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Star Plaza's encore may have saved the NWI Symphony Orchestra

The Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra’s performance last spring at the Star Plaza Theatre at the Radisson in Merrillville is pictured. People are ecstatic the theater will remain open.

The public was overwhelmed with sadness when it learned Merrillville’s landmark Star Plaza Theatre would be demolished so the adjoining Radisson hotel could be replaced with something more modern, but people were just as ecstatic to find out White Lodging decided to spare it from the wrecking ball.

The Star Plaza’s encore in fact might have saved the 75-year-old Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, which has been frantically searching for a new venue for its pops concerts. The symphony packs the 3,400-seat venue — the biggest by far in Northwest Indiana — for its pops shows, which subsidize its classical programming.

The symphony would not only sell fewer tickets in a smaller space, but might see attendance dwindle if it were forced to stage pops concerts in churches.

“It’s the absolutely best news we could have received,” Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra Executive Director John Cain said. “A church might not have the same cachet, and people might not want to attend the concert as much. Nowhere has as many seats. There’s a possibility it would have killed the symphony.”

The symphony’s musicians would much rather play in a real theater instead of a high school or church auditorium because it’s a more professional situation, Cain said. And the closing would have hurt other arts institutions like the Indiana Ballet Theatre, which stages its production of “The Nutcracker” at the Star Plaza every year.

Bob Starkey, who had previously worked as an usher and caterer at the Star Plaza, made lifelong friends there and had many fond memories, including of George Clinton from the P-Funk All Stars wearing a tablecloth on stage.

“I’m most excited that there seems to be an idea to breathe new life into it,” the Merrillville resident said. “I was happy to hear that there was a willingness to work with other local venues to try to capture new and fresh acts. The nostalgia of it staying is great and I look forward to attending some old favorite performances and hopefully, fingers crossed, some new ones, too.”

Star Plaza President and CEO Charlie Blum said the theater would bring back popular acts like Weird Al Yankovic and Lyle Lovett, but would work on coordinating concerts with Hammond’s Horseshoe Casino and offer more family programming like “Sesame Street Live” that 21-and-over casinos can’t.

Star treatment

The concert theater at Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 is the third largest in the Chicago metropolitan area, after the Chicago Theatre downtown and the Arie Crown in McCormick Place, which is so little used its first 2017 event isn’t scheduled until mid-February. So the Star Plaza plays a big role in the local entertainment scene.

“I am beyond thrilled to hear the news that the Star Plaza Theatre owners have decided to keep it running,” said Robert Norman, a talent agent for the Creative Artists Agency who represents The Moody Blues and Diana Ross.

Performers also love playing there.

“It’s one of the Buckinghams’ favorite venues,” lead singer Carl Giammarese said. “We’ve played many, many dates there. It’s a special venue, not only the way they treat us, but the way the whole theater is so conducive to performing and connecting with your audience. We’re thrilled that we’re going to be coming back for years.”

Marc Summers, who was the host of TV’s “Double Dare,” hosted three sold-out “Price is Right” shows at the Star Plaza last year. He’s also sold out basketball arenas like the Palace of Auburn Hills in the Detroit area, but prefers the intimacy of the Star Plaza, where no seat is more than 90 feet from the stage.

“It’s the best news ever,” he said. “I was depressed at the thought of not being able to come back every year. It’s so professionally run. Why and how do you close a successful business? I’m a happy boy to hear it will stay. It cheers you up with everything going on with the election.”

The Oak Ridge Boys lead singer Duane Allen said he’s been “walking about a foot off the ground” since learning the Star Plaza would stay open.

“This is the greatest news I’ve heard in a long time,” he said. “It’s a magical place. It’s a lot more than a theater.”

The Oak Ridge Boys have played the Star Plaza for 37 straight years, every year since it opened, and now do popular Christmas concerts there. They have a close relationship with the staff, playing heated basketball games with them in a local high school gym until they’ve “just about killed each other,” going out to eat sushi or Italian food with them after the concerts, and exchanging Christmas presents every year.

“We don’t exchange Christmas presents with any other venue in the United States,” he said. “We do it with them because they’re our family.”

Allen feels a special kinship with the Star Plaza because when his mother died in Texas, shortly after he visited, White Lodging’s Bruce White provided him with a private jet to fly down to Tennessee to pick up his family, fly to Texas to attend her funeral, back to Tennessee to drop off his family and to Ohio for his next show.

After being told it would stay open, Allen sent the Star Plaza an email jokingly asking where he’d sign his lifetime contract, and said the Oak Ridge Boys would continue to be back every year. The country and gospel quartet had planned to show up to be with the staff in April, when the Star Plaza was supposed to be torn down.

Issue of space remains

The neighboring Radisson will still be demolished to make way for a new hotel that’s supposed to open in 2018. It will shrink from 30,000 square feet of meeting space to 12,000 square feet, which South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Spreos Batistatos said remained the real issue.

Batistatos said the Star Plaza’s reprieve from demolition did not affect his push or the need for a new convention center.

“It’s an important attraction in the market,” he said. “But what I’m concerned with is we’re losing 80,000 room nights, where visitors are spending $300 per night.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.