MERRILLVILLE — The final curtain closed at 6:15 p.m. Sunday at Star Plaza Theatre.
Immediately after The Oak Ridge Boys performed a heartfelt rendition of "Amazing Grace," the group stepped back to wait for the curtain to close as a number of Star Plaza Theatre personnel joined them onstage. Audience members then watched with tears in their eyes as the familiar red curtain slowly started to move.
The Oak Ridge Boys were chosen as the final act to grace the Star Plaza Theatre stage since the Grammy-winning group has the distinction of being the act to have played the Merrillville venue the most since its opening in 1979. The theater is closing and will be razed next year to make way for a development.
"This particular show is the 111th show we've done right here," said Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bonsall, who added it was an emotional day for the group's members. Along with Bonsall, Richard Sterban, Duane Allen and William Lee Golden make up The Oak Ridge Boys.
The Oak Ridge Boys' "Celebrate Christmas" show, which started at 4 p.m., lasted a little more than two hours and featured not only Christmas tunes and the group's hits but also quite a few stories of their visits to Star Plaza Theatre and what the 3,400-seat venue has meant to them.
During Sunday's monumental show, The Oak Ridge Boys were presented with a special plaque by theater personnel recognizing the group as being the only artists to perform shows every year at the venue.
Prior to the group receiving the award, Star Plaza Theatre general manager Mark Bishop addressed the audience.
"On behalf of the entire Star Plaza Theatre staff, we want to thank you for coming out tonight. Most importantly, we want to thank you for 38 years of support of this beautiful theater," Bishop said.
Early on in the show, singer Bonsall told fans the group would be doing a slightly different show this time around.
They usually begin their seasonal shows with the hits and then proceed to the Christmas portion.
"We're doing the Christmas songs first," Bonsall said. "And we're not going to take an intermission because we've put together a special show to say goodbye to the Star Plaza," he said.
The evening was filled with one bittersweet moment after another.
Also included in the show was a song dedicated to Bruce White and his late father Dean White, who built the hotel and theater.
"We've added one song to the set list. It's a special request from Bruce White," Bonsall said. The song was "I Guess It Never Hurts to Hurt Sometimes," which is a tune written by Randy Vanwarmer and is about losing someone you love.
Merrillville's Star Plaza Theatre, which debuted as Holiday Star Theatre in 1979, was opened by Whiteco Industries in 1979 at U.S. 30 and Interstate 65. The theater brought the entertainment world's brightest luminaries to the area.
The Holiday Star Theatre's first concert, "Four Girls Four," starred Rosemary Clooney, Rose Marie, Helen O'Connell and Margaret Whiting. It took place on Dec. 6, 1979, as a "soft" opening for the theater. On Dec. 19, 1979, disco queen Donna Summer officially opened the entertainment venue and The Oak Ridge Boys brought their show to the theater for the first time on Dec. 21, 1979.
Prior to The Oak Ridge Boys Sunday show, fans walked around the theater and the lobby looking at memorabilia, talked with friends and other fans about their memories of the venue and took pictures throughout the theater.
"We have come to Holiday Star Theatre, Star Plaza Theatre and the Radisson Hotel forever," said Jim Kamrowski, of Tinley Park, who attended the final show with his wife Gabriella. "We've loved this place and have always had a lot of fun here," he said.
"I always wanted to see the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas show and this was perfect," said Gabriella Kamrowski, adding since it was the last show there, they wanted to make sure they attended.
Theresa Doran came from Marseilles, Illinois, to be at the show.
"This is the last time I'll see the Oak Ridge Boys here so I wanted to be here," Doran said.
Brian Hodges, of Dyer, also lamented the closing of the theater.
"This is the last time we'll be able to be at this theater. It's going to be missed," Hodges said.
Hodges added he's gone to Star Plaza Theatre at least once a year if not more and has seen artists such as Styx, Perry Como and others.
"I hate to see them tear this theater down," said Phillip Shoppa, of Crown Point, who attended the show for his birthday with his wife and daughter. "We came here to see The Oak Ridge Boys for the last 20 years when they were still doing their New Year's shows."
Friends Chris Klobucar, of Villa Park, Illinois, and Tina Cahill, of Batavia, Illinois, have seen quite a few shows at Star Plaza Theatre. And being Oak Ridge Boys fans, they've seen them in Merrillville many times.
"We've seen The Oak Ridge Boys here for over 30 years," Klobucar said. "It's very sad that it's closing," she said. Cahill added they've also seen various shows at the theater through the years. The friends said they often stayed at the hotel and particularly loved the pool there.
Tunes featured on The Oak Ridge Boys final Star Plaza concert roster included seasonal favorites such as "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells," as well as hits such as "Elvira," "Thank God For Kids," and "Come On In."
Sunday's last concert stirred up countless memories for audience members of spending time enjoying concerts at the legendary theater where the entertainment world's luminaries came out to play for nearly 40 years.