Theater’s Future Looks Less Than Bright
Brian Murphy thinks the Starlight Amphitheatre in Burbank is one of the best places around to enjoy a concert.
Murphy, the president of Avalon Attractions, one of the top concert promoters in California, has often praised the intimate setting and Hollywood Bowl-style atmosphere of the outdoor theater.
“When you sit on the lawn in back of the benches at the Starlight Amphitheatre, you will see one of the best skylines you could hope for,” Murphy said. “You can see the buildings downtown, you can see the entire San Fernando Valley, you can see planes flying. It is simply gorgeous.”
But Murphy and other industry executives, as well as Burbank city officials, say the facility’s inconvenient hillside location, its proximity to single-family neighborhoods and competition from nearby venues such as the Greek Theatre and Universal Amphitheatre have stymied efforts to turn the Starlight into a successful concert arena.
Both the Greek and Universal Amphitheatre, which feature prominent artists, are less than a 15-minute drive from Burbank.
“People in this region are blessed with an overabundance of entertainment,” said Burbank City Manager Bud Ovrom. “You have a place like the Music Center and the Greek that are just a short freeway hop away. People here can get to the Universal Amphitheatre faster than they can get to the Starlight.”
Murphy said Burbank would have a tough time hiring an operator who would take on the task of competing with the Greek Theatre or the Universal Amphitheatre.
“That operator would have to book many shows to compete, and he would have to get into a bidding war to entice artists,” Murphy said. “Both of those places have established summer seasons, and both are booked by big entertainment companies.”
Alex Hodges, vice president of concerts for Nederlander of California, which operates the Pantages Theatre and the Greek Theatre, said of the Starlight’s standing in the industry: “I don’t know if the concert industry looks at the stigma of Burbank and the Starlight, but agents don’t consider booking concerts there on a serious basis.”
The future of the city-owned facility has been further complicated by a new set of problems revolving around Burbank’s agreement with a Santa Monica-based entertainment firm that has offered to bring major acts to the Starlight. City officials are trying to pull back from the agreement, saying they are concerned about the impact of large crowds on nearby residential neighborhoods.
“I wish things could be worked out,” said Councilwoman Mary E. Kelsey. “It’s a shame to just abandon it.”
But the recent difficulties have virtually guaranteed that the Starlight jinx will continue.
The amphitheater, which can seat 6,000, has been nothing but trouble for city officials ever since the 1970s when they first tried to transform it from a community stage into a popular concert venue.
As each new attempt by different Starlight operators failed over the years, Burbank City Council members and officials overseeing the facility said the managers were not aggressive or experienced enough to attract well-known artists or large crowds.
The operators, in turn, blamed the city for the Starlight’s difficulties. They said city officials want the theater to be a popular concert arena and, at the same time, want a small, community-oriented facility.
“I told the city that it would take time to build the Starlight up in the entertainment industry’s eyes,” said Tim Pinch, who managed the Starlight for three years. “I always told them we had an eye toward presenting major events, and that’s what the city wanted.
“Then the city wants to fire me because I’ve done what they contracted me to do. They can’t decide what they want.”
Pinch was fired by the council Tuesday for not presenting “broad and varied” entertainment at the Starlight. Council members said Pinch did not present enough shows that appealed to the Burbank community. (Pinch presented 13 shows in 1986, 11 in 1987 and 5 in 1988. Most featured little-known Southern California performers.)
In another attempt to turn the Starlight around, the council earlier this month appointed World Entertainment Services, a Santa Monica-based entertainment agency which is loosely affiliated with the Weintraub Entertainment Group. Pinch, who has a profit-sharing interest in WES, said the company has connections in the industry that will provide the Starlight with major entertainment.
But an outcry by residents who feared traffic and crowds from the proposed concerts prompted the council last week to attempt to back out of the agreement with WES. Council members said they wanted to put restrictions on crowd size and establish strategies for moving traffic to and from the Starlight before a new agreement with WES could be drawn up.
Concert industry executives say it would be tough for any promoter to put on shows at the Starlight, even without restrictions by city officials. They said the main factor behind the Starlight’s troubles is also the key to the facility’s charm --its location.
“As long as the amphitheater is located where it is, it will have problems,” said Murphy, who produced concerts at the Starlight during the 1970s for another firm, Pacific Presentations. “To get to the Starlight, you have to go through one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Burbank.”
The facility is located in the Verdugo Mountains and is reachable only by driving through neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. Only two roads from those neighborhoods lead directly to the Starlight.
“It’s inconvenient for the people who are going there,” Murphy said. “When we had a sellout concert, traffic would be backed up for three miles, and people would get impatient.
“Then the residents also had problems. People drinking beer would throw beer bottles on the lawns. Residents couldn’t get in and out of their driveways. It would cause a disturbance for older families in the areas.”
Murphy said that after crowds got past the neighborhoods, there would be inadequate parking in the two small lots near the facility.
“But once you got inside, it was delightful,” he said. “It was totally adequate in all areas.”
Some council members said the city’s recent problems with Pinch and WES may bring up memories of past Starlight episodes that have cast the facility in a negative light in the entertainment industry.
The most notorious Starlight incident revolved around Jack Berwick, who headed the Cinevision Corp. Berwick ran the Starlight from 1975 to 1979, and the Starlight hosted concerts by Genesis, Bob Marley and the Marshall Tucker Band under his guidance.
Former councilmen Jim Richman and E. Daniel Remy complained that Berwick was staging too many youth-oriented shows. Richman said at the time the shows would attract narcotics users, homosexuals and anti-nuclear demonstrators. The city forbade Berwick from presenting concerts by Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, Al Stewart, Patti Smith and Blue Oyster Cult during the 1979 season.
Berwick sued the city in 1979 for breach of contract. In addition to preventing him from staging the concerts, Berwick said officials blocked his attempt to exercise a five-year renewal clause that would have allowed him to manage the Starlight until 1985.
Berwick was awarded a $4.6-million judgment by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury in the lawsuit. The city eventually paid him a $3.8-million settlement.
City officials also intervened when another concert promotion firm, Eric/Chandler of Chicago, managed the Starlight in 1983. Officials and a Burbank advisory committee instructed Eric/Chandler not to book certain entertainers such as Bette Midler and the Clash because they would attract an “undesirable” crowd. Although the officials later backed down from the restrictions, Eric/Chandler spokesmen said the publicity hurt their efforts to book acts.
“I think the entertainment industry has said, ‘Forget it’ as far as the Starlight Amphitheatre is concerned,” said Councilwoman Kelsey.
The Starlight has been the site of a few popular performances in the past few years. Stevie Wonder performed during a benefit show. At another benefit, Bob Hope serenaded an audience with a joke-filled version of “Thanks For The Memories.” Howie Mandel and Billy Vera and the Beaters also appeared during recent years.
One former council member said the future of the Starlight should be examined closely. “Maybe a blue-ribbon committee needs to be formed that will determine what the Starlight will be used for in the future,” said businessman Leland Ayers. “The city needs to make up its mind whether they just want to use it for graduations or make improvements to it and make it a first-class operation.
“It’s a beautiful theater. But it should be in Glendale because of all the problems it’s created for Burbank. It’s just in the wrong place.”