The year 1964 was a big one in Peninsula show business history. Both San Carlos and Burlingame brought the curtain up on theater-in-the-round.
All that’s left of the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos are the words “Circle Star” on the street sign that marks Circle Star Way, now a complex of offices. Decades ago, the spot drew some of the biggest names in entertainment. The list of luminaries included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Tony Bennett. The Hyatt in Burlingame sits vacant.
The Circle Star’s run started just a month or so after the Hyatt debuted. Circle Star producers Sammy Lewis and Danny Dare claimed their $2.5 million venue was the largest, most comfortable, and best equipped theater-in-the-round in the nation. Most importantly, none of the 3,743 seats was more than 50 feet from the round, rotating stage. There was no worry about a blocked view. The moving stage had its problems, however. Some stars complained of vertigo or feeling seasick. Singer Emmylou Harris became so disoriented during a performance she fell off and landed in the audience.
The Circle Star seemed to have everything going for it when it opened in October of 1964 with Jane Powell starring in “My Fair Lady,” soon to be followed by “Damn Yankees” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” The run of musicals, however, failed to generate much excitement at the box office, so management decided to turn to celebrity shows featuring the likes of Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the Three Stooges played the Circle Star.
Ben Campbell was on the staff when the theater opened and worked there for two years, mainly as a ticket taker and usher. Calling the Circle Star “excellent,” he said he had fond memories of Nat King Cole, Garland and Johnny Mathis but felt Tom Jones “was the best.”
The Hyatt debuted to less than rave reviews on Sept. 15, 1964, with “Flower Drum Song” starring Pat Suzuki. One critic compared the performance to a USO show with a captitve audience. In addition, the 2,500-seat facility was lambasted for having “a dangle of microphones” hanging over the actors on stage. According to the Burlingame Historical Society, plastic glasses were used to serve beer and wine and there was a charge for parking. Other complaints included lack of a checkroom for coats, insufficient drinking facilities and poor air conditioning. Even shows featuring such stars as Mary Martin in “South Pacific” couldn’t save the Hyatt’s live shows. The complex was converted to a movie house a decade after it opened.
Cinema Treasures, a website favored by movie house fans, ran a posting by “Paul in New York” who recounted his experience at the Hyatt.
“As a kid, I saw Peter Pan with Kathryn Crosby,” he wrote. “It couldn’t compare with the Circle Star in San Carlos.” Live theater failed and the building was converted to a movie house with more than one screen. The result was "terrible." He said he watched the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” but heard the soundtrack of the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” creep into the theater.
The Circle Star foreclosed in 1993. By then, the San Carlos City Council had approved plans to tear down the theater to make way for office buildings. The show house was demolished in 1997 in a three-day operation that drew what the Redwood City Tribune described as “the curious and sentimental,” among them Doug Caraway, a former sound man at the Circle Star, who was able to salvage a piece of dressing room wall on which was written: “May 1991-Sinatra.”
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.