Charlie Blum, president, CEO and talent buyer for Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, still recalls the first "big stage entertainers" he ever purchased a ticket to see on stage.
"It was the Beach Boys in Atlantic City," Blum said.
"And I can honestly say I never dreamed one day I'd be the guy booking them to play at a theater where I would be the guy picking the talent to entertain audiences."
Today, March 13, marks Blum's 25th anniversary charting the stars for Star Plaza Theatre.
Star Plaza Theatre's 35-year history has earned it landmark status for ticket traffic.
The vision to build an entertainment and lodging destination in the middle of a cornfield in 1979 came from Dean and Bruce White, who planned and developed the $6 million Holiday Inn and Holiday Star Theater, which today is the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza.
Blum remains the force credited with making it a major player in the field of live entertainment. After working for the Nederlander Organization and booking shows as a consultant for the Merrillville stage space, he joined the staff full-time in March 1989, and today, still ranks as the guy who had the idea to book Jay Leno more than a year in advance, and schedule his stand-up show just weeks after the 1992 announcement that he would replace Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show."
It was also Blum who helped produce comedian Howie Mandel's HBO special in 1997, filmed on the Star Plaza stage.
Today, Blum, with his boundless energy, has added even more layers to his responsibilities by managing two of the hottest touring PBS stage sensations in the country: Under the Streetlamp and Gentleman's Rule.
"I credit Bruce White for always believing in me and supporting my booking decisions," Blum said.
He also faithfully gives a knowing nod to his beloved parents, both having passed in the last decade, for inspiring his career dream.
"My parents would always tell me that if you are doing something that you love for your career, then you'll never work a day in your life."
As for his booking secrets, Blum says it's both knowing about show biz along with "a bit of luck."
"When we booked Jerry Seinfeld for his stand-up act, his show was just added to the NBC lineup as a summer fill-in. Who knew just how popular it would be?" Blum said.
"It used to be we'd get big names in here like Liberace, who would do 14 shows for us and Tom Jones who would do three nights of performances," he said.
Over the years, Blum has introduced Northwest Indiana audiences to stage greats including Liberace, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye, Aerosmith, Judas Priest, Johnny Mathis, Garth Brooks, Perry Como, Tom Jones, Julio Iglesias, Dolly Parton, Lee Greenwood, Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Penn & Teller and Bill Cosby.
"If there were anyone who I really wanted to book, but didn't get to bring to Star Plaza, it's Frank Sinatra," Blum said.
"And actually, I did have him tentatively booked here until they announced the new Chicago United Center was ready to open in August 1994, then Sinatra got booked to that space instead."
Blum says today, based on gross revenue, Liberace and his Las Vegas showmanship remain the theater's biggest money-making headliner.
While looking at the walls of his offices at the theater, he remains amazed at some of the major names he sees featured on the promotion posters from past decades for the star line-up schedule, who at the time, were billed as "opening acts."
They were today's headliners such as the late Whitney Houston, Larry the Cable Guy, Rascal Flatts and Garry Shandling, among others.
And over the years, he's also had to make sure stars' demands, needs and whims were met to assure a smile when they took the stage.
Bob Hope's wife Dolores, a devout Catholic, requested a car and driver with arrangements to attend Sunday mass. (She attended Our Lady of Consolation on Taft Street in Merrillville.) Chocolate-covered espresso beans were a must for singer Richard Marx.
All of the "special requests" are part of the "fine print" included with contracts in the section called "a rider."
"Victor Borge only played a Bosendorfer (piano)," Blum said.
"There were only about five of them in the country, but we'd get him one. Dwight Yoakam wanted to visit some of our flea markets while he was here so we took him on a tour."
But Dionne Warwick's special requests still top the list for "high maintenance."
"She demanded a Ms. PacMan arcade game in her dressing room and three bottles of Cristal champagne, with the latter each costing $200 a bottle."
Blum recalls Patti LaBelle and pal Oprah Winfrey dining at the Olive Garden on Route 30 before LaBelle's performance and Red Skelton paying a visit to the Merrillville Kmart before his show to pick up a few props.
And when country music star Billy Ray Cyrus needed a cowboy hat, Blum took him to the nearby Great Western Boot Co.
Blum said he's grateful Star Plaza Theatre and Star Productions, which is the original entertainment projects division he helps oversee, also continue to help foster new young talent from in the Region and around the country. In recent years, he's worked with the casts for annual locally produced summer musicals like "Chicago," "Cabaret," "Annie" and "Hairspray."
"I have a great staff who are the ones that help make what I do so much easier and also so much more fun," Blum said.
"Especially Mark Bishop, our general manager, who I convinced to move his whole family here to take the position just a year after I arrived. And then there are others like Stevie Kokos, our building engineer, who has been with the theater for 28 years. In addition to the great entertainers we feature on stage, these are the people who make sure our audiences leave smiling."