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Notes From on High : Burbank considers the Starlight Bowl its 'undiscovered gem.' It seats 6,000, offers a spectacular view and boasts a wide range of entertainment.

July 01, 1994|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Brenda Rees is a regular contributor to The Times

BURBANK — Thinking of going to an outdoor summer concert? There's the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater or Warner Center.

But if you take a ride to the hills high above Burbank, you'll discover a less-obvious choice--the Starlight Bowl. The music offered is wide-ranging, the view spectacular, and it's often free.

Jazz musician Jack Sheldon returns Aug. 14 for the third year in a row, taking his place among other celebrities who have played the Starlight--Bob Hope, Dennis Day, Jack Benny and Mel Torme. "It's such a beautiful place," says Sheldon, "I love being outside. Watching the sunset as the band plays brings out the romantic in everyone."

Sheldon, like many people, didn't know Burbank had an outdoor concert arena until he was approached about playing at the Starlight. The bowl had been closed for so long, people seemed to forget about it.

But how can you miss a 40-by-80-foot stage with seating for 6,000--3,000 seats and room for 3,000 on the grass?

"It's our little undiscovered gem," says Gail Stewart, who is in charge of bowl programming. "We want to bring family-oriented entertainment back to the community."

The bowl was closed intermittently throughout the early 1980s, and had been completely shut down since 1986. The city hired a series of private promoters to book shows, "but they didn't understand the needs of a community-oriented venue," says Mary Alvord, Parks and Recreation director for the city of Burbank. Residents complained about unruly crowds who came to see rock concerts.

"Tensions kept building," says former Mayor Mary Kelsey, "and after we had a lawsuit from one of the promoters, the city wasn't too anxious to do much with the Starlight." (The city was successfully sued for $1.5 million by a promoter over a contract dispute.)

Nevertheless, City Council members believed such a cultural landmark shouldn't be allowed to wither away, and the Burbank Parks and Recreation Board was put in charge of the Starlight's programming in 1992.

Community events and entertainment have always been a part of the Starlight Bowl, where the natural amphitheater, with its phenomenal acoustics, attracted early Burbank citizens. More than 4,000 people attended its first recorded use--Easter sunrise services in 1935.

The bowl may have remained unknown, however, if it weren't for conductor Leo Damiani, who in 1946 used it for rehearsals of what was then the Burbank Symphony Orchestra. Along with local city officials, Damiani realized the potential of this grassy spot, surrounded by tall eucalyptus. It opened June 17, 1951.

"Leo could visualize what a permanent facility would mean, not only to the symphony but to the community as well," says Audrey Damiani of her husband, who died in 1986.

Damiani's connections to the entertainment business helped organize the recurring "Battle of Jazz and Symphony" that whimsically pitted his symphony against Les Brown and his Band of Renown in the late '50s and early '60s.

Damiani also created a Youth Symphony where a young Debbie Reynolds gave her teacher a hard time. "She didn't like the French horn; she'd put her chewing gum on top of it," remembers Audrey Damiani. Annette Funicello's career was born when Damiani staged a private dance recital of local kids at the Starlight in 1955 for Walt Disney, who was casting the "Mickey Mouse Club."

"Every year the Boy Scouts had a big presentation," says Audrey Damiani. "An Indian appeared on horseback on the far-off hill. He shot an arrow over the audience, hitting the stage. That ignited a flash of light, and through a cloud of smoke, performers came out and the show began. It was very dramatic and a lot of fun."

*

The bowl was sometimes transformed into an ice arena between 1956 and 1962, when The Roy and April Schram Ice Show showed off the talents of local students and others. Roy Schram, who skated with the Ice Follies, remembers it took months to produce the weekend program, but it was "real theater, with sets and props."

Martha Todt, a retired librarian, remembers using "our little 16-mm projector from the library" to bring movies to the Starlight in the '60s. The weekly "Family Fun Night" let people eat picnic dinners while watching such films as "The Music Man," "African Queen" and "North by Northwest."

Today, other uses for the bowl are being explored, from film programs to Shakespearean theater or an opera company. "It sat empty for years, and it's time to use it again. We're very excited about this year," says Alvord, referring to a schedule that boasts Broadway singers, rock 'n' roll, Latin jazz, Tchaikovsky and big-band music.

"It takes time to get momentum going, but we're anticipating great things," says Elaine Paonessa, a past president of the Burbank Civic Light Opera. This year the opera company will perform "The Pirates of Penzance," its first production at the Starlight theater in years.

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