from 1966 to 1972, it was the venue that everyone wanted to play when they came to New York and were on tour.” Eventually, fully upholstered seats were installed.
The real key to the new building was the fact that it kept the “theater-in-the-round” format used in the original tent. This seating configuration offered close and clear views of the stage from all seats. It also provided an intimacy that is hard to duplicate. As Kellachan stated, “When people buy tickets to the shows, they, of course, want the best seats in the house. They want to sit as close as they can, but when you sit at a show here, you’re only 60 feet from the stage…It’s a very intimate experience with the artists on-stage. I love it when the bands are performing in the round and the stage is rotating. You get to see all angles of the act. Watching the drummer from behind and you get to see what you don’t normally get to see.”
The “theater-in-the-round” concept features a circular stage completely surrounded by the audience. The stage can be turned, allowing audience members on all “sides” to see the performers head-on. The stage can make a complete rotation in approximately 15 minutes and can move constantly throughout a performance. It is not fast, but it is obvious to both the audience and the performers that the spinning stage provides an experience unlike that of any other venue. In addition, the theater can be configured in-the-half-round. The stage, in this case, does not revolve and the seats behind the stage are curtained-off. Though less seats are sold, the performance is no less intimate.
During its existence, the venue has also been operated by Delsener/Slater Enterprises and SFX Entertainment, which acquired the facility in 1998. It is now owned and operated by Live Nation. Since 2005, the naming rights have been sold for the venue. During the period from 2005 to 2008, the venue was known as The North Fork Theatre in Westbury. In early 2008, North Fork Bank was purchased by Capital One Bank. On March 24, 2008, the theater was renamed the Capital One Bank Theatre at Westbury. Capital One chose not to renew its inherited naming rights contract and from 2009 until early 2010, the venue was known as the Theatre at Westbury. In 2010, New York Community Bank purchased naming rights and the venue was rechristened as the NYCB Theatre in Westbury.
The sale to SFX and that company’s eventual evolution into Live Nation, the selling of the venue’s naming rights were not the only changes that have modernized, upgraded, improved, and enhanced the Theatre at Westbury’s experience during the past few years. In 2013, a new state of the art sound system was installed in the venue. Renovations to the venue are not limited just to the arena. In the past few years, the lounge has undergone a renovation and the lobby has been renovated. In addition, the dressing rooms and backstage area has been upgraded and renovated to provide the artists with maximum comfort.
The fabled venue has played host to a number of exciting performances. One such event followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when Nina Simone was scheduled to play the arena. During her concert, Simone and her band delivered an emotional homage to the slain civil rights leader, a nearly 15-minute-long rendition of their new song “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” This specific performance, recorded on April 7, 1968, just three days after the tragic event, can be heard on Simone’s album ‘Nuff Said! (RCA Records, 1968). The whole program that night was dedicated in his memory.
When The Doors played the venue in 1968, Jim Morrison had one of his famous melt-downs during the second set. The singer picked fights with audience members, assaulted a security guard, and danced and chanted on the stage after the house lights had gone up.
In 1967, Judy Garland was fired from her role in the Valley of The Dolls movie. Lee Guber decided that he would make this firing work for him. When Garland’s flight arrived at the airport in New York, Guber was waiting for her. He convinced her that she should perform her cabaret act at The Westbury Music Fair, and, she did just that. Her greatest hits concert on June 18, 1967 is legendary. To top it off, Garland performed wearing one of her Valley of The Dolls wardrobe pieces, a sequined pants suit.
In 1972, Bill Cosby recorded his When I Was a Kid (MCA Records) album at the iconic venue. The album cover features one of the first cartoon appearances of Fat Albert and the Gang.
In addition, Westbury (as many locals call it for short) has served as the backdrop for a number of album covers. The front cover of Johnny Cash’s American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings, 2000) features a picture taken of the icon taken backstage at the venue prior to one of his concerts in the 1990s. Though not recorded at the venue, the cover of Brian Regan’s All By Myself CD (Brian Regan Records, 2011) features the comedian heading down the main ramp toward the NYCB Theatre stage.
Now, as the venue approaches its aforementioned 60th Anniversary, the NYCB Theatre is throwing itself a special birthday party celebrating with a special Sixty Years, Sixty Beers extravaganza. The event is a Craft Beer, Music, and Food Festivalm and a Westbury Parking Lot Party all rolled into one. The party will feature fun, games, contests, giveaways, and, of course, beer. According to Kellachan, the parking lot will be taken over by 24 Breweries, offering the stated 60 different beers, as well as 12 food trucks and food stations offering a wide array and assortment of different foods including oyster shucking, a taco truck, and sausage and peppers.
Also on hand will be local radio stations with appearances by their on-air personalities. Music will be supplied by four local bands – The JD Leonard Band, 45 RPM, Oogee Wawa, and Whiskey Road. The event will be hosted by Richie Minervini, one of Long Island’s most beloved comedians. For those who purchase VIP tickets, inside the venue, there will be exclusive beer and food tastings, a whiskey bar, air conditioning, bathrooms, as well as a full menu from the VIP Lounge’s Chef Alex. Tickets are available through the NYCB Theatre box office, online through Live Nation and at Ticketmaster. Prices range from $20 for a general admission ticket that gets you in with a commemorative cup, to $60 for VIP admission. A tasting bracelet can be purchased separately for $15. This bracelet will entitle the wearer to five 3 ounce pours.
Kellachan could not be more proud of his long association with the venue. “It’s been a great career for me. My first concert here was in 1983 – 33 years ago. It was Marshall Tucker Band. It was the first show I ever worked on here… After I graduated from St. John’s, I went and worked at Radio City Music Hall for a year in a post-graduate internship program. Then I became a high school English teacher for about three years bouncing around from this school to that school. Then, after that, I had a couple of little gigs here and there and in 1982; I began working in a Broadway press agent’s office and I signed the Music Fair as a client at the end of ’82. That’s how I became the publicist for Westbury in ’83. I worked six years out of Manhattan and then I came in-house in 1988. From ’88 to ’98, I was still the publicist, and in ’98m, they sold the business to Delsener/Slater, which in turn was purchased by SFX Entertainment, which was sold to Clear Channel and was spun off into Live Nation. Then in 1998, I became the Marketing Director and the rest is history.” Kellachan is also quite proud that one of his photographs is part of the wallpaper that acts as a mural in the building’s lobby. It is a photograph of the building when it was called The Westbury Music Fair. Kellachan explained to me that Spike Lee’s people contacted the venue and asked for permission to use the picture in the documentary film Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Kellachan smiled when he related that he said, “I can offer you a high-resolution print of that photo; I took it.”
The venue holds a special place in the hearts of so many people – guests and employees alike – including the house photographer, Mark Schoen. Schoen was able to give those warm feelings the perfect voice, when he fondly recalled his thoughts during his first year on the job, in August of 2006, as he was preparing to shoot the James Gang reunion performance. He said, “I remember being in awe and thinking, ‘This is so cool….here I am shooting the James Gang as the house photographer at the venue I went to see my first concert ever back in 1969.'”
The venue’s 60th anniversary year schedule definitely offers fantastic entertaining opportunities for its guests. As Kellachan says, “We offer a great alternative in the summer to the heat and the rain for the crowd that likes to sit in the comfortable seats and the air conditioning and enjoy a nice show…we also have a fun pre-show atmosphere here, whether it be in the VIP club or in the summer, we have the outdoor grill going on our party deck and outdoor patio. It is open two hours prior to the show, so there is no need to go to a restaurant and try to rush here. You literally can come a little early, park your car and have a bite to eat. And after the show is over, there’s no need to rush off. You can hang out in the lounge and have some fun afterwards. We super-serve the Long Island audience – Nassau, Suffolk, and eastern Queens. We try to hit something for everyone.” With that said, NYCB Theatre at Westbury will forever be a signature part of Long Island culture, attract the best acts in the business, and continue to create history for years many years to come.
Upcoming shows and performances feature something for everyone, an eclectic offering of different shows. On the actual anniversary of the opening, June 18th, the NYCB Theatre hosted The Happy Together Tour – starring The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie, Chuck Negron (the former lead singer of Three Dog Night), Mark Lindsey (formerly of Paul Revere & The Raiders), Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Cowsills and The Spencer Davis Group. Currently, the schedule through the end of 2016 by month features: