For Those About to Rock
In a few hours the J. Geils Band will be gearing up for a two-hour show on Westbury’s revolving stage. But for now, the space is empty aside from a trio of roadies sound-checking the band’s equipment. And of course, Stone.
The father of three speaks passionately and affectionately about the venue and its humble beginnings, tracing a timeline that both chronicles and mirrors many of his own life’s milestones.
The seeds for today’s Westbury venue were planted in Devon, Pa. That’s where partners Frank Ford, Lee Guber and Shelly Gross kicked in $100,000 to lease land for what would become the Valley Forge Music Fair in 1955.
Ford and Guber were inspired after they’d gone to a musical show held in a tent the year before and believed they could do a far better job. With Gross on board, the trio’s moxy paid off, when on June 23, 1955, a Broadway road company staged a performance of the musical Guys and Dolls, starring Pat Harrington and Marilyn Ross, with a cameo by then-local personality Ed McMahon. The inaugural Valley Forge season netted them more than $50,000 in profits, so they decided to expand to the Island.
On June 18, 1956, beneath a tent set up in an industrial area of Westbury, the 10-week season opened with a performance of The King and I, starring Charles Korvin and Constance Carpenter. It was a tremendous success.
A decade later, Ford was out of the picture, and Guber and Gross decided in 1966 to build a 3,000-seat building, transforming the venue from being seasonal to staying open year-round. It was also around then that bookings ventured beyond comedians, musicals and Vegas-affiliated acts (which continue to be a staple to this day) and started encompassing more contemporary acts, such as the Jackson Five and Jethro Tull.
Westbury Music Fair couldn’t have come along at a better time. Suburbia was exploding by leaps and bounds and Long Islanders needed a venue to call their own.
“Westbury meant more to Long Island than it did to the rest of the country,” veteran music industry analyst Bob Grossweiner tells the Press. “There was nothing happening on Long Island at the time. This was an important venue. It was like the Supper Club of Long Island without the supper. Jack Benny, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett are the acts that have always played here. When The Who and The Doors were coming through back in around 1968, there were no other places for them to play, theoretically.”
Among the young fans whose tastes made the leap from pop to rock and roll was respected entertainment journalist Wayne Robins, whose career found him filling the role of Newsday’s resident rock critic for two decades before becoming a published author and teaching writing at NYU.
“The first show I saw at Westbury was probably The Doors in 1968,” he recalls. “Like a lot of rock bands, they seemed spooked by the theatre-in-the-round idea, but they adjusted pretty quickly. I also saw the original aggregation of Steely Dan in 1972, just as ‘Do It Again’ was breaking big on pop radio. I looked at [bandmates Donald] Fagen and [Walter] Becker and said, ‘Wait, I know these guys! I’d gone to Bard College (the subject of “Reelin’ in the Years”) with them.’ At this show, by the way, Steely Dan was the opening act, for Cheech & Chong.”
Enter Stone, whose love affair with Westbury began with an introduction to Gross and Guber in 1974.
At that time, the Music Fair Group consisted of eight theatres up and down the East Coast, from Miami to Massachusetts—all designed as theatres in the round. It was a unique concept at the time, Stone says, and he was smitten. He joined the group as a “runner”—the guy who’d get coffee, drop off artists at the airport and make Xerox copies—the bottom rung in the entertainment business.
“At the time there wasn’t an amphitheater circuit,” he explains. “Amphitheaters were playing the New Jersey opera and ballet. They weren’t playing rock shows, per se. Every once in a while there would be one. But I knew that I wanted to be in the concert business and the only concert business in the adult contemporary world outside of Las Vegas—there wasn’t even Atlantic City at the time—was these Music Fair Theatres.
“You’d have an artist, like say, Tom Jones, [who] would play Vegas residencies but had nowhere else to play,” he says. “So in the summer, he would play a week in Westbury, a week at the Valley Forge Theatre in Pennsylvania, a week in Baltimore and a week in Massachusetts. So we had theatres that could take up the whole summer.
“What they were doing was buying eight weeks of Tom Jones playing eight Music Fairs and it was a Broadway schedule back then,” he continues. “It was the only mentality. So he would play an eight-show week in six days—there’d be a matinee on Wednesdays and on Saturdays, and he’d have the Monday off where they’d travel to another theater. That would be a travel day and then they’d do another full week. He’d play eight weeks of Music Fair, go on tour for us and that’s the way it evolved.”
With their solid reputation for bringing MOR [Middle of the Road] acts such as Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney to LI audiences, Guber, who died in March 1988, and Gross, who passed away in June 2009, soon brought an array of artists spanning various genres onto Westbury’s stage. With them came priceless anecdotes from countless rock and roll adventures throughout the years.
One such tale, as recounted by Stone, involves Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard on a double-bill that found “The Killer” himself deciding to fly up from Nashville in his own plane only to be waylaid.
“We are setting up the stage for the evening show and Little Richard is sound-checking around 6 p.m.,” Stone recalls. “I get a call from the airfield in Memphis that Jerry Lee ran out of gas when leaving Nashville and had to land in Memphis to fuel up the plane. He would be in Westbury as early as possible. We started the show at 8:30 p.m. Little Richard was scheduled to perform for one hour that night. He stayed on stage and sang and played piano for two and a half hours. We had a police escort at Republic Airport when Jerry Lee landed at 10:45 p.m. They rushed him over and he took the stage, singing ‘Great Balls Of Fire,’ at 11:30 p.m. and did his whole show, ending at 1 a.m.”
Another time, legendary rock and roll guitarist Chuck Berry was the victim of poor directions—something many Long Islanders can relate to.
“Chuck Berry was scheduled to play at Westbury; everything all set up for the show,” adds Stone. “[His back-up] band was rehearsing and the opening act, a comedian, was set to start the show. I get a call at 7 p.m. and it’s Chuck Berry. He says he is lost. He thought the theater was in Westbury, Connecticut—two hours away from Long Island. The comedian went on for an hour, and we had a one-hour intermission. Chuck got to the theater at 10 p.m. and had a great show. On his contract with the agency, he showed me that they mistakenly wrote, ‘Address of Venue—Westbury, Connecticut.’”
While some may characterize Westbury’s revolving stage as an odd way to view a show, the space lends itself to an undeniable extra degree of intimacy. Performers often enter by walking down one of the many aisles sloping toward the stage—perhaps none so memorably as Morrison—giving the artists more chances to interact with the audience, such as when blues legend Buddy Guy, a frequent guest, employs a lengthy cord that runs from his amplifier to his guitar and makes his way through the crowd toward the rear doors in the middle of his set. It’s an attribute that Robins says makes the venue a very special place.
“The best thing about Westbury, aside from free parking, is the intimacy,” the music critic explains. “There’s not a bad seat in the house, and even if you are in the last row, the performers remain life-sized and feel close enough to touch. Diana Ross once came out into the audience, sat on my lap, and handed me the microphone for ‘Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.’
“It was a terrifying cosmic moment for a critic,” Robins adds with a laugh.
Stone spent nearly 30 years with the Music Fair Group, moving up the ranks, and by 1982, he became the booker for its string of venues.
In 1990 he attempted to buy the three remaining music fairs—Baltimore, Pennsylvania and Westbury—but fell short due to a lack of capital. Following the advice of Miles Wilkin, the head of Pace Concerts—which ran Philadelphia’s E Center Amphitheatre, New Jersey’s PNC Center and Jones Beach—Stone left the Music Fair Group for three years, returning in 1996 and offering to buy Westbury. By this time, Gross had lost the note on Valley Forge to the bank.
Stone was initially rebuffed, but a meeting with longtime friend and legendary promoter Ron Delsner led him to investor Bob Sillerman, the future head of SFX Entertainment.
“I pitched [Sillerman] on what my plan was for Westbury and why I thought it was a viable purchase, and he had the check for me the next day,” Stone tells the Press. “He eventually bought Delsner Entertainment and me. We all got rolled up into the second purchase of SFX. So we became the second purchase in the SFX rollup as it’s called now by all the promoters. Bob Sillerman is the one who gave Delsner the money and me the money to buy Westbury. In turn, I put [up] my company, Westbury Music Fair at the time, and rolled it into Delsner/Slater, which was the big rock promoter in New York.”
Nowadays, what is now called NYCB Theatre at Westbury has gone far beyond its humble origins as a multi-colored tent pitched in an abandoned lime pit.
Tags: Carle Place, Chuck Berry, Cover Story, Doors, featured, featured-scroll, Frank Sinatra, Jason Stone, John Tesh, Judy Garland, live nation, Long Island, Nina Simone, NYCB Theatre at Westbury, Rockville Centre, Steve Vai, westbury, Westbury Music Fair, WHO