Writer / Kara Kavensky, for Broad Ripple Magazine
In 1963, Gary Hofmeister was the leading actor/singer in a USO Show traveling through Greenland, Newfoundland and Labrador. On the day that President Kennedy was killed (November 22, 1963), he was hired to travel with the New York-based company of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Upon joining the resident company of Starlight Musicals, Gary was, in essence, the “unofficial” understudy for the leading role of Finch. Several years later when this show was running with Van Johnson as the major star along with Warren Berlinger as Finch, the show was delayed for over a half hour.
Rumors circulated backstage that Berlinger had gone to New York during the day, and airplane mechanical trouble developed. Gary went to the production stage manager to ask what they were going to do if Berlinger didn’t make it. The stage manager said laughingly, “I don’t know. Do you know the part?” Gary said he did indeed. “Stand by!”
The next thing Gary heard was the announcement that rather than keep the audience waiting, they would begin the show with him as Finch. About 45 minutes later, the police escort rushed Berlinger to the theater who took over the remainder of the show. Thus ended the one and only time an understudy, albeit unplanned, took over a starring role at Starlight Musicals.
It’s been 50 years since Gary Hofmeister took to the Starlight Musicals stage in that brief understudy emergency. Starlight Theater was known for its big name acts and performers of the day. Starlight, which began at Garfield Park in 1944, wandered around for the next decade until opening at Butler in 1955.
Robert L. Young Jr. was offered the general manager’s job in 1962 but accepted it only if he could initiate the “Star System.” Bob had earned his reputation during the 50s when he was an officer in the Air Force booking stars of the caliber of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis for the troops. Bob was in his early 30s when he took over Starlight.
The first star was Carol Burnett which sent the theater off and running. The lines to the box office were all the way out to 49th Street. The norm was to hire at least one big star to draw in the public and then use secondary yet highly talented performers for the other principal roles. After that came the resident company mostly drawn from New York but even some local performers for the chorus and minor principal roles were included. All were professional Actor’s Equity members. There were no amateurs on the Starlight stage.
Nearly everyone said that Bob Young had a “pact with God” because there were so few “rain outs” during the 30 years he led the theater. The seats were almost all out in the open, hence living up to its name. Nevertheless, the board decided to add a roof covering most of the audience in the late ’80s as a safeguard against the weather. Some felt it took away the ambiance and just might have added to the downfall of the venture.
As the “Golden Age of Musical Comedy” was essentially from 1943 with “Oklahoma” to “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, it became increasingly difficult to find new shows to add to the old favorites, likely to have been written by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.
Bob described how the board reacted to his suggestions for each new season. If he recommended one of the great old stand-bys such as the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” “The Sound of Music” or “The King and I,” they would say, “Oh, it’s too early to do that again. We had it just three or four years ago.” But if he brought up a new show that had a lot of promise, the Board would counter with “nobody’s heard of that.”
During the last decade of Starlight Musicals, many new theaters opened in Indianapolis. And though most were amateur, the fact is that amateur theaters were becoming much better in every way from the venues to the sets and acting. Theatergoers had more options with the risk of weather factoring in as well.
Starlight Musicals was a “guarantor” theater whereby numerous individuals would agree to underwrite any losses if the season was not profitable. One of Bob’s greatest joys was to announce at the end of the final show of the summer that no guarantors would be called on to pony up. At the end of the ’80s and into the early ’90s, that changed. It was a bright red flag that eventually turned into the black flag for the closing of this beloved institution.
From 2004-2006, Bob joined Gary on a weekly radio program on WFYI, titled “Broadway Memories: Music and the Stars.” They highlighted the great music from Broadway for most of the program, but it was their color commentary and stories about the great shows and personalities of the time that listeners loved to hear. Of course, many of the shows and performers had performed at Starlight Musicals.
One famous story is that of Yul Brynner performing in “The King and I.” Young picked up Brynner and his son from the airport, and Brynner had a horrible cold and could hardly speak. Bob was bereft of speech discovering his star was ill. Brynner, however, reassured Bob that his son had an identical voice and would perform from the orchestra pit while Brynner moved his lips. It worked. The audience was not the wise, and the show was a success.
One day in 2007, Bob and Gary were having lunch when Bob leaned across the table and said to Gary, “Do you know what’s happening as we sit here?” Gary shrugged, for he didn’t have a clue. Bob continued, “They are tearing down Starlight. A reporter called to ask if I wanted to have my picture taken amidst the rubble. I declined.“
“No surprise,” says Gary, reflecting on that moment. “Even though Bob went on to produce and book traveling Broadway shows all over the world, there was no doubt that the 30+ years he managed one of the best summer theaters in the country was really his baby. He had no desire to see the wrecking ball make it disappear.”