A public outpouring of sorrow and nostalgia came fast and furious when White Lodging announced in August it would close Merrillville’s Star Plaza Theatre to make way for a fancy new hotel and restaurant at one of Northwest Indiana’s busiest highway interchanges.

People reminisced about countless shows they had seen there over the years — regulars like the Oak Ridge Boys and superstars like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. They lamented the loss of the landmark venue that’s hosted Broadway plays, B.B. King, honky-tonk and some of the country’s biggest acts.

The White family, who built Star Plaza and own the national White Lodging hotel chain, were so moved they decided to reevaluate the redevelopment plan to see if they could put the new hotel and more green space on the site and still have room for the 3,400-seat theater and enough parking. They decided they could.

So the music will play on at Star Plaza Theatre.

“The outpouring from the community was beyond what we expected,” Star Plaza Theatre President, CEO and talent buyer Charlie Blum said. “We were so close to it because we’ve operated the theater for so many years. But what we heard from the community, the comments we heard about it being a major economic driver for the area, made us take another look. We brought in other people to give us another opinion as well, and we concluded it could be done.”

The theater is the third largest in the Chicago metropolitan area and one of the largest in the state. For the last 37 years, it has hosted top performers like Aretha Franklin, Liberace, Bob Dylan and Garth Brooks.

“Great news out of Merriville Indiana,” frequent act The Oak Ridge Boys tweeted. “It seems that the Star Plaza will not close down after all... but will remain open... YAY #tradition.”

Lead singer Duane Allen was even more enthusiastic, tweeting “THOSE ARE SOME OF THE SWEETEST WORDS I HAVE READ THIS YEAR......NEW LIFE-TIME CONTRACT???????????”

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Keeping Star Plaza open will save about 200 mostly part-time jobs. The decision was easier because the theater, which hosts around 100 concerts a year, just had its most profitable year, Blum said.

White Lodging is privately held and won’t disclose the theater’s balance sheet. It is profitable, having found a niche with popular returning acts like Alice Cooper and Weird Al Yankovich, Blum said.

“The fact that we were not only profitable but a major economic driver in the community, was another reason for us to do everything possible to keep our doors open,” Blum said.

The Radisson Hotel will still be torn down at the end of the year as announced in August. It will be replaced with a new hotel that’s expected to open in late 2018.

“The announcement of the closing of the Star Plaza Theatre sent out shock waves, not only throughout the community, but throughout the entertainment industry as well,” Blum said. “Social media was flooded with expressions of sorrow and sadness on the end of the 37-year-run, even The Times headline captured the reality of what was happening – ‘The end of an era.’ I was especially touched by the expression of sorrow from many of the artists that have graced our staged.”

People mourned losing out on an iconic venue that also hosted high school graduations, gave community theaters the opportunity to perform on the same stage as big name stars, and was home to the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra’s popular pops concerts.

“In email, social media and phone conversations, I got choked up realizing how much the theater meant to them,” Blum said. “So many of the performers commented on the professionalism of our team and how much they will be missed. This amazing outpouring of sadness and support caused us to take a second look at the challenges the theater would face during the demolition process at the adjoining Radisson Hotel.”


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.