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The Lost and Found History of Celebrity Theatre

The exterior of Phoenix's Celebrity Theatre.
The exterior of Phoenix's Celebrity Theatre. Courtesy of Celebrity Theatre
In 1964, the year The Beatles broke in the United States, the world’s most popular foursome never sang, hummed, or made any appearance as a group in the Grand Canyon State.

You might chalk it up to Arizona being a flyover state. But The Beatles didn’t even fly over Arizona. Considering the band’s 1965 America tour trajectory from New York, the closest they made it to the Southwest was Houston.

Had the Fabs stopped in Phoenix when smaller concert halls were still the band’s M.O., they might have considered the Phoenix Star Theatre, which opened on January 13, 1964, with a production of South Pacific starring Betsy Palmer.

Since then, the in-the-round venue has been renamed Celebrity Theatre, changed ownership, hosted an array of performers, and gained historic landmark status. A rare surviving example of Brutalist architecture in Phoenix, the Celebrity’s signature feature is a revolving stage (one of just a few in the country) that was installed in 1969.

On Friday, November 17, “1964 The Tribute” will bring convincing Beatles look-alikes to that spinning stage, offering a look at what might’ve been. But the roster of artists who have appeared at the Celebrity since 1964 has been none too shabby. It includes David Bowie, Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Def Leppard, Cream, Duran Duran, Sammy Davis Jr., Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys, Chris Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nat King Cole, and Fleetwood Mac, to name a few.
In August 2017, the Celebrity Theatre became a historic landmark. At the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame induction ceremonies held at the venue, owner Rich Hazelwood and general manager and talent booker Alycia Klein were presented with the historic designation by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.

While the Celebrity Theatre has an illustrious history, much of it is buried, lost to previous owners with a poor sense of posterity, and dependent on second- and third-hand recollections, ticket stubs, and fan photographs to tell the story.

Much of what we know about the venue comes from longtime staffers like Klein, who has kept meticulous records since 1999. Ditto for publicist Dee Korinek, who’s been there since 1995, and marketing director Kelly MacDonald, who’s been there for 10 years. MacDonald says she spends “hours and hours looking online getting very nerdy looking at our history. It changes constantly, and they mislabeled a lot of stuff back then.” She adds shows of note to a timeline on the venue’s website.

“It’s strange to me how much lack of documentation there is. Nobody seemed to care back then,” MacDonald says. “… You get tons of stuff from the early Buster Bonoff days, when he booked the shows and it was the called The Phoenix Star Theatre. Then, it’s like pulling teeth to find anything. And there was a Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim for a while, so I always have to make sure someone means the one in Phoenix … I always try to find some kind of kind of ticket, newspaper article, photograph, or setlist.”

click to enlarge "Cookbook Presents Cream?"  It all seems like a  gastrointestinal mistake. - COURTESY OF CELEBRITY THEATRE
"Cookbook Presents Cream?" It all seems like a gastrointestinal mistake.
Courtesy of Celebrity Theatre
They tracked down a ticket stub for Cream’s March 17, 1968, concert on a website hawking rockstar photos. They’ve heard about how David Bowie was looking at the barren desert landscapes while touring as Ziggy Stardust and premiered a newly written “Drive-In Saturday” at his Phoenix show.

“We’ve also heard stories that the Rat Pack would come here because it is so close to Vegas,” MacDonald says. However, nobody can corroborate whether Frank or Dean ever jumped onstage to assist Sammy Davis Jr., who played the Star Theatre several times.

“At some point in the ’70s for a year or two, the Theatre was connected to a hotel, and it was called the TraveLodge Theatre in the Round,” MacDonald says. “The Grateful Dead played at the TraveLodge.”

One luminary whose presence at Celebrity isn’t disputed is Liberace.

“The stage rotates because of Liberace,” Klein says. “He thought it would be a great idea to have the stage turn on its own. In ’69, they started to rotate the stage electronically. Before that, they would come and rotate the stage for him manually every 20 minutes or so.”

You’re wondering how many people it takes to manually turn the Celebrity Theatre stage. Another piece of data lost to the mists of time. As are the blueprints of the space. Gone.

Courtesy of Celebrity Theatre
“And nobody knows much,” MacDonald says. “The city doesn’t have any building plans for it. It’s bizarre — someone must have taken them and never returned them. You can’t just check out building plans like that. It would have had to have been approved. They have blueprints much older than the ’60s there.”

What we do know about this landmark concrete building is that the roof is kind of a modern marvel.

“It’s solid concrete supported by other concrete. It’s like Stonehenge,” MacDonald says. “And that’s one of the major reasons it became historic — because of the type of architecture it is. It’s called brutalism. Concrete, metal, and glass.”

Also copper, which once lined the structure’s sides. “Someone must’ve went broke and sold all that copper,” Klein laughs.

“And the theater was built to be acoustically perfect,” Klein says. “We always joke around that Liberace’s piano is around somewhere underneath the stage.”

In dealing with the talent, Klein has stories about everyone who she has had the pleasure and displeasure to book. Here are some highlights:

“Luther Vandross when he would play here, he would play three shows, inevitably at the end of summer, and you couldn’t walk three feet without seeing a humidifier.”

click to enlarge A round of applause for Celebrity Theatre. - COURTESY OF CELEBRITY THEATRE
A round of applause for Celebrity Theatre.
Courtesy of Celebrity Theatre
“Patti Labelle puts her shoes on the piano.”

“Al Green, he is definitely a clock watcher. Fifty minutes and he is off the stage … But it was June 30, 1999, [when] the air conditioner broke and we offered refunds and there were lines up the stairs at the box office giving refunds. And he played! He played for two and a half hours and ended up playing in a white T, a wife-beater, and people described the show as a religious experience.”

“Most diva-ish person I’ve ever seen was Anita Baker. It was New Year’s Eve, so they’re sound-checking and it’s really cold outside. And the doors are supposed to be open and she’s holding it up going, ‘No, no,’ unplugging things, plugging them back in. I had to say, ‘Mrs. Baker, whatever you gotta do, I’m opening the door.’ Ironically, you know who else did that, too? Vanilla Ice. It was a Christmas show and there were a bunch of kids freezing outside.”

“Carole King, I know she played here in the ’70s, and she played here again, must’ve been 2010, sold out. Just an amazing show.”

“Gallagher, this was his last smash tour, ’cause he was ill, and wasn’t gonna do it anymore … What people don’t know about him is that he has a twin who performed as Gallagher. He sued him. I’m fairly certain [that] in the ’80s we had the other Gallagher here. We had to cover everything, the speakers going up. I was literally at the top of the stairs and I thought I was okay watching the show from here. And I got nailed right between the eyes with cottage cheese.”

The craziest show Klein recalls? Bad Brains.

“People were just fighting in the aisles. Or the Deftones, who are coming here and don’t want the barricade. So before the night is over, there’s a group of our staff and I’m one of them, locking arms, and we are the human barricade around the band in the middle of the stage … Actually, the craziest show wasn’t even a show. It was an open-casket wake for Banda singer Tito Torbellino, who was shot to death in Sonora, Mexico. They flew his body here and we had the postmortem here.”

While Klein admits that being a privately owned venue in the times of Live Nation is a challenge, it does have its rewards. “We can do what we want and not have to go through a lot of red tape.”

And people never forget the shows they’ve seen or played on the Celebrity Theatre stage. “Billy Joel, every single show, if you go to see him, in Arizona, he still mentions the Celebrity Theatre and so does Jimmy Buffet. Every show. Wish he would come back and play a show.”

Beatles cover band 1964 The Tribute is scheduled to perform at Celebrity Theatre on Friday, November 17. Tickets are $26 and up via celebritytheatre.com.

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Contact: Serene Dominic