Stanley Theater - Rock Era

The Number One Concert Venue in the United States
The Stanley Theater, built in 1928, had been one of nation's top live music venues during the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s. With the fading of the big bands the Stanley became a first run movie house from the late 1940s until the mid 1970s Hit first run movies like Rear Window and Bonnie and Clyde made their Pittsburgh are premieres at the Stanley. Annual charity movie premieres with live stage shows where held at the Stanley to benefit the fund raising efforts of the Variety Club, Dapper Dan, and the Press Old News Boys. Pacific Theaters acquired ownership of the Stanley in 1961 when it purchased several theaters from RKO Stanley Warner. 

With the growth of the rock movement during the 1960's the Stanley began to host concerts again. The Pittsburgh based Cinemette Corporation purchased the Stanley in 1973 and gave it a half million dollar face lift. Having an upgraded stage and restored auditorium the Stanley was a more attractive place to hold concerts. Promoter Rich Engler brought several top acts to the Stanley in the mid 1970s. Engler joined forces with promoter Pat DiCesare and they purchased the Stanley in 1977. DiCesare-Engler Productions quickly turned the Stanley into the top popular music concert hall in the U.S. The Stanley hosted several concerts each week by top rock, jazz, country, and R&B artists and also presented touring Broadway musicals. Billboard Magazine named the Stanley Theater the "Number One Auditorium in the U.S." several times during the 1970s and 1980s. 

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust acquired the Stanley from DiCesare Engler in 1984, spent $43 million on renovations, and relaunched it as the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in 1987. Now the home of the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet classical music is now heard in the once great hall of Rock N Roll the Stanley Theater. During the rock era the colorful story of the Stanley continued with a massive traffic jam, bomb threats and bombings, many great shows and a few historic concerts.

Porky Pandemonium

To promote the movie “Birdman of Alctraz” the Stanley invited popular radio DJ Porky Chedwick to do a live broadcast outside under the marquee of the Stanley on a summer day in 1961. Within an hour from the start of the broadcast 10,000 people were tightly crowded in front of the Stanley on Seventh and Penn Avenues. More and more people were streaming into town to see Porky. The parkway and downtown streets turned into a parking lot with bumper to bumper traffic. Hundreds of kids stuck on buses on the North side got off to walk to down town.  The bridges from the North side to downtown were clogged with Porky’s fans. Pittsburgh was frozen in “Porky-mania” grid-lock. Pittsburgh Mayor Joe Bar came down from his office on Grant Street to personally ask Porky to stop the broadcast so that the police could unclog the massive traffic jam. The police estimated that they directed 50,000 people away from the Stanley to clear the Porky clogged arteries of Pittsburgh.

Bombings at the Stanley 

On March 25, 1970 the Stanley presented the movie "King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis" about the life of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. To honor Dr. King the movie was being show simultaneously on more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  In Atlanta 11 movie theaters had sellout crowds. In Pittsburgh an anonymous caller telephoned the Stanley Theater office saying that a bomb would explode in the theater twenty minutes after the movie's start.  Pittsburgh police stopped the movie and cleared the theater. But no bomb was found and the movie went on. Bomb threats were received in New York, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., St. Louis and Macon Georgia.

In 1971 the Stanley presented the movie "The Great White Hope" that featured an interacial love scene between James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.  Two sticks of dynamite were thrown on top of the ticket booth and exploded causing $25,000 in damage. The bomb denoted arond 2:30 am on January 28, 1971. The box office was also bombed in 1969 during the run of "Che!" starring Omar Sharif.

The Velet Underground and Grateful Dead

In the late 1960s the Stanley Theater again became a concert venue. Rock N Roll slowly took hold of the Stanley. One of the first rock groups to play at the Stanley was the Velvet Underground. They appeared at the Stanley in 1968. The concert reviewer wrote

"The Velvet Underground are sinister and frightening. Their songs are about heroin, amphetamine, sex, and death....By the end of the first song, people are already beginning to leave....The sound is loud, driving, and hard. The words are tough, and Lou spits them out in an atonal, vicious manner. The volume is ear splitting. A jet plane on stage would not have as profound an effect on the audience, which has by now been reduced by half. "Sister Ray" is the last song. It goes on for a full half hour. Three chords: EEE, D, A, EEE, D, A, EEE, etc. The scene is eerie. Together the band creates an apocalyptic vision of eroticism, sadomaschism, and violence that is at once seductive and terrifying. The amplifiers feed back - the building seems to be shaking right to its foundations. The theatre is all but empty.”

The Velvet Underground returned to the Stanley on February 7, 1969. The Light and Power Company presented two sold out shows with the triple bill of the Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground, and the Fugs. Paul Krasser was the MC. A bootleg live recording was made of the Grateful Dead's performance. F. D. Williams a writer for the underground newspaper the Pittsburgh Point wrote: "The Velvet Underground was more velvet than underground - smooth, soft, and sensuous...The Velvet and the audience vibrated in perfect harmony, soothed by music loud enough to reach the inner core of being without shattering the transcendence of community."

Go Attractions Rocks the Stanley 

In the early 1970s up and coming concert promoter Rich Engler of Go Attractions needed a venue to present his rock concerts. His competitor Pat DiCesare had exclusive booking right to most of the major venues in Pittsburgh such as the Civic Arena and the Syria Mosque. The only mid size venue that Engler could book was the Stanley Theater. Engler booked David Bowie, Yes, Kiss, Styx, Queen, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, King Crimson and other rock artists at the Stanley. Rich’s success caught the attention of Pat DiCesare. Pat called Rich in 1973 proposing that they join forces and split the profits 50-50. Thus DiCesare-Engler Productions was born to launch a golden age of rock concerts in Pittsburgh. With two driven promoters DiCesare-Engler became one of the top twenty grossing concert promotion companies in the US.

Cinemette Theaters Purchases the Stanley

The Pittsburgh based Cinemette Corporation acquired the Stanley Theater from RKO Stanley Warner in 1973. After forty years of use the Stanley was faded, dingy, and rundown. Cinemette invested $500,000 to renovate the theater in 1975 so that it could be used for both first run movies and live music events. The original 1928 seats were replaced. The interior was repainted and new carpeting was installed. The project also covered exterior cleaning, rewiring, and building new lounges. The backstage area was improved with new dressing rooms, a refurbished elevator. The hydraulic system that lifted the orchestra pit to the stage level was reactivated. The stage was draped with 500 yards of new red velvet curtains. New aisles were added to the auditorium that reduced the seating capacity from 3,704 to 3,491. Cinemette hired DiCesare-Engler Productions to book concerts for the Spring of 1976. A grand re-opening concert was held on February 7, 1976. Movie composer Michel Legrand conducted an orchestra of 36 Pittsburgh musicians in a benefit concert that drew 3,300 and netted $10,000 for the Variety Club charities.

DiCeare-Engler Buys the Stanley

With the Stanley looking more respectable DiCesare-Engler Productions began holding regular rock concerts there in 1976. After a few shows the owner of Cinemette approached Pat DiCesare in late 1976 asking him “Why don't you buy this place?” Pat negotiated a deal with Cinemette for over a year.  DiCesare-Engler was granted the exclusive rights to operate the theater while they negotiated its purchase. Pat and Rich moved their office into a small mirrored room on the second floor of the Stanley making the theater their headquarters. They completed the purchase of the Stanley for $1.3 million in late 1977. It was a great real estate bargain. The Stanley was built at a cost of 3 million dollars in 1927 ($38 million in 2011 dollars). They paid about $237,000 in 1927 dollars for the ornately decorated movie palace located in downtown Pittsburgh.

DiCease Engler Staff at the Stanley

Stanley Becomes Nation’s Top Theater

The Stanley quickly became one of the nation’s top popular music concert venues hosting a wide variety of major acts. During 1977 and 1978 they presented Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Hall and Oates, the Kinks, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, Harry Chapin, Donna Summer, Journey, Eddie Money, Sha Na Na, Lina Minella, Johnny Matthis, Cheap Trick and more. In 1978, only a year after the DiCesare-Engler bought it, the Stanley Theatre became the top grossing concert theater in the United States. One hundred and eight shows were booked at the Stanley in 1978.  Billboard Magazine named the Stanley the "Number One Auditorium in the U.S." and honored Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler. DicCesare-Engler won the award for the Stanley several times during the 1970s and 1980s.

A broad range of popular rock, jazz, country, funk, and folk artists performed at the Stanley during the seven years it was owned by that DiCesear-Engler. Among those artists were classic rockers the Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins, The Doobie Brothers, Crosby & Nash, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Todd Rundgren, Kenny Logins. Almond Brothers, Jethro Tull, Santana, Frank Zappa, Prince, Chicago, Pat Benetar and Bachman Turner Overdrive. For those fans with hard rock tastes the Stanley offered Van Halen, Aerosmith, AC.DC, Ozzy Osborne, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Rush, Queesryche, Judas Priest, the Scorpions, Def Leppard, Nazereth, Molly Hatchet and Triumph. Melodic AOR rock was performed by Supertramp, Asia, Air Supply, Little River Band, Gino Vaneli, Eric Carmen, and Queen. Punk / New wave artists included the Clash, Cars, Talking Heads the Pretenders, Blondie, Gary Neuman, and Devo.

The Stanley also hosted many jazz artists including Weather Report, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock, The Crusaders, Chuck Mangione, David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws and fusion band John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. R&B was offered by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Rick James, Chaka Kahn, The Pointer Sisters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Al Jarreu. Playing the blues to Pittsburgh at the Stanley were BB King and Bobby Blue Bland.

Vocalists / song writers who sang at the palace of pleasure were Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Dave Mason, and Stephen Stills. The folk singers the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Judy Collins appeared. Bringing country rock to the Stanley were the Ozark Mountain Dare Devils, Pure Prairie League, Emmy Lou Harris, Charlie Danielsm, and Bonnie Bramlett. The divas Aretha Franklin, Liza Minneli. Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson graced the Stanley’s stage. Diana Ross did five shows in February of 1977 drawing 10,000 fans. Bette Milder headlined three nights in a row in July of 1983. The crooners who sang at the Stanley included Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme Lou Rawls, Anthony Newly, Burt Bacharach, John Davidson and Frankie Vali. Early rockers Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Chubby Checkers, Country stars Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, Eddie Rabbit, Willie Nelson, Crystal Gale, Mickey Gilley, and Dolly Parton. The comedians who bought laughs to Pittsburghers at the Stanley included George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, Red Skelton Martin Mull, Charles Grodin, and Rodney Dangerfield.

Bob Marley’s Last Show 

Reggae master Bob Marley performed his last ever live concert at the Stanley on September 23, 1980, It was eight months before his death from cancer in 1981. Rich Engler received a call from Marley’s agent a day before the sold out show. The agent told Rich that Marley might not go on as he was ill. Marley had collapsed while jogging in New York’s Central Park on September 21 and was taken to a hospital. Doctors informed Marley that the cancer that he had been diagnosed with three years earlier had spread. They urged him to stop performing. Engler received another call from Marley’s agent on the day of the show telling him the band was headed to Pittsburgh. Talking to Rich backstage before the show Marley said that he had to go on because his band needed the money and he did not want to disappoint his fans. Marley went on and laid down his magnetic groove. The crowd danced to his music moving so hard the balconies shook. He sang his signature Redemption Song” was great passion. The concert was recorded and released as the album “Bob Marley Live Forever”.  A 30th anniversary of the concert was held at the Benedum on September 23, 2010. Marley’s sons Stephen, Julian, and Damian along with his daughter Cedella and wife Rita performed. Proceeds of the concert that was organized by Ed Traversari went to the Marley family charity One Love Foundation.

Broadway Comes Back to Pittsburgh

DiCesare-Engler also promoted Broadway musical productions at the Stanley Theater with a subscription series.  Show presented included California Suite with Lynn Redgave, Fiddler on the Roof with Jan Peerce, Chicago, and Pippin.  Cab Calloway who played many times at the Stanley in the 1930s and 1940s returned to star in the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar. Yul Brenner starred at the Stanley in 1980 in his signature role in "The King and I".  In 1983 the Stanley Broadway series included Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, 42nd Street, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Hello Dolly with Carol Channing.  
The Variety Club of Pittsburgh honored Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler for bringing Broadway back to Pittsburgh. 

Pittsburgh Rockers at the Stanley

The Stanley also hosted many great shows by Pittsburgh musicians. One of the most memorable was the debut of Donnie Iris “King Cool” at the Stanley on March 25, 1981. Donnie’s song “Ah Leah” was reaching the top of the charts in the country and was a smash hit on WDVE. Norman Nardini and the Granati Brothers opened the show. Donnie drove the packed house nuts with his wild singing and great stories. He became a legend in Pittsburgh that night. Donnie headlined a sold out show at the Stanley on Oct 5, 1983 with B.E. Taylor. Glam Rocker David Werner on a national tour promoting his RCA release “David Werner” headlined at the Stanley in 1979 performing his all time classic cool song “What’s Right”. The album “David Werner Live” as recorded at that show. The Iron City Houserockers opened for Ian Hunter on June 19,1979 and opened for Michael Stanley on December 31 1983. When the opening act for Hall and Oates, Black Rose with lead singer Cher didn’t appear, the Silencers took their place August 27 1980. On a break from the 54 city tour with Van Halen, the Granati Brothers opened for Def Leppard on August 11, 1981.

Stanley Comes to the Aid of Steel Workers 
During the great depression the Stanley was the site of a sold out benefit concert to aid the unemployed. Hard times returned to Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. The great steel mills of Western Pennsylvania closed their doors throwing thousands out of work. In the four county area surrounding Pittsburgh 22,000 steel workers had lost their jobs.  The once well paying jobs at the Homestead Works, The J&L in Aliquippa, and the J&L on Pittsburgh’s South side were gone forever. The former steel workers unemployment benefits were running out and thousands of homes were being confiscated in foreclosures. Members of Homestead Steelworkers Union Local 1397 including Mike Stout, Jerry Laychek, and Jay Weinberg came to the Fat City Lounge in Swissvale to ask Rick Granati of the Granati Brother band to help them organized a benefit concert. They wanted to raise funds to help the unemployed and raise awareness about their plight. Rick contacted Rich and Pat DiCesare asking for their help, DiCesera Engler graciously agreed to donate the Stanley Theater for the concert. Rick Granati also convinced WDVE to sponsor and promote the concert. Rick recruited several other Pittsburgh bands to perform. 

The Allegheny County Commissioners declared April 15, the concert day, "Support Our Steel Workers Day".  The WDVE Steel Workers Benefit Concert was held at the Stanley Theater on April 15, 1982.  The concert featured the Granati Brothers, the Iron City House Rockers, Billy Price, and Rare Experience. Jimmy and Steve of WDVE were the emcees.  Bob Garritano the "Terrible Fan" also appeared.  The CBS Evening News, the Today Show, the New York Times, La Times, AP, the UPI covered the event the focusing international attention on needs of the unemployed steel workers families. Rick Granati was interviewed on the Today Show. A story about the unemployed in Pittsburgh, that included a clip of the Iron City Houserockers performance and an interview was shown on the CBS Evening News. The Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department put a moratorium on home foreclosures. The proceeds from the concert were used to found a food bank that provided unemployed steelworkers with $60 in groceries every two weeks.  

The Stanley hosted a second local 1397 steelworkers benefit concert with Molly Hatchet on June 2, 1983.  The Union Local 1397's Mon Valley food bank led to the formation of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank which in still in operation feeding thousands of families in Western Pennsylvania.

The Stanley Showcase

DiCesare-Engler began to offer smaller shows at the Stanley in 1981. Two different formats were tried. In 1981 the basement lounge of the Stanley was remodeled adding a bar and a stage.  It was named the Stanley Star Trekers Club, held around 250 people and featured Pittsburgh bands and up and coming acts like Jim Carol.   The Stray Cats, Gary Numan, Jeff Lorber, the Iron City Houserockers, and the band Squeeze appeared in the "Stanley Showcase". A large black curtain was draped from the balcony to section off the back section of the Stanley into a smaller 1,100 seat room.  A temporary stage was built on scaffolding seats.  

Good Bye Rock N Roll – Hello High Culture

In late 1983 the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was looking for a new home for the Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh ballet. Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony was overflowing with musicians, dancer and fans. The Cultural Trust with its coffers filled with millions in foundation funds approached DiCesare-Engler with an offer to buy the Stanley. In an interview Rick Engler said that he and Pat loved the Stanley but it needed about $7 million in repairs. They sold it to the Cultural Trust for $12.1 million dollars earning a large return on their original investment of $1.3 million. The last rock concert held at the Stanley was on June 15, 1984 with Ted Nugent.

DiCesare-Engler Productions moved its concerts and offices The Syria Mosque in Oakland. They held concerts at the Mosque until it was torn down on August 27, 1991 to make way for a lovely blacktop parking lot. DiCeaser-Engler moved their shows to the Palumbo Center basket ball gym at Duquense and to the parking lot Amphitheater of Station Square. Other cities kept their rock concert theaters like the Beacon Theater in New York and the Fox in Boulder. The powers brokers of Pittsburgh relegated rock and roll to gymnasiums and parking lots. The days of watching top popular music artists in a glorious plush theater became a distant memory to Pittsburghers.

In an interview in the Post Gazette Pat DiCesare discussed the loss of the Stanley and the Syria Mosque as popular music venues. "I really miss the Stanley Theatre. The Benedum is great, but we were the people's theatre. We played events there in a nice facility that the majority wanted to see. The opera is nice. The symphony is great. But it appeals to a small segment of the population. The Palumbo is no substitute. Sure, it sounds better since they hung those curtains, but it's still a gym. Even Rich Engler admits that much. To see Tom Petty in a theater tour at the Syria Mosque or the Stanley Theatre and to see Tom Petty at the Palumbo theater, obviously the feeling cannot be the same, even if the sound is equal."  Partners in Pop - Ed Masley Pittsburgh Post-Gazette September 30, 1994

Stanley Becomes the Benedum

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust spent 43 million dollars to down size the Stanley from 3,400 seats to 2,800.  Six hundred seats were removed to expand the stage from a depth of 24 feet depth to 86 feet.  It is now the third largest theatrical stage in the U.S. The stage was deepened to hold large opera and musical sets. An Annex addition was built behind the stage to house offices and rehearsal space. The theater’s fixtures including the chandeliers and brass railings were preserved and restored to their original design. Acoustics were improved with the addition of an acoustical baffle covering the original proscenium. The seats were also replaced. The large front Marque was redone to hold the new name. The Stanley was renamed in honor of the Claude Worthington Benedum, whose foundation made the made the largest contribution for theatre remodeling. The new and current name for the Stanley is the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. The Benedum Center opened on Friday, September 25, 1987, The opening event was the show Purely Pittsburgh that featured music by Pittsburgh composers and performers with a Pittsburgh connection.

Today the Benedum Center is the home of the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust also uses the Benedum to host performances of PNC Broadway Across America series, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, CD Live, the Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents, and First Night Pittsburgh. It is one of the most utilized theaters in the nation today. 

The Benedum has also hosted several PBS television music revival concert specials including the Doo Wop 50. Actor Jeff Goldblum The Benedum Center shot his 2006 documentary film “Pittsburgh” at the Benedum while he was appearing in the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of The Music Man.