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.
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.
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.”
Go Attractions Rocks the Stanley
Cinemette Theaters Purchases the Stanley
DiCeare-Engler Buys the Stanley
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 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
Broadway Comes Back to Pittsburgh
The Variety Club of Pittsburgh honored Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler for bringing Broadway back to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Rockers at the Stanley
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
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 BenedumThe 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.
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.
King Film is Marred by Threats - Spokane Daily Chronicle March 25, 1970
Jet - White Hope Theater Bombed in Pittsburgh- Feb 18, 1971
Life Begins Again at 48 for the Stanley George Anderson Pittsburgh Post Gazette Feb 9, 1976
Coming Attractions -George Anderson Pittsburgh Post Gazette Jan 15, 1976
Stanley sale deal near - Ed Blank Pittsburgh Press July 9, 1977
What's Happening at the Stanley? -George Anderson Pittsburgh Post Gazette Dec 6 1977
Stanley Theater Sets Big Broadway Series - Pittsburgh Post Gazette June 16, 1978
Top Draws of 1978 -Mike Kalina Pittsburgh Post Gazette January 5, 1979
Stanley to Offer 5 Major Shows in First Subscription Series - Pittsburgh Press, Sept 2, 1980
Stanley Series Trying to Get '42nd Steet -Pittsburgh Press June 19, 1983
Stanley Club is Ready to Rock -Bill Stieg Pitsburgh Post Gazette Feb 5, 1981
Stanley Showcase -Observer Reporter June 24, 1982
Stanley Showcase Prospers Inside Stanley Threatre Billboard Oct 30. 1982
DiCesare-Engler line up mosque acts -Pete Bishop Pittsburgh Press June 9, 1984
Partners in Pop - Ed Masley Pittsburgh Post-Gazette September 30, 1994
Rockin' For Steel's Jobless - Jerry Vondas Pittsburgh Press, March 30, 1982
Local Bands Donate Concert of Aid Unemployed Steel Workers -Boddan Hodiak Pittsburgh Post Gazette April 12, 1982
Jobless Steelworkers Must Stick Together -Bob Dvorchak Associated Press September 4, 1983
Reggae legend's final concert-By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette September 23, 2010