Valley entertainment spanned opera house to amphitheater

Staff report

When it comes to producing entertainment, Youngstown has never taken a back seat to any city.

Over the past century and more, The Vindicator was there for every milestone and important moment.

Here’s a look at 15 of those events:

1872: Located on the southwest corner of Central Square. The Grand Opera House opens, becoming the city’s first true theater. Movies were first shown in the venue in 1900. In 1907, Sam Warner – one of the four original Warner Brothers who would go on to become movie moguls – began showing films at the Grand. The opera house closed in 1918 and was demolished a few years later.

May 30, 1899: Idora Park opens on Youngstown’s South Side, built by a streetcar company as a way to increase ridership, in what was then an undeveloped area. The park would become a focal point of leisure time as Youngstown grew into an industrial powerhouse. A 1984 fire destroyed the park’s Lost River ride, part of the Wildcat roller coaster, the park office and most of the lower midway. The park did open for the season that year, but permanently closed at the end of the 1984 season.

1919: The Butler Institute of American Art is founded by local industrialist and art collector Joseph G. Butler, becoming the first museum dedicated exclusively to American art. Celebrating its centennial this year, the Butler would steadily expand its collection as well as its physical plan, and now enjoys a stature of preeminence. One thing that has remained constant is its policy of free admission, set forth by its founder.

Dec. 5, 1926: Founded by businessman Henry H. Stambaugh, this concert hall was built as a gift to Youngstown and boasts outstanding acoustics. The architecturally stunning edifice has hosted scores of national acts over the years, and has been renovated several times. Its massive E.M. Skinner Co. pipe organ was overhauled and reinstalled in 2011, capping a two-year project.

May 14, 1931: The Warner Theater opens, part of chain of theaters operated by the famed Warner Brothers, who were from Youngstown. Its ornate theater operated until 1968, when it closed and was scheduled for demolition. After a public outcry decrying the potential loss, the Edward W. Powers family donated money to preserve the structure. It reopened in 1969 as the home of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.

Sept. 9, 1939: For the first time, people attend a live broadcast from the new WFMJ radio station. The 275-member audience is treated to a performance by Paul Whiteman, the Modernaires and Clark Dennis.

Jan. 11, 1953: WKBN-TV goes on the air, becoming the city’s first television station. Just 56 days later, WFMJ-TV would begin broadcasting.

Oct. 7, 1994: Legendary singer Tony Bennett, who is also an accomplished painter, opens his first museum exhibition of his work at the Butler institute of American Art. Bennett would go on to become the second concert at the then-Chevrolet Centre (now Covelli Centre) in 2005, and have other exhibitions at the Butler.

Jan. 12, 1996: With Youngstown at perhaps its lowest point economically after the collapse of the steel industry, rock ’n’ roll star Bruce Springsteen performs a solo concert at Stambaugh Auditorium. The city was selected for the tour because Springsteen wrote a song, “Youngstown,” for his “Ghost of Tom Joad” album that was a first-person lament of a former steelworker who has watched his city’s demise.

November 2004: Legislation passes creating the Youngstown Arts and Entertainment District. Thanks to the efforts of a group of downtown lawyers and businessmen, the state creates a geographical district in the central city in which 13 new liquor licenses would be made available for the low price of $2,300 apiece. The district received little fanfare, but was directly responsible for the rebirth of downtown Youngstown as an entertainment district. Almost immediately, new bars and restaurants began to open. Before the district was created, downtown Youngstown was a ghost town of empty buildings with practically no bars or public buildings.

Oct. 19, 2005: Chevrolet Centre opens (now known as Covelli Centre). The 5,900-seat multi-use downtown arena had a price tag of $26 million. The first concert was by rock act Three Doors Down. The arena has since hosted scores of concerts, ice shows, circuses and other events, and is the home of the Youngstown Phantoms hockey team.

Sept. 17, 2014: Mahoning Valley Race Course and Casino opens in Austintown. The facility boasts 1,000 video lottery machines, a food court and restaurant, and a bar with live entertainment, as well as a horse-racing track and an area for off-track simulcast betting.

Aug. 24, 2017: The Zac Brown Band plays at Stambaugh Stadium on the campus of Youngstown State University, becoming the first major concert at the football stadium. The concert drew more than 15,000 people. The following year, a concert at the stadium drew more than 20,000 people, becoming the largest concert ever to take place in the city.

May 7, 2019: Actor Ed O’Neill, who grew up in Youngstown and attended Youngstown State University, becomes the king of TV sitcoms, surpassing reigning champ Lucille Ball with his 494th episode. O’Neill’s impressive feat included 262 episodes of “Married With Children.” He broke the record with his 232nd episode of “Modern Family.” O’Neill is just one of many Youngstowners who went on to fame as actors and musicians. The list includes, among others, the late Joe Flynn (“McHale’s Navy” on ABC), and actor-singer Maureen McGovern.

June 14, 2019: Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre opens with a free open house and a concert featuring local bands, including Geo C and Tha Storm. The first paid event was to be a concert by Michael Stanley and the Resonators and Donnie Iris and the Cruisers the following night, but it was postponed due to rain. The first paid event therefore became rapper Gucci Mane, who drew a large crowd to the 4,500-capacity venue.