Burbank officials have never considered the Starlight Amphitheatre a serious competitor to the Universal Amphitheatre or to the Greek Theatre for top-name entertainment.
But they hoped for years that the park-like outdoor theater in the hills of northeast Burbank could host at least moderately popular entertainers in an intimate setting.
They also believed that popular acts at the Starlight, which can seat 6,000, would establish Burbank’s credibility in the concert industry, and several promoters hired by the city tried unsuccessfully to bring in such entertainment.
But those hopes were dashed by an unprecedented public outcry this week against a Santa Monica-based entertainment agency that offered to stage concerts and music festivals at the Starlight.
The Burbank City Council’s decision Tuesday to withdraw from an agreement with the agency, World Entertainment Services, will reduce the Starlight to nothing more than a foliage-heavy, deteriorating facility for high school graduations and poorly attended Burbank Symphony events, city officials admitted.
“If this is what the people want, it will go back to being a place just for community events, and the grass will grow high and the paint will peel,” said Councilman Michael R. Hastings, one of four council members who voted to withdraw from the agreement. “When the Burbank Symphony comes up there, there will be 200 people watching.”
But many residents of the single-family neighborhoods that lead up to the Starlight want the theater to be just that.
“This place should just be for local people,” said Gene Walsh, 55, who has lived near the Starlight for 12 years. “You get different kinds of people for the Burbank Symphony than for a concert presented by someone from outside the city. You get to see your neighbors at the symphony, and you don’t get people coming from outside Burbank who drive across your lawn. . . .”
Asked whether the council’s decision will send a message to the entertainment industry that Burbank is out of the concert business, City Atty. Douglas C. Holland said:
“We are not going to consider any more proposals for the commercial use of the Starlight unless we can be sure there will no impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.”
One concert industry official speculated that any operator who wants to make the Starlight a commercial success will find it difficult to book entertainers under the city’s restrictions.
Mark Hodges, vice president of concerts for Nederlander of California, which operates the Greek Theatre and the Pantages Theatre, said artists would prefer not to play to a scattered small crowd at the Starlight and perform instead at the more prestigious Pantages Theatre, which has a capacity of 2,700.
12 Concerts Planned
Two weeks ago, the council approved an agreement with World Entertainment Services. Michael S. Seemann, president of the firm, had planned to stage 12 concerts this year at the Starlight and 18 next year. The tentative contract allowed World Entertainment to stage an unlimited number of shows and have a sellout crowd for each one.
The city previously had limited the number of shows with more than 2,500 people in attendance to 10 a month and plans to continue that limitation with any new operator.
Some council members expressed surprise at the sudden intense pressure by residents to keep the Starlight a small community facility.
“I wanted this place to be a contender, and I thought that’s what the people wanted,” Hastings said. He said he was thrilled during recent months when the high-powered Weintraub Entertainment Group and World Entertainment Services expressed interest in running the Starlight.
“I thought it was great that we could bring this major organization that would bring culture to our city and give our kids a place to go,” Hastings said. “It was a real plus for Burbank.
“But then everyone screamed, ‘Not in my back yard,’ and we started hearing horror stories about past concerts up there where house windows have been broken and people were urinating on cars. We had never heard these things before.
“So our change in philosophy is because the people that we represent have said no.”
Hastings, along with Mayor Al F. Dossin and Councilwoman Mary E. Kelsey, had voted to approve the agreement with World Entertainment two weeks ago over the objections of Councilman Robert R. Bowne, who said he was concerned about what effect theater crowds would have on the neighborhoods. Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard was not present at that meeting.
After the outcry from residents, Hastings and Dossin, who are battling to keep their council seats in an election to be held next month, voted to approve Tuesday’s withdrawal from the agreement with World Entertainment.
One of their challengers, George Bonney, had seized upon the council’s approval of the agreement with World Entertainment Services as a campaign issue.
Kelsey, the only council member to vote against withdrawing from the agreement, said residents have overreacted.
“The people always wanted entertainment there before, but now most of them don’t even want to hold graduations up there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful bowl, and it needs to be used.”
Robert Kory, an attorney representing World Entertainment, said the council made “an unfortunate decision” when it backed away from the agreement. He said he is considering legal action against the city.
Holland said Burbank never had a formal agreement with World Entertainment because the city is still legally bound to Tim Pinch, the last manager to present acts at the bowl. The City Council had said in December that it intended to terminate Pinch because he had failed to present “broad and varied” entertainment at the theater. But it never actually fired him, Holland said.
The council will consider Pinch’s contract during a public hearing Tuesday.
If Pinch is officially fired, Holland and Richard I. Inga, Burbank’s parks and recreation director, are authorized to renegotiate with World Entertainment to manage the Starlight. But Kory said his client has made no decision on whether it is interested in renegotiating.