The Colonie Summer Theater was THE place for summer entertainment in the Albany area in the 1960’s. It went by many names over the years: the Colonie Musical Theater, the Colonie Summer Theater, the Colonie Colosseum, and the Starlite Theater, but to locals, it was always “The Tent”. It was the place many baby boomer kids saw their first theater production or professional musical act. It was theater in the round .. there was a sense of intimacy. When it opened, there were only about 2,000 seats. It was summer theater at its best.
Some nights it was hot and steamy and still, but there always seemed to be a slight breeze blowing through the flaps of the brightly striped orange and green iconic tent. Other nights, the excitement of the show vied for attention with the crashing and booming of thunder and flashes of lightning.
My family went to the Tent at least 3 or 4 times each summer. The memory of the sights and smells of The Tent are right up there with Coppertone, swimming pool chlorine and orange Popsicles when I think of summer.
I was raised in a family with a love for theater, especially musical theater.My brother and I were weaned on Rogers and Hammerstein LPs and gorgeous Technicolor movie musicals. But nothing prepared me for the my first real musical theater at The Tent. It was thrilling and exciting,,, there was a sense of immediacy that was wonderful. The actors and actresses entered down the aisles… right next to where you were sitting. In that small venue, it was almost like they were performing just for me. The sound of the pit band was bright and clear.
The Tent was started by Eddie Rich, a New York City producer, in 1958. He created a venue that brought headliners and somewhat past their prime headliners from all over, and from all aspects of show business; actors, singers, dancers, musicians. The first production was Damn Yankees. We went. I remember being gob smacked, and wandering around the neighborhood for at least a week singing “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and little man, Lola wants you” at the t0p of my lungs, anywhere and everywhere.
My most vivid memory is a performance of Brigadoon, the Lerner ad Lowe musical about a small village in Scotland that appears magically, once every 100 years, and then vanishes again. There is a chase scene in Act II. When it began in the Tent… the performers used very inch of the theater, running up and down the aisles; we became part of the performance. It was if there was no distance between us.. we, the entire audience and the actors were one. For an 11 year old, it was one of the most thrilling experiences, something only avilable in such an intimate setting.
Rich died in 1968, but the theater continued. Joe Futia took over operations and built a new, permanent structure in 1969 that replaced the old tent, but it was still theater in the round. Even in the new building.. the farthest seat was just over 50″ from the stage. The actual “theater’ events became fewer over time,- but I recall seeing Gypsy and The Solid Gold Cadillac with Martha Raye in the 1970s. Futia was terrific at booking the hottest bands and comedians of the time, at the peak of their celebrity.. Blood, Sweat and Tears, Eddie Murphy, Iron Butterfly in one night gigs, but there were also Las Vegas style acts, like Wayne Newton, Tom Jones and Jerry Vale, with week-long runs.
In the late 1970s, a revolving stage was constructed. The acts started to change – a lot of country/western; there were boxing matches. There were no more week-long productions. I think the headliners were getting ‘bigger” and didn’t want to play a smaller venue.
And then abruptly in the late 1980’s The Tent closed its doors.. mid-season. The operators at the time canceled all remaining shows – leaving angry ticket holders. It re-opened for the 1988 season.. under the aegis of Northeast Concerts. The first act was a double bill – Three Dog Night and America. The Tent was now the Starlite Theater.
But the next decade was a struggle – there were several owners and it never managed to become financially feasible again. The halcyon years of the 1960’s and even the 1970’s were gone. The baby boomers were occupied elsewhere.. with children and mortgages, and there were other options fro summer entertainment throughout the Capital Region and the Berkshires.
The last season was 1997; the Starlite never re-opened. It fell in to sad disrepair and was finally demolished in November 2012.
Notices and memorablia from some of the Tent performances: 1958- 1971.
Line at “The Music Man” 1962