By Antonia Ehlers
Photography by Michael Collopy
The lights dimmed and the crowd went wild, waiting for jazz legends Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald to grace the stage of the Circle Star Theatre. The year was 1973. Jeff Filippi went to the concert with a few of his Sequoia High School classmates, as well as his music teacher, Ed Harris.
“What a phenomenal event,” said Filippi, who grew up taking drum lessons at the old Goetz Brothers department store. “We all got dressed up. The guys wore corduroy bell bottoms and platform shoes, and the girls wore nice dresses. The Circle Star was a great place because it wasn’t too big. Count Basie was my most favorite concert. If you’ve ever seen them live, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. I was a fan of the Count Basie drummer, Sonny Payne. I met him after the show and got his autograph, which was really exciting.”
Filippi also remembers having a blast grooving with his pals to Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry and James Brown, who “brought the house down.”
His wife, Beth Ann, saw a few big names at the Circle Star as well, including the Four Tops and Frank Sinatra: “In 1987, I saw Kenny Rogers, who introduced a new girl who was only about 17—Trisha Yearwood. He said, ‘I think she’s going to be someone.’”
A Rotating Stage
The Circle Star opened in 1964 with Jane Powell starring in “My Fair Lady.” None of the 3,743 seats was more than 50 feet from the circular, rotating stage. For three decades, the venue welcomed many of the world’s most famous performers. From the Rat Pack to Motown, from comedy to country music, people came from all over the Bay Area to pack the house for a magical evening.
Longtime Redwood City couple Kristi and Dennis Royer remember glamorous concerts evenings, where people dressed to the nines for a night out on the town. Romantic dinners were followed by energetic shows with notable headliners.
“We saw some big names there, including Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond,” Kristi Royer said. “It was much more convenient than Tahoe, and every bit as good.”
Pete and Paula Uccelli, locally famous for their Harbor House restaurant and marina featured on page 24 in this month’s issue, had their first date at the Circle Star. “The Circle Star had it all,” Paula Uccelli said, “and you didn’t have to go to San Francisco. We were just heartsick when it closed.”
Although the Circle Star was known as a classy venue with notable class acts most of the time, it wasn’t always the case. Former San Carlos resident Pat Bennie served on the San Carlos City Council from 1978 to 1987 and was mayor twice. Although she has fond memories of seeing Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope with her husband, Joe, it was a particular night in January 1978 that she will never forget.
“I was out campaigning and I happened to be doing a ride-along with the police,” she said. “We were up on Crestview [Drive] when the police officer said to me, ‘There’s a riot going on at the Circle Star—are you okay going there right now?’ We flew through the town, down Brittan Avenue with the lights flashing. We rolled through every signal, over to the Circle Star. All hell had broken loose. The concert was a rock ‘n’ roll event, which drew a very large group of young people who got into fistfights. As an observer, I had never experienced anything of this nature. I was shocked but unafraid.”
Bennie will never forget the young girl who came back to the police car that night. She had blood on her face and a tooth hanging loose. “Her parents had just spent a substantial amount of money on getting her teeth fixed, and she was so worried about their reaction,” Bennie said. She reassured the girl that everything would be okay.
Photographer to the Circle Stars
World-famous photographer Michael Collopy got his start at the Circle Star. He met an eclectic bunch of musicians from 1978 until the theater closed in 1993. According to Collopy, Reba McEntire was one of the nicest souls to cross the stage. BB King liked to stay up talking until the wee hours of the morning. Mickey Rooney played a joke on Collopy and his crew by showing up for a photoshoot in his underwear. Those were the glory years, for Collopy, and every night was different.
“The Circle Star was such an intimate place to see an artist,” he said. He got to meet countless entertainers and ended up working for one of the biggest stars of them all – Frank Sinatra – after meeting him there. Sinatra and his pals, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marvin Gaye, visited out-of-the-way San Carlos to perform on the circular stage. Collopy remembered a night when the stage actually broke down during Roy Orbison’s performance, and all hands on deck had to physically turn it clockwise. Another night, Collopy was almost hit in the head when Jerry Lee Lewis threw a chair across the stage.
“We had about three or four acts per week,” he said, “and there was such a variety. We would have a rock ‘n’ roller one night—Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis—followed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, then a comedian like Jay Leno or Milton Berle. Patti LaBelle would grab you by the hand and bring you into the prayer circle. Tom Jones had such a funny sense of humor. And I always found the country music stars to be really lovely. For the most part, all of the performers were great to work with and fascinating to be around.”
A Doodle Wall
Sinatra started a trend at the Circle Star. He asked for colored marker pens and then drew a clown on the wall of his dressing room, which Collopy photographed. Other musicians later added their own doodles.
“When the theater was torn down, a construction guy cut it [the wall] out and kept it,” Collopy said. “One of the last memories I have of Frank happened on a rainy summer night. I brought an umbrella out for Mrs. Sinatra, and he was appreciative of that. As he walked out to the limo, he looked up at the moon glistening over the bay. He turned to me and said, ‘Someday, I’m going to be playing up there,’ and I’m sure he is.”
“Frank was one of my favorites,” said San Carlos resident Daphne Ealson, who was the backstage manager for 30 years. “He was so easy to get along with, and he always made sure that his people had food.”
Ealson also worked at the English Rose tearoom on Laurel Street, where she’d cook during the day and then hurry off to the Circle Star to manage rock stars and comedians at night.
“I loved my job at the Circle Star because it was always different,” she said. “There were big personalities and demands . . . all the things that went on . . . but I loved it all. I took care of whatever their little hearts desired. We worked long, long hours.
“Sometimes, I’d get home at 2 a.m. I was usually the first one in and the last one out. What I found most interesting was that most of the performers had two sides to them. Some were quiet and just very nice people, and then they were completely different people onstage. Of course, we had a few run-ins—the stage managers were usually the hardest to deal with.”
Two serendipitous moments occurred when Ealson, who had moved thousands of miles away from her hometown in England, met two of her former neighbors at the Circle Star—Tom Jones and Petula Clark.
“I knew them quite well from Weybridge, so it was ironic that they would visit San Carlos, my new hometown,” she noted. “The last time I saw Tom, he asked for Cornish pasties from the English Rose.”
Ealson has spent a good part of the Covid-19 pandemic sorting through old Circle Star programs. She plans to write a book one day about her experiences backstage with some of the world’s greatest musicians.
One of her favorite memories is of her very first show—”The Three Stooges.” According to Ealson, “they were very quiet in real life.”
For San Mateo County theatergoers, it was a big loss in 1993 when the Circle Star Theatre closed. A five-alarm fire in 1997 caused about $500,000 in damage, and the original structure was demolished shortly after that. Today, an office complex on the site houses businesses including Opportun and Softbank.
Although the landmark is long gone, for people who were entertained or employed there, memories of the Circle Star Theatre have a life of their own.
“I still get a lot of people today who tell me how much they miss the Circle Star,” Ealson said. “I miss it. When I drive by and see that sign on Circle Star Way, so many memories come flooding back. I think, Oh dear. What a wonderful venue the Circle Star Theatre was for all of us. There will never be anything quite like it again.”