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Butler students clowning around on the stage of the newly completed Brown Theater in 1955. (Image: Butler University)

Life just seems better outdoors. During summer months, it is always enjoyable to eat dinner on one of the many restaurant patios downtown, take in a concert at ‘The Lawn’ or maybe catch a baseball game. Did you know that residents used to see “the stars under the stars” in off-Broadway musical productions on the north side of the Circle City?

According to The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, Starlight Musicals actually began in 1944 at Garfield Park with a one-off production of Pirates of Penzance.  The musical proved to be a hit with the local populace and a permanent summer theater was established. For the next ten years, Starlight Musicals rotated performances between the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the Butler Bowl.

Butler University was quite ambitious when construction on their current and final campus began in 1928. East of the iconic field house, sat the 36,000 seat “Butler Bowl” which dwarfed facilities at larger state rivals Indiana University and Purdue. In the years following World War II, it became clear the Bulldogs would not be able to compete in the upper echelons of college football, and there was no need for such a large stadium.

In 1954, the Hilton U. Brown Theatre was constructed in the south end-zone seating area of the Butler Bowl. The 4,000 seat outdoor amphitheater was named after the iconic Indianapolis newsman who was President of the Butler Board of directors. This change of venue gave Starlight Musicals a permanent home.

This rendering shows how the proposed amphitheater would be placed in the Butler Bowl (Courtesy Butler University)

This rendering shows how the proposed amphitheater would be placed in the Butler Bowl. (Image: Butler University)

The next thirty years, Starlight Musicals was a rousing success. Performances by local ensembles often featured “A-List” celebrities of the time. Some of the names to have graced the stage include: Yul Brenner, Carol Burnett, Liberace, Jack Benny, and Liza Minnelli. In 1979, a balcony was added to the theatre, along with a roof to accommodate the large crowds.

The Hilton U. Brown Theater is largely demolished in this 2005 picture but you can still make out the fan-shaped seating area. The stage would have sat atop the building in the end-zone (courtesy Butler University)

The Hilton U. Brown Theatre is largely demolished in this 2005 picture, but you can still make out the fan-shaped seating area. The stage would have sat atop the building in the end-zone. (Image: Butler University)

Tastes in popular culture can be fickle. As the 1980’s progressed, interest in expensive live musical productions waned. By 1993, it was decided that ticket sales would not cover the expenses of the upcoming season. The Starlight Musicals Board of Directors voted to cease operations shortly before the season began. For the next decade, the aging Hilton U. Brown Theater was used sporadically for various rock concerts, but largely sat empty. In 2005, facing a need for increased student housing, Butler University demolished the rapidly decaying Butler Bowl and Hilton U. Brown Theater to construct the new Apartment Village. A modern, but scaled down version of the Butler Bowl still exists in the same location.  The site of the theater features a grassy berm for football and soccer spectators.

The Butler Bowl as it appears today after a massive overhaul. The grassy area to the left would be approximately where the theater sat from 1954 until 2005 (courtesy Butler University)

The Butler Bowl as it appears today after a massive overhaul. The grassy area to the left would be approximately where the theater sat from 1954 until 2005. (Image: Butler University)

Did you ever attend any performances at the Hilton U. Brown Theatre?

15 responses to “At Your Leisure: Theater Under the Stars”

  1. Sharon L. Koepper says:

    My husband and I enjoyed many nights of entertainment under the stars at Starlight. Back then we “got dressed up,” heels, best dress for me, suit with tie and dress shoes for my husband. As a young person, I dreamed (that’s all it ever became) of being able to play the piano like Liberace. He was quite the showman, but how his fingers could bring out the brilliance of the piano was what I admired. We still reminisce about first seeing a particular musical…over and over it was at Starlight. And, I don’t remember ever being rained out…I do remember it being cold enough for a blanket a couple of times. Good, good memories. Thanks.

  2. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    Attended many a fireworks display there as well as Starlight Musicals. Kansas City Missouri had Starlight Musicals at an outdoor theater at Swope Park as well…

  3. John Booher says:

    I was an usher at Starlight Musicals in the mid 60’s. Thank you for your article and the memories!

  4. Tom Davis says:

    I never attended any of the Starlight Musicals, but I did see Lyle Lovett there in its waning years. Sam Bush was among the band members and I’m not sure I’ve seen a better ensemble of musicians since.

  5. Rob Heighway says:

    I worked there as an usher in 1980. We not only showed the people to their seats, but we also wiped them off, even though the roof was covering them by then. People would always tip us, and I could make pretty good money. That summer I saw Sammy Davis Jr., Rita Moreno, Florence Henderson, Stephen Stills, A Chorus Line, South Pacific, and several other shows. It was a good summer job for a high school kid.

  6. Karen Webster says:

    In 1973 I auditioned for a chorus part in a touring production of The Music Man that was coming to Starlight. Touring shows would often hire local actors for chorus parts. I won the part of Amaryllis and got to appear on stage with Peter Marshall as Harold Hill, Linda Michelle as Marion Paroo, Marcia Lewis as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn and Lonnie Burr (the Mousketeer) as Marcellus. It was a fantastic opportunity. The producers had already decided to take the local boy John Steele who was playing Winthrop on the eastern leg of the tour. Linda Michelle really liked me and got them to take me along on tour too! So I traveled with my mother for the whole summer. We played Toledo, Atlanta, Norfolk and Cohasset, MA. Starlight was a great theatre. My high school graduation was there (LC ’81) and I saw Richard Harris in Camelot. I took my kids there shortly before it was torn down and we wandered all over the stage, the rehearsal hall, the dressing rooms. It was a unique and one of a kind place. It will always have a special place in my heart.

  7. Jack Boeldt says:

    In 1958 or ’59 my part time boss, who had been one of my teachers in high school, gave me tickets to SOUTH PACIFIC. I think the main characters were from the Broadway production. It was the first professional musical for me, and much to my surprise I was thrilled. One of the young Asian dancers lived right down the street from us, and had parts in the few other Starlight Musicals we got to see. My day job work mentor was a major Butler basketball fan and our “work” often routed us to the Butler area – especially when the State High School Tourney was in progress. We had “lunch” in the Fieldhouse during Semi-state practice sessions, and checked out the activities at the theater. It was amazing how fast the prop painter produced the painted-in background scenery for the upcoming musical.

  8. Jeff Kamm says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing all of these great memories. Like Tom I never got to see any of the Starlight Musical productions but did see Los Lobos and John Prine together in the late 90s. During the performance I couldn’t help but think it was a shame that such a unique venue went largely unused. It was definitely a better set-up than any of the outdoor venues we have today.

  9. Mick Williams says:

    Like others who commented before me, I also worked one summer (1962) as an usher at Starlight Musicals. It was my first job after high school and although in the evenings, was rather demanding as I was required to work seven nights per week, for the duration of the season, which as I recall was six weeks. As an usher I directed guests to their seats, wiping those clean as it was open air at the time, and yes, accepted tips. Being near the end of a more formal era, our mandatory dress was black trousers, a white shirt with black bow-tie, and ushers’ hat, something like a 1940s bus driver would have worn.

    Despite mediocre pay, the advantage was being able to watch the performances night after night. Long after that summer, I continued to be a patron, a paying customer with wife and/or family through the next three decades. I also fondly remember the programs, especially Liberace, Richard Harris in Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man, and others. Over the years, I’ve searched the Web and found very little concerning Starlight Musicals, but recently noticed Indianahistory.org has the Margot Eccles collection, wide in scope, a tribute to it’s place in Indianapolis culture and history.

  10. Rick Dawson says:

    I was an usher at Starlight Musicals for two summers, 1969 and 1970. We used to joke that we were dressed like milkmen, with the bow tie and white policeman-style hat. While the hourly rate was not extraordinary, the tips were good for a high school kid, especially after a rain (the seats would need extra wiping) and once one had earned the seniority to work the higher-priced sections. My love of the productions certainly helped inspire me to a 30-year career working as a musician in the showroom orchestras at the casinos in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

  11. Anonymous says:

    5

  12. Gary SWEENEY says:

    I will always remember playing football against Butler at the Butler Bowl while at Indiana Central (UIndy). We would use the dressing room that the entertainers used for our locker room. It was kind of weird , but also cool to hear a pep talk in a room that had mirrors with makeup lights around them Great memories.

  13. Curt says:

    I enjoyed many performances at Starlight. We met Richard Harris backstage after his performance in Camelot. One night as we were waiting to be seated, I turned to my right to find Bob Newhart standing next to me. Great memories.

  14. Toni says:

    I will always remember seeing Richard Harris in Camelot there! And in its last years, seeing the Everly Brothers and being sad because of the low attendance and how it must have made them feel.

  15. Eric Strickland says:

    I had small parts in Flower Drum Song starring Juanita Hall (1962), The King and I starring Patricia Morrison (1963) South Pacific starring Janet Blair (1965), Gypsy starring Gisele MacKenaie (1967), The King and I starring Anne Blythe (1968), and Oliver starring Sid Ceasar (1970).

    Most of my brothers and sisters also had parts in some of these shows, and in many others where I wasn’t cast.
    There would be a week of day-long rehearsals followed by a week of night-time performances in front of the crowd.

    So many great memories for everyone in my family.

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