The age of the building and dramatic changes in the concert business have combined to make this season Star Plaza Theatre's last, with the theater's operator announcing Tuesday it would host its last show in April.
In an era of music streaming and downloads, top acts no longer make as much from record sales and now rely more on live performances. Those top acts are more likely to play sports stadiums or large music festivals, said Charlie Blum, president and CEO of Star Productions, which manages Star Plaza.
"A star like Adele is going to keep all the profit from ticket sales," Blum said. "The promoter makes money from parking and beer. Well, we have free parking, and we can't sell that much beer with 3,400 seats. It's a different model, so it's challenging to bring in big stars."
Star Plaza faced increased competition from casinos, especially The Venue at Hammond's Horseshoe Casino. Horseshoe Hammond Senior Vice President and General Manager Dan Nita said The Venue, whose upcoming acts include ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and bachelorette party favorite Thunder Down Under, has attracted 500,000 visitors since it opened eight years ago.
He said he would reach out to Blum, who still manages talent and books shows nationally through his growing Merrillville-based Star Productions company, about possibly being introduced to some of the long-running acts that have played Star Plaza for decades.
"We're saddened to hear of the closure of such an institution in the community," Nita said. "But the first thought we had is we have dozens of open jobs at the Horseshoe, and could bring some of those hospitality employees in at our business."
Despite increased competition from the casinos that ring Lake Michigan and more pop star-friendly venues like Soldier Field and Wrigley Field, Star Plaza still found a financially successful niche with reasonable ticket prices for the area and crowd-pleasing performers such as Alice Cooper, Moody Blues, Damon Wayans and Jim Gaffigan.
"Some people complained that we always had the same acts," Blum said. "But if the people want it, why wouldn't you bring it back? No one would say that to McDonald's. These acts had followings. Weird Al Yankovic played here 15 years ago, and now many of the people who saw him last year were now fathers bringing their kids."
Star Plaza will be razed in April because it's nearly 40 years old, and the adjoining Radisson at Star Plaza is nearly 50 years old. Owner White Lodging determined the age and outdated structures made it unwise to invest in renovations.
"It is with a heavy heart that we have come to the conclusion that the Star Plaza, which has been a cultural mecca for Northwest Indiana and Chicago area residents since 1979, must close its doors," Blum said.
"We anticipate that the building will in the future have significant age-related structural challenges that would ultimately require a complete rebuild. We all recognize what the theater means to our community, and of course, it has played a huge role in my life, and the lives of my dedicated, hard-working staff."
A new Star Plaza Theatre would need to be much bigger to be relevant, Blum said, and there won't be room there after White Lodging constructs a new upscale hotel that could stand six stories high. He estimated it would have to be at least twice as large to host touring Broadway shows and accommodate the current size of musicians' stage setups, and doubted anyone would be willing to invest in a new concert hall of that size in Northwest Indiana.
Star Plaza Theatre at one time regularly hosted some of the biggest names in show business, including Bob Hope, Jay Leno, Mary J. Bilge, George Carlin, James Brown, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Jimmy Buffet, Ringo Starr and ZZ Top.
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"It's going to leave a gigantic hole in live entertainment," said Michael Reinhart, director of Merrillville's Ross Summer Music Theatre, which has staged and helped with a few plays there over the years.
The 3,400-seat theater at Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 in Merrillville is the third largest in the Chicago area after Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place and Chicago Theatre downtown. John Cain, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, said its closing is a "devastating blow for the arts overall in Northwest Indiana."
"It's shocking not just for symphony but for South Shore Arts and our Region," he said. "Most of the arts groups here are non-profit. This was for-profit. It's still the largest theater we had in Northwest Indiana. It's a big deal. Usually when a theater closes, it's because there will be a newer, bigger, better one in a few years. This is not the case in this case. The arts will survive, but it will be with grassroots and smaller organizations."
The Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra has performed at Star Plaza Theatre since just a few years after it opened, and they're synonymous in many people's minds, Cain said. Many international stars have joined the symphony on the Star Plaza stage, including Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, Dizzy Gillespie, Rudolph Nureyev, The Smothers Brothers, Andre Watts, Rachel Barton, Boston Pops' Arthur Fiedler, and Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band.
About eight years ago, the symphony moved its classical shows to Bethel Church in Crown Point because they don't draw as many people as the more popular pops concerts. The symphony often sold around 3,000 tickets for pops concerts like a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein and its annual Holiday Pops in December.
"The theory in the orchestra business is that your pop concerts make enough so you can have classical concerts," Cain said.
No other venue in Northwest Indiana is anywhere near as large, so the orchestra will take a financial hit from not being able to sell as many pops tickets. The board will review all options, one of which could be to host more but smaller pops concerts across Northwest Indiana, possibly in high school auditoriums. That could ultimately draw more people and generate more revenue, but the symphony also would have to pay its musicians for each performance, so costs would also rise.
"It would be great for the musicians, but we have to think about the net," Cain said.
The symphony will complete its 75th anniversary season with three pops concerts at Star Plaza, including one that was originally scheduled for May 11 but that will have to be moved up, since the venue will be demolished in April.
"Now it's really going to be a sendoff show," he said. "While we try to find a new home, it's going to be a lot of trial and error, hopefully a lot of trial and less error."