Arts & Entertainment

Starlight Theater Celebrates 50th Season

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Starlight’s 50th season promises to be as enchanting as the theater housing it. Reminisce with director Mike Webb as he recounts the best and worst moments of the theater’s eventful history.

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Other theaters named Starlight can be found across America, but none compares to Rock Valley College’s unique outdoor venue.

That Starlight Theatre is the amazing Rockford landmark it is today can be credited to 50 years of determination, perseverance and the immeasurable contributions of community leaders and volunteers who believe in its magic.

Just ask Director Mike Webb, whose long-term relationship with Starlight started when he was in high school and has continued for 32 years.

“It hasn’t always been easy but we’ve come a long way,” Webb says. “When I was asked to take over the directorship and commit to five years, I said ‘Sure, I’ll stay.’ I believed this is what I was meant to do.”

This 50th season showcases some of the best in musical theater, and brings back three of the most popular plays Starlight has offered through the years. There’s a new production of Ian Fleming’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” followed by “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Children of Eden.”

“I chose these because they were the most cost effective to put on, considering the limitations caused by the state’s budget crisis,” Webb says. “Although ‘Chitty’ involves a ‘flying’ car, among other challenges.”

Starlight continues to dazzle even during tough times because the musicians and actors are volunteers, Webb explains.

Starlight draws top-notch volunteer musicians and performers year after year, which frees Webb’s budget for the other expenses that operating a theater entails.

“For our earlier production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in 1975, we actually built a mountain with cement by the farm pond,” Webb says. “After the season, we had to break it down with sledge hammers.”

Back when Webb took over the directorship, Starlight Theatre was more of a sideshow in the Rock Valley College theater department. Its facility was in need of serious upgrades, a fact Webb discovered the first day on the job.

“I didn’t understand why the orchestra pit wasn’t being used,” Webb says. “I was given the keys and, that evening, I went out to see for myself why. I walked out onto the pit floor and fell through it. There I was, alone in the dark with only a flashlight.”

Not long after that experience, Webb learned the stage floor also was rotting out, primarily because it was unprotected and vulnerable to every kind of weather. It had always been open to the elements and had undergone many evolutionary configurations before Webb took over.

“At one point, we had a director who liked to build runways out into the audience, and at one time the orchestra was on the same level as the stage and visible to the audience,” Webb adds. “In my opinion, that put the audience too far away from the stage.”

Even while the beautiful new theater bowl and stage were being built, the loyal theater audience braved unpredictable weather and endured folding chairs lined up on crushed asphalt to watch Starlight’s performances.

“People thought I was the weather guru,” Webb jokes. “We still had a National Weather Bureau station at the airport in those days. I’d call those guys every day to get up-to-the-minute reports on whether or not it might rain.”

Finally, the new Starlight Theatre opened with its roomy platform seating, comfortable seats, guest amenities and a magnificent stage complete with orchestra pit. Starlight lived up to its name. The entire theater was open to the stars and whatever weather blew through.

Then came the night Webb put on “Big River.”

“It was challenging enough to create a raft that ‘floated’ down the river,” he recalls. “One night, just as Huck Finn floated along and opened the first bars of ‘River in the Rain,’ it literally started pouring – a torrential downpour.”

The audience applauded as it scrambled for cover. And while it may seem funny, a wet stage is no laughing matter. A slippery stage is dangerous for the actors. Worse, the electrical equipment exposed to the water creates hazardous conditions for actors, musicians and the stage crew.

“I found a concert shell that could be used to protect the stage, but I needed some help. I called a few places and basically they laughed,” Webb recalls. “But when I called Bill and Joel Sjostrom and explained what I had in mind, they said, ‘funny you should ask…’”

“Sjostrom provided the means to use structural steel beams and heavy equipment to reconstruct the area around the stage to support the F.A.S.T. concert shell that was being installed to protect the stage floor,” Webb says. “Then they asked if they could replace the cement around the stage area. That was done in 1987.”

With the use of extruded aluminum beams and canvas, the stage was at least protected, but the audience was still out in the elements.

Meanwhile, roofing wasn’t the only problem Webb and his dedicated staff faced. During a production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the motor that was used to turn a heavy turntable that moved the trolley for an important scene malfunctioned.

“Quick, think!” Webb thought to himself at that moment. While the band played on, Webb and his stage crew turned the extremely heavy scenery on its castors by hand. “We learned later that the gearbox operating the turntable was inadequate. But, that’s the story of Starlight. With live theater, it’s always something.”

And often it’s something truly challenging.

Webb knew it was time to resolve the weather problem once and for all. And he had an idea of how that could be done.
With the innovative support of Sjostrom and the design brilliance of “Star-chitect” Jeanne Gang, a Belvidere native who now designs Chicago skyscrapers, Starlight’s signature, origami-inspired operable roof was born.

For this 50th anniversary season, Webb chose “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” because it was family-friendly and “Phantom of the Opera” because it was the best-attended of all previous Starlight productions.

“We’re repeating ‘Children of Eden,’ which we presented as the American premiere in 1997,” Webb adds. “I heard a recording of the music from this play and fell in love with the title song.”

The 50th season promises to be as enchanting as the theater housing it. As the roof’s powerful theme music, “Window to the Stars,” by local composer Kevin Jensen, soars and the roof majestically opens to a summer twilight sky, each performance will entertain, thrill and satisfy ardent fans and casual guests alike.

Single and season tickets are available through the Starlight Theater box office by phone or online.

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