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Oct 11, 2007

Sep 30, 2006

Matters Historical: A brief time in the spotlight

Circle Star in San Carlos ran out of plays and performers

News that old-time vaudeville and Hollywood hoofers Danny Dare and Sammy Lewis intended to build a theater in San Carlos sent a flurry of Thespian excitement up and down the Peninsula in January of 1964.

Financial backers, including such notable performers as Jimmy Durante, Debbie Reynolds, Steve Allen and Sammy Davis Jr., promised to spend $2.5 million on the proposed enterprise. The only thing backers couldn't agree upon was the name. Some opted to call it Melody, others seemed inclined toward Showland. Ultimately, the name became the Circle Star Theater, to be located at 1800 Industrial Way in San Carlos. The enterprise was to rise just north of the Redwood City border.

In a series of glitzy press conferences, backers announced that the proposed theater would have 3,270 seats. The Circle Star was to be an almost identical replica of Melodyland, a successful year-round tent-theater and elegant restaurant that Dare and Lewis had previously built in Anaheim near the entrance to Disneyland.

But the Circle Star was more than a mere concert hall. Indeed, this was planned as theater in the round with a stage in the center and no seat more than 50 feet away from the action. Groundbreaking for the tent-shaped concrete and steel theater was March 6, 1964. It was a major press event.

Entertainment editors, consciously seeking superlatives to describe it all, were nothing short of orgasmic. "Peninsulans will be rubbing elbows with big-name Hollywood stars on a year-round basis," effervesced one enthusiastic theater scribe. "The Circle Star is destined to become the theatrical center of the Peninsula." Imagine, right here in San Carlos, a venue for legitimate theater.

"There is nothing we won't try," promised an ebullient Danny Dare, sharing that there was a plan afoot for Burgess Meredith to direct Charlton Heston in a Shakespearean drama. But wait! Such legitimate theatrical endeavors were to be interspersed by a "Celebrity Season," featuring all the great favorites such as Victor Borge, Eddie Fisher and Connie Francis.

San Francisco theater owners trembled. They were well aware that the real effort in San Carlos was to administer a knockout blow to the city's prosperous theatrical enterprises. And a Peninsula coup looked imminent. San Carlos would have it all. Imagine, parking spaces for 950 cars directly adjacent to the auditorium. And, of course, a bar and first-class restaurant "run by one of San Francisco's finest eating establishments."

Opening night, the long-anticipated extravaganza, was Oct. 13, 1964. There seemed to be enough Hollywood glitz and glamor to assure San Carlos a permanent niche in the history of California entertainment. Television crews filmed the event that was also broadcasted on KCBS radio. A passel of Tinseltown luminaries converged, including Eartha Kitt, Andy Devine, Louella Parsons, Shirley Temple, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

And what a marvelous evening it turned out to be. Michael Evans played Henry Higgins opposite glamorous petite soprano Jane Powell as Eliza in a lavish production of "My Fair Lady." Performers approached the stage from the back of the theater, moving through the audience. "Acoustics were more than we could have hoped for," purred the backers.

Following the show, a red carpet was rolled out on the stage and the entertainment elite gathered for a grand party. Champagne corks popped. All agreed that the Circle Star was nothing short of "superb."

Shows changed every two weeks. Peninsulans braced themselves for an invasion of glamorous leading men and women. George Gobel and Elaine Dunn brought "Bye Bye Birdie" in November. They were followed by Nat King Cole with "Sights and Sounds." In December, Dorothy Collins and James Darren performed "She Loves Me." Gisele MacKenzie starred as "Auntie Mame." Hugh O'Brian and Pat O'Brien shared billing in "Mr. Roberts."

Ticket prices began at $2 with the most expensive in the house selling for $5. On weekends, 50 cents, across the board, was added to each ticket. Ticket sales provided pay for the performers. Theater profits were derived from the restaurant and bar.

Success of the Circle Star seemed assured. But difficult times soon set in. Dare and Lewis began running out of both shows and big-name performers. And then there was another phenomenon. Shows, considered mediocre on Broadway, were absolute flops in San Carlos. The theater failed twice between 1964 and 1970.

Innumerable tries were made to turn the theater around financially. One innovative attempt was in place when the theater reopened in 1971. It now featured a revolving stage that made one complete revolution every eight minutes. While fascinating to the audience, many performers were less than enthusiastic. Singer Englebert Humperdinck complained that the rotating stage gave him motion sickness.

Surely, the Circle Star had its bright moments. But all efforts to turn the enterprise into a success failed. By the mid-1990s, its marquee was dark and the Peninsula's most innovative theatrical effort was slated for demolition.

Matters Historical appears Saturdays in the Daily News. (c) Copyright 2006 by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett. E-mail the authors at svanevik@dailynewsgroup.com or call (650) 574-6371.

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