Before Jones Beach Theater, The Paramount or Nassau Coliseum, the place to see a concert on Long Island was Westbury Music Fair. In June 1956, the venue, now known as the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, opened on Brush Hollow Road with a unique stage in the round. This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the theater, with an official party taking place June 25.
“The venue has one of those magical vibes about it that makes you want to come back,” says Paul Anka, among the artists who has played Westbury the most. “You get the real fans in there and they know their nest very well. There’s a lot of warmth all the time. I’ve never had a bad experience.”
IT STARTED AT VALLEY FORGE
In 1955, radio broadcaster Frank Ford, TV news anchor Shelly Gross and nightclub owner Lee Guber formed a partnership to put on a series of musicals under a circus tent in Devon, Pennsylvania, called the Valley Forge Music Fair. After achieving success, the trio headed to Long Island to open a second theater.
“Ford, Guber and Gross saw an opportunity to provide entertainment for the bedroom community that was exploding out on Long Island,” says marketing director Dan Kellachan, who has worked for the venue since 1983. “They got into a car, drove 45 minutes to an hour on Long Island and stopped at Westbury, thinking it was far enough from the city. The idea was that people would come to their shows instead of going to Manhattan.”
The Westbury Music Fair was born June 18, 1956, with a production of “The King and I” starring Constance Carpenter and Charles Korvin. The inaugural season also featured productions of “Pal Joey,” “Kismet” and “Guys & Dolls,” under an outdoor tent during the summer months. The crowd sat in director’s chairs.
Actress Lainie Kazan is a veteran of the Ford-Guber-Gross productions, appearing in “South Pacific” and “The Student Prince” in the ’60s.
“It was the first time I changed my last name to Kazan, which is my mother’s last name,” says Kazan, who was born Lainie Levine. “They gave me a tag at the audition and when they called out my name I didn’t answer because I didn’t know who I was [laughs]. Then I auditioned and they put me in the wrong show. I ended up in ‘The Student Prince’ instead of ‘West Side Story.’ Lee Guber told me, ‘Just think German!’ ”
NO PLACE LIKE DOME
The partnership of Ford, Guber and Gross constructed a permanent building with a dome-like ceiling in 1966 allowing them to run shows year-round. Ford left the next year.
Kazan recalls opening for comedian Milton Berle in the ’60s in the new building. It turned out to be an eventful evening.
“I was singing a selection from ‘Porgy & Bess,’ which was such a serious piece. The crowd was laughing and I didn’t know why,” says Kazan, who graduated from Hofstra University. “I thought they were laughing at me, but Uncle Miltie came down the aisle dressed in drag. I was so humiliated.”
Over the years, the venue has attracted legendary artists like Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bob Hope, Don Rickles, The Who, Sammy Davis Jr., The Doors, the Jackson Five, Jethro Tull, Frank Sinatra and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Jimmy Dantuono, 59, of Hicksville, who was 12 when he saw Brown. “Seeing James Brown in person blew my mind, and the crowd was just captivated. It was my first concert and my sister took me. I’m still so thankful to her.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Westbury became known for its stage in the round that slowly rotated. This was dubbed “a blessing and a curse,” according to Kellachan.
“The blessing is the people love it. It is the most intimate atmosphere to see a show in,” he says. “But for the artists, it reduces the production value of their show because there’s no back wall. It’s not like they can run across the stage, fall down on their knees and skid across the other half. There’s no room for that. Mick Jagger would have a problem here.”
However, it’s not always easy for the performers to deal with.
“It’s different, you have to adjust to it,” says Frankie Valli, an annual favorite at Westbury. “You have to almost become a pinwheel and keep turning so you can cover the entire audience all the time. It’s very challenging, but the energy is nice.”
Over time, artists have grown accustomed to the stage setup and embrace it.
“It’s amazing how small the theater feels even though it holds 2,800. The amount of people you are facing is never that big because you are spinning around,” says guitarist-vocalist Brian Setzer, who grew up in Massapequa and plays the venue regularly with his orchestra during the holidays. “The seats are going up rather than across, so you are looking up at the crowd. When I play there I can definitely see lots of aunts, uncles and people that I know from growing up.”
The stage is especially functional for stand-up comedians.
“I’m a prowler and the Westbury stage enables me to be more theatrical,” says comedian Jim Breuer, who grew up in Valley Stream. “It was the first big room I played on Long Island. Being there is like playing in my own yard. I do material that I can’t do anywhere else. It brings out who I really am.”
One comedian who brought mass excitement to the venue was Eddie Murphy. The Roosevelt resident headlined six shows August 12-14, 1983, at the age of 22. However, his popularity was so hot from starring on “Saturday Night Live” that police had to be brought in to control the crowd outside.
Comedian Richie Minervini, former owner of the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington, where Murphy started, came to see his friend headline his first big New York venue and was shocked at what he encountered.
“I was on his bus in the parking lot and it started rocking with fans all around. Eddie said, ‘It isn’t like it used to be. I’m in a prison, man. My life is like Elvis Presley now, it’s not my own.’ I said, ‘Is that right?’ Eddie said, ‘You don’t believe me? C’mon,’ ” recalls Minervini. “Eddie gets up, opens the bus door, fans rip his shirt off his body. I said, ‘Hey, King, I think they just scuffed up your blue suede shoes!’ It was just insane.”
DREAMS COME TRUE
For many Long Island artists, playing Westbury was a symbol of achievement in the entertainment industry.
“When I was very young and dreaming of being a performer, I’d see myself performing on that stage because that’s all I knew,” says guitarist Steve Vai, who grew up in Carle Place and brought his Generation Axe show to the venue last month. “It always held a mystique for me. Playing there is a total privilege and an honor.”
Pop star Debbie Gibson saw her first concert at the venue when she attended a Liberace concert and ended up headlining herself in 1991.
“Westbury holds a special place in my heart because it was a full-circle moment of me going from fan to full-fledged performer,” says Gibson, who grew up in Merrick. “It was the realization of a little girl from Long Island dreaming big and succeeding.”
BLASTS FROM THE PAST
Westbury is mostly geared for middle-age adults who prefer to keep their live entertainment on Long Island instead of making the haul to Manhattan.
“We have a certain wheelhouse that we cater to,” says Kellachan. “Our core audience is a 50-year-old, someone who has raised a family, has more free time on their hands and is either returning to going to concerts or is a regular concertgoer that loves seeing their favorite artists.”
Bruce Walker, 59, of Babylon was recently tailgating in the parking lot with his wife, Monica, before a Peter Cetera concert. The couple comes to the venue often.
“It’s not that far away from home and we prefer intimate theaters,” he says. “Plus, you can see from anywhere. It’s very comfortable here.”
Enjoying a drink in Lounge 960 before Cetera took the stage, Patrick Rozmus, 45, of Northport adds, “Everywhere you sit, you are close. It’s better than going to Madison Square Garden, where you are 1,000 feet away looking at a TV screen.”
For Christine Hamilton Wescott, 54, of Albertson getting to see groups like Alabama, Chicago, the Village People and KC & the Sunshine Band holds a strong sense of nostalgia. “A lot of the performers from our yesteryear come here,” says Wescott, whose high school graduation ceremony was conducted at the venue. “It’s like going back to your past.”
WHERE THE GAMBLER WINS
Over the years, the venue has established long-lasting relationships with artists who return to perform annually.
“Kenny Rogers is like family coming in,” says Kellachan. “Christmas at Westbury without Kenny is almost unthinkable.”
For Rogers, the feeling is mutual.
“I’ve played Westbury for years and years because I love rituals,” he says. “Long Island has always been wonderful for me. It’s filled with great people.”
Air Supply, the Australian soft-rock duo, doesn’t play anywhere else on Long Island, making Westbury its main destination for 35 years.
“Westbury is one of our top three venues in the world simply because the people there are so fabulous,” says guitarist-vocalist Graham Russell. “As soon as we walk in the stage door, it’s like coming home and all the memories flood back. We are hugging members of the crew. It’s an amazing feeling that we don’t get anywhere else. Some of the greatest artists of our time have been on that stage. We are proud to be part of that history.”
THE WALL OF FAME
One of the most interesting features at the theater is hidden backstage, where the walls of the kitchen are plastered with artist autographs thanking the in-house chef for the home-cooked meal they were served when they appeared.
“Luther Vandross started it in May 2002 after he enjoyed a crew meal prepared by our chef during his four-day run of performances. When Diana Ross came to play two months later, she signed her name on the wall near Luther’s and put a heart around it,” says Kellachan. “All of sudden everybody who came in started signing around their names. When they ran out of room, people started signing the ceiling.”
Regardless of how times change, NYCB Theatre at Westbury hospitality continues to grow with recent additions like an outdoor deck and bar as well as Lounge 960, where guests can enjoy preshow cocktails and meals. But, the main focus is on delivering a wide variety of entertainment each year.
“The founders always likened our roster to a magazine stand,” says Kellachan. “You might not be interested in all of it, but there’s definitely something for everyone.”