DiCesare-Engler Concerts
Click here to go back to DiCesare-Engler home page

"DiCesare-Engler Amphitheatre" by Pat DiCesare
The story about how Pittsburgh almost had a 20,000 seat amphitheatre just 20 minutes North of the city, and the beginning of Star Lake Amphitheatre.

     1984 was a transitional year in my career.  For 7 years, we owned and operated the most successful theatre (Billboard #1) in the country – the Stanley Theatre (now Benedum Center).  I always referred to it as “the people’s theatre.”  While Heinz Hall was praised for their latest production of “Don Giovanni” that performed for a “cultured” black-tie crowd, we were welcoming the DVE listening, jeans/t-shirt wearing, music enthusiast to drink a beer and listen to their favorite rock act.  We, of course, also won the award for “Bringing Broadway Back to Pittsburgh,” and you could drink a beer for that show too.  The Stanley was an incredible success, and DiCesare-Engler was one of the top 10 grossing concert promoters in the country.  But, in 1984, after a year of quiet negotiations, we sold the Stanley.  I had lots of time to reflect on the future of our business, and I had one pervading thought – how were we going to top the Stanley? 

     There was a new concept in concert venues at that time – the outdoor amphitheatre.  This type of venue was traditionally used for symphony orchestras or perhaps country music.  The Civic Arena was originally built with the retractable roof for the CLO, but it really never caught on.  I always thought that Pittsburgh should have an amphitheatre.  People could sit out on the lawn, spread out a blanket, stretch out their legs, and listen to some music. Venues like Tanglewood Amphitheatre in Boston were the protégé for a trend to come.  Arena rock acts would become amphitheatre rock acts.  Today, it seems like every major media market has a 20,000 seat amphitheatre.  Back then there were only a handful of these venues.  

    So, when the Stanley sale became public, I went to Mayor Caligiuri and said, “You have heard that the Stanley has been sold.  I have a plan that I think will be a great cultural and architectural contribution to our city.  DiCesare-Engler would like to build an amphitheatre and festival grounds on the North Shore next to Three Rivers Stadium.”  He liked the idea, and he led me to the city planning commission.  I had my first taste of stifling bureaucracy.  They told me how traffic could never be accommodated, the public would never accept the noise, there wasn’t enough parking, etc.  I quickly sensed that building an amphitheatre in the city would be improbable in the next 5 years or possibly ever. 

     In the meantime, I was scanning the Sunday adds for land in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.  What many do not know is that DiCesare-Engler was always divided between the promotion business and the real estate business.  There was DiCesare-Engler Productions, but there was also DiCesare-Engler Development Corp.  This part of the business ventured in real estate acquisitions, such as buying the Stanley Theatre.  DiCesare-Engler also owned a staging company called Premier Stage that could build stages from the ground up.  It was used, for instance, if we had to build a stage on a football field for a concert on a college campus.  The staging company was actually developed to build the stage at Three Rivers when the stadium show was a new phenomenon.  If I could find a nice plot of land that made a natural amphitheatre bowl shape, I could build a stage and be up and running within a few months. 

 

MUDDY CREEK

     The first plot of land that I bought was in Muddy Creek Township north of Zelionople on I-79.  I was able to get 88 acres of land with frontage on 79 close to an exit.  It was kind of far out of Pittsburgh, and it was a small piece of land.  Premier Stage could get us a simple structure, and we could do a few small shows there in the summer to test the market.  But, I had to get a permit.  I went to the local planning commission.  They said, “Well now let’s see.  We did have some people come up here and want to do those motor bike shows.  We didn’t much like those people, and I don’t know if we’d like your people either.”  I wasn’t crazy about the location, so I didn’t bother to push the issue. 

 

BURGETTSTOWN

     Around 1984-1985, I saw an ad one day for 1000 acres in Burgettstown.  A guy named John Oliver was the seller.  The Oliver name is notable in Pittsburgh, and John was in charge of the Western PA Conservancy.  It was an organization that owned large tracts of land that were maintained for animals.  The land was generally in locations that had no potential for growth.  When I called John, he understood what I wanted to build. He suggested that I fly over the land in a helicopter.  John introduced me to his neighbor Ray Bologna.  Ray was in the coal business.  He mined coal and had a lot of mining equipment.  He also owned a helicopter, and agreed to take me for a ride to show me the land.  Ray was very happy to work with me.  We really hit it off from the beginning.  I really liked him.  He was a down to earth guy.  As we were flying together, Ray asked what I wanted to do with all the land.  Ray wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of building an amphitheatre, so I explained what I needed: a bowl shape, water and sewage, electricity, access to a highway, level parking lot, etc.  He responded, “Sounds like you would need a lot of earth moving.  You know I have 150 acres next door and a lot of equipment.  Why don’t you look at my land?  I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  If you give me $.25 for every head that comes to your amphitheatre, I’ll let you use my land and I’ll move the dirt.”  Well, that was a tremendous deal.  The cost of moving the dirt would be more than the cost of the land itself.  I may have needed 1 million cubic yards of dirt moved, and I knew that at a rate of $1-$5 dollars per cubic yard this alone would cost me millions of dollars.  I was ready to sign on the dotted line before we landed the helicopter.   

     We landed the helicopter and moved over this shack that was his office.  He had about 3 engineers working in the office. He explained what I wanted to do and they all were really excited.  “When do you want to do this?” Ray asked.   “I’d like to have the first show in June” I responded.  I immediately went to work on the planning stages.  I remember calling Bruce Springsteen’s technical director and asked him to come and review my plans.  He came as a technical advisor, and he really liked the idea.  One day, I got a call from the excavator.  He said, “hey Pat, I have a guy from the DEP who says that I have to stop the job.”  “What do you mean you’re on the job?  Ray didn’t tell me that he was digging.  You’ll have to stop the job until we get the permit.”    I called Ray who started swearing up and down – “what do you mean you stopped the job!  Everyone who works at that township works for me in the coal yard.  You tell them to start digging.”   I went to Ray and insisted that we were going to need a permit.  Together, we went to the township building to see what still needed to be done.  Well, there were multiple problems that Ray had previously told me that we did not need to worry about.  I guess that times had changed from the era that old Ray knew.  The woman from the township explained, “your land is not zoned properly.  You didn’t submit a plan.”  I pulled Ray aside from the window and said, “Ray, we had the engineers?  We were working on the plans.”  “The hell with them!  We don’t need any plans” Ray proclaimed.  She continued, “You’re going to need traffic studies.”  It was a real eye opener, and I no longer think that Ray was enjoying the inconvenience of doing business with our local government.   

     Times were getting tough for Ray.  The price of coal started to go down.  It was previously at an all time high.  As business worsened, he seemed to lose interest in the project.  We had a falling out, and I abandoned those plans.  Though, I am happy to say that years later Ray actually did get into the business.  He converted his car dealership near Burgettstown into a small concert venue.  His son, who is named Ray, now operates the Pepsi Roadhouse on that spot.  I do remember Ray telling me during the helicopter ride that he had a college aged son that was interested in the music business. 

 

CRANBERRY

     One day I got a call from Eddie Lewis.  I had never met him before, but Eddie was into big time building and development.  He and some partners operating out of Florida built the South Hills Village and the Monroeville Mall.  He wanted to meet with me at the Stanley to discuss an idea.  He said, “I have Ben Vereen and I’d like to bring him to your theatre.  Can I meet with you?”  Ed Lewis was a charming guy.  He was a big deal.  You could tell that he was a mover and a shaker.  He met me in my office and explained, “You know Pete Flaherty is running for governor.  I want to do a fund raiser.  I need a first class job, and I want you to make a contribution and give me the theatre.  In my mind I’m thinking, “What advantage is this to me?”  I thought, “I could use a favor from the governor.”  So I gave him the theatre and the show was very successful.  Flaherty lost, but Ed still owed me a favor.  A few years later, I called him and explained my amphitheatre idea.  I figured that if anyone knew the right location to put an amphitheatre it would be Eddie.  He turned me on to some guys in the know in the Pittsburgh area.  Their response was, “There is only one answer to your question – you have to go to Cranberry Township.  It won’t come around for 10 years, but it’s going to come.  They will be building I-279, and Cranberry to Pittsburgh is going to be a 20 minute straight shot.  Grab land in southern Butler County.”  This was back in 1986.

    So, I worked with a real estate agent named Chris Stover.  He helped me to search for land in Cranberry, and we quickly found about 300 acres for sale located near 228 and 19.  After buying some additional land in order to get access to 228, I had attained about 500 acres of land in Adams Township next to Cranberry. 

     But, I still needed to get approval.  Someone told me that nothing gets done in Cranberry unless you know Rocko Viola.  Rocko was an attorney who owned a shopping center in that area.  I called Rocko and explained what I was trying to do, and soon after our conversation I was sitting in his office drinking wine with him and reviewing my plans.  “Yep, I like this.  This is real good.  I’ll get this through for you – no problem,” he said.  He motioned to his secretary, “Get me Ed Vogel on the phone.”  Ed Vogel is in the garbage business. He was one of the Adams Township supervisors.  There were two others - a fellow who owned and operated a small backhoe, and Stanley Wilham who was the township road supervisor.  A better description might have been the township handyman.  Anyway, those three made the decisions for what the township would approve or disapprove.  I needed to get their approval.

Rocko picked up the phone, “Hey, Rocko here.  I got a guy here who wants to do some building in the area.  Hey lets meet tomorrow.   We’ll all meet at my house.” 

The next day I met Ed Vogel at Rocko’s house.  Ed seemed kind of interested in the idea. He said, “Are you going to do country acts”?  ”Oh yeah, I do country,” I responded.  “I go to that place in West Virginia and stay overnight in my camper.  I like that,” he explained.  “Well, we‘re not going to have anything overnight and we will do all kinds of entertainers, not just Country and Western. What do you think of my plans and what should I do?”  I asked.  “Let me take these plans and show them to the other supervisors before the meeting, that way I can get a better idea of how they feel about this project.  I’ll get back to you Rocco.  OK?” said Ed. 

     A few days later Rocco called me and said, “Hey, they don’t see anything wrong with your plans.  Ed thinks they are going to go along with it but you gotta go to the township meeting and formally present the plans.  I’ll go with you.”

     The meeting was at the Adams Township building.  It was a small place with a few small offices for the secretary and the road supervisor, and a larger room where they held the supervisor and planning commission meetings.  Rocco said to me, “This is going to be easy - a slam dunk.  Let me do the talking.  I know how to handle these guys.  Did you see the way I handled Ed?”

     There were three other people in the room sitting in the audience and the three supervisors and a secretary were sitting at a table in front of any audience.  They brought the meeting to order and discussed previous meeting business, then they asked if there was any new business. This was the time for any of us who wanted to discuss their plans.  One guy got up and wanted to build a doghouse.  “Yeah, no problem just go ahead and do that,” one of the supervisors said with a wink and a shake of his head.  Another guy wanted to build a shed to smoke ham, and another person wanted to build a backporch enclosure. They were approved on the spot.  “Don’t worry about it just don’t go to near your neighbor’s property.  You’re on that old farm road back there.  Your closest neighbor is about a half a mile or so isn’t he?”  I thought any minute that Andy of Mayberry was going to walk in with Opie.

     Now it was my turn.  Rocco and I stood up and Rocco said, “Gentlemen”, as he walks up to the supervisors, “we have some plans here that we would like to discuss.”  He motions for me to follow him up to the table.  “This is Mr. DiCesare and he is planning to build this amphitheatre here to play some shows”.  I didn’t feel too confident that Rocco knew exactly what I wanted to build so I took over and talked for a few minutes explaining what I thought was already a done deal.  After all, Rocco told me that Ed showed it to the other two supervisors and they didn’t have any objections.

      The supervisor who was the backhoe operator said without looking up at us, “You need to submit this to the planning commission first for their recommendation.  After we get their decision, then we will look at the plans again and vote on them. Then you will submit them to us.  Come back in a few weeks”.  I thought to myself, “This isn’t going to be easy or a slam dunk.”  Something didn’t seem right.  Those people before me with the doghouse didn’t have to see anyone first.  They got a “go ahead and do it” treatment.  That doesn’t seem to be the case with me.

     I came back to present my plans to the planning commission and the place was jam packed with opposition to my pans.  It was a total attack on me.  I was shocked.  Rocco and I let my engineer, Jim Shuty, do the talking.  I could see that the audience was clearly against my amphitheatre idea and they had let the supervisors know it by calling them at their homes.  Consequently the supervisors put the pressure on the planning commission not to approve my plan.  They kept asking for more information every time I attended a meeting.  They seemed to be stalling.

 

      In the meantime, Rocco backed out.  I think he sensed it wasn’t going to pass and that the public was clearly against it. He probably considered it as bad publicity. I don’t blame him.  He had to think of his supermarket.  These people were his customers.

      I had received a few letters from some people in the area - some good, others telling me what I could do with myself.  One of the encouraging letters was from this guy Bob who along with Ralph Minetti had a real estate brokerage office on route 19 North in Cranberry.  They were pro growth and thought the amphitheatre was a great idea and that my location was perfect.  They invited me to stop by any time and meet with them, which I eventually did.  They suggested that I get a good attorney to represent me.  So, I turned to attorney Tom King who was an up and coming lawyer in Butler County. He was well thought of, and a gentleman.  I liked having him on my team.  So did my only other teammate Jim Shuty.

      The next meeting we had to attend was the supervisors meeting.  The planning commission had to submit their opinion to the supervisors.  Since we were willing to do everything the planning commission, the supervisors had to consider what action they would take at this meeting.  Our team showed up a few minutes before the start of the meeting at 7pm.  When we got there, we were shocked.  The parking lot was full and cars were still coming in.  We couldn’t even get into the township building.  There was huge crowd with signs saying “Down with DiCesare,” “Say No to The Amphitheatre,” and “No To Rock and Roll.”.  Outside the front entry they had a large container with a sign that read, “Make your donation here to hire attorney to fight him”.  We waited outside for about fifteen minutes.  Then we heard someone yell out, “They’re moving the meeting to the high school gym.  There are too many people.  Everybody get back in your cars and drive to the gym”

       Normally only a handful of people attended these meetings.   Not that day though.  This schoolhouse was so packed that people who couldn’t get in were standing outside sticking their heads inside the windows to get a look.  It was a very hot summer night with no air conditioning.  Tom King looked at me and said, “This reminds me of The Scopes Trial.”  We laughed, but the whole situation felt very ominous. 

      Tom King took over for our side at the meeting.  He and Jim Shuty did a fine job considering the three supervisors had clearly made their decision in advance of any meeting.  They were siding with the crowd no matter what we were presenting.  They didn’t voice a decision.  They asked for more informationThings like, “We need you to give us a traffic study”.  That would take at least 30-60 days and cost $50,000. 

      Sixty days later we showed up for another large, well attended meeting.  This was beginning to be a source of entertainment for the locals.  They couldn’t wait to come to our meetings.  At this meeting they reviewed our plans and said, “We need our engineers to review these plans.  That will take some time.  We will get back to you after that.  In the meantime, we need you to do a sound study.  We want to know the direction of the sound and how many decibels of sound there will be to the first house.” 

     The township could make all the accusations that they could think of, and I had the burden of proof.  They claimed, “It will make too much noise, cause too much traffic, bring drugs to all the kids in Adams Township,” and they didn’t have to prove or pay to prove any of this – I did.  I had to defend their challenges with expensive studies and professional reports.  It was clear that they would try to wear me down mentally and financially. 

     Jerry Kossar was the head of the “Concerned Citizens for Planned Development,” the major opposition to my amphitheatre.  I decided that since he was the ring leader that I should meet with him.  I looked his number up in the phone book.  I called him and set up a meeting at his home the next night.  We met at his kitchen table.  I laid my drawings on his table and showed him the plans.  I asked, “Jerry, what’s so bad about this?  The most I could possibly do is about 40 concerts a summer, I’ll be closed for 320 days of the year.  Nobody will be around to bother you.  Think of the alternative.  If someone would do a housing development, you would have all those people and cars in front of your house everyday of the year.  Isn’t this better for you”? 

     He said as he pointed his finger and waved his arm toward the large window showing the grassy knoll across the road, “I moved here because I saw the deer, the squirrels.  I heard the birds singing.  I wanted peace and tranquility, and now you want to take it away.  You want to destroy everything I love about this place.”  I said, “Jerry, I have 500 acres.  The amphitheatre will be located in the center of the property.  You will not see the amphitheatre or the parking area”.  “All you’re going to have are rock concerts – the Devil’s music.  You’ll bring drugs and crime to the area”, he said.  No matter what I said, he wasn’t accepting and was opposed.  After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and over a year of time I eventually got turned down completely for the amphitheatre.

     

 

JACKSON TOWNSHIP

    I went back to Chris Stover, who was still my land guy.  His father-in-law, Jack, had some land for sale in Jackson Township.  Jack had 120 acres on route 19 only 10 to 15 minutes north of Cranberry.  I could get another 100 acres from the neighbor who was willing to sell, and soon I had an option on over 200 acres of land only 15 minutes North of Cranberry.  Just as in Cranberry, I had to start all over again in Jackson Township to get the proper zoning.  .

      One of the township supervisors had a unique business.  On the left side of the building he rebuilt car radiators.  On the right side he smoked meat.  Not wanting to go into the side that soaked radiators in acid, I walked into the right side of the building and asked for the supervisor.  I introduced myself and told him why I wanted to see him. 

 “Yeah, I heard all about you.  You’re that guy from Pittsburgh who does all those rock shows.  Yeah those people from Adams didn’t want you,” he laughed.  He was a nice guy and from behind a meat counter said, “Did you ever taste my deer jerkey?”  He reached his hand in and pulled me out some jerkey, “here taste this.”  “I want to build an amphitheatre on Mathilda’s land,” I said with a mouthful of deer jerkey.  “Oh yeah, I saw you all over the news and all the trouble you caused,” he said.  He paused, “Here, try this beef jerky.  See if you like it any better or worse.”

“Look, I have my amphitheatre plans with me,” I said as I laid my plans on the top of his meat case.  “Do you think I will have a chance to get an approval here in Jackson?” I asked.  I figured I would get right to the point since it was apparent that he was trying to avoid the whole “approval” issue.  “You’re going to have to submit that to the planning commission – the whole thing – go the whole route all over again,” he said.

      It was just like Adams Township.  The township opposed me.  “You don’t want to build one of those big housing developments, instead of the amphitheatre?  We will approve that.” one of the supervisors said.  “No, I’ll even scale the amphitheatre down,” I pleaded.  I fought for a year and I knew I was going to be turned down.  But, I was still trying. I went to all the meetings and I was still getting lots of media coverage – just like in Adams. 

 

STARLAKE

 One day in early 1989, I got a call from a real estate agent who asked if he could meet me at my office.  He didn’t say what the meeting was going to be about except that I would be very interested in hearing what he had to say.  The next day, he came in to my office with a set of building plans rolled up in the typical fashion.  As he shook my hand and introduced himself, he said, “I’m here representing Brian Becker of Pace Concerts from Houston.  He would like me to show you something.”  As he rolled out his plans on my desk, I could tell they were plans for an amphitheatre.  I looked up at him and he said, “We already have an approval.  It’s in the bag.    We just want you to know this because we know what you have been trying to do.  Brian Becker will call you”.  I wondered if it were true or not.  He said to me, “As you can tell, this is on route 18 across from the amphitheatre you were originally planning to do with Ray Bologna.   This is the Starvaggi family site”. He left. I had a sick feeling. 

      The next day, I got a call from Brian Becker.  His father owned Pace Concerts.  He said, “I know you have been trying to build an amphitheatre.  We located a place, and we have the approval.”  For some reason I believed him. He said,” I don’t think the market can support two large amphitheatres.  If you drop your plans for your amphitheatre, we’re willing to make this work nicely for DiCesare-Engler too.  We are prepared to let DiCesare-Engler do all of the booking, and to pay you for each customer that walks through the door.  We’re not asking for any money.  You can only make money from the very first person who buys a ticket.”   Surprisingly, I kind of liked the sounds of this.  I thought to myself, “I’m never going to get an approval for an amphitheatre the way I’m going.”  Also, we were making money without risking anything.  But, I said, “Brian let me get back to you."  I knew that they beat me to it.  I also knew that it was a really good deal for us.  After I did the paper work I was very pleased.  After all of the money that I thrown away in Cranberry trying to plead my case, I knew the value of getting paid for something that didn’t require any financial fight.  We could make a lot of money without any cost.  Plus, we still had a lot going for us in the city.  At that time we either owned or exclusively operated the IC Light Amphitheatre (Chevrolet Amphitheatre), AJ Palumbo Center, the Syria Mosque, and the Bud Light Amphitheatre in Wilkes-Barre (Yes, I was successful at getting a few amphitheatres built in my time).  And, of course we still had our choice of shows for the Civic Arena and Three Rivers. 

     How did they beat me to it?  I think that the difference was that they went to the politicians first.   They got to the local, county, and state politicians on their side. Looking back, I guess that it didn’t seem to be as invasive of an idea to the locals in that area as it was in Adams Township.  After all, I never really did get turned down in Burgettstown - I had actually broken ground there at one point.  While I was locked in on the idea of having an amphitheatre in closer proximity to Pittsburgh, Pace got a top notch real estate firm who knew that Washington County wanted to grow.  By doing the amphitheatre in Burgettstown, they were taking a Pittsburgh business and bringing it to Washington who needed the growth and an increase in tax base.  I falsely assumed that Butler County would see it that way as well.  To get their estimated $11,500,000 financing in place, Pace Concerts had to prove that they could fill their dates.  That’s where their deal with us came in.  They could show their investors that they were virtually guaranteed their choice of concert acts for the summer. 

      In the meantime, Cranberry Township continued its growth.  Eddie Lewis’ guy was right.  Cranberry was the place to be.  It was the fastest growing area in Pennsylvania.  Since my 500 acres was located in Cranberry, Adams, and Pine Townships I decided to hold on to the land and develop it for residential construction. 

      I had Jim Shuty submit a housing development plan and again we got turned down.  This time, I decided to take action and took both Adams and Cranberry Townships to court and won.  I could do the housing development. The judge even gave me the right to create how the ordinance would be written concerning lot sizes and density.  Adams Township hired Roberta Sarraff to write the ordinance.  She was a planner that I had known from Westmoreland County.  I won the right to have a development of 2100 units.  Some reporters referred to this as “DiCesare City”.  I now had the right to develop lots for single family detached housing, patio homes, multi family for sale or for rent, garden apartments and town homes.  It is now known as “Adams Ridge.”  That was the irony of the situation.  Instead of having 10,000-20,000 people for a few hours 30-40 days of the year, they would have thousands of new residents 365 days a year. 

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

     It’s been 20 years since I gave up on the amphitheatre.  I spent 5 years of my career and over a half of a million dollars planning an amphitheatre that was never built.  It worked out very well financially thanks to the Adams Ridge development and the deal that Pace made with us.  But, I still don’t feel good about the situation.  It’s like I made the World Series, but lost game 7.  Now, when I am in Cranberry I have a hard time even remembering its rural charm amongst the backdrop of all the commercial development.  I suppose that the children of my opposition must not have shared the same vision of their community that their parents did.

     It almost seems like it would be too convenient for Pittsburgh’s next Dave Matthews concert to only be a 20 minute drive north from the city to the Cranberry Exit off of I-79.  Nearly 20 years of taking the 45 minute trip (or an hour and 45 minute trip if you’re from Greensburg where I live) to rural Burgettstown has become part of the tradition of seeing a summer concert for our regions concert-goers.  I wonder if the people of southern Butler County today would welcome the idea of having Starlake in Cranberry.  I can only assume that the once prevalent parental concern over the evil influence of rock music on the youth seems silly or is more likely forgotten by parents today.  As it turns out, I gather that you would see a lot more Burgettstown residents with pitch forks in their hands than you would in Cranberry, but I’m sure that it has nothing to do with that devil music being played in their amphitheatre.

Web Hosting Companies