A Look Back at the History of NYCB Theatre at Westbury

At the end of a wonderful evening out with friends, radioman Frank Ford and his buddy, nightclub owner Lee Guber, discussed how they could improve upon the musical they’d just seen presented under a large tent. Excited by their ideas and vision, the two partnered with TV newsman Shelly Gross. Together, the trio founded the Valley Forge Music Fair in Pennsylvania. The first event, presented in 1955, was so successful that the three partners started the Westbury Music Fair in an old industrial area in Westbury, NY, the following year. Its inaugural performance was indeed auspicious: The King and I starring Charles Korvin and Constance Carpenter.

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Early shows, mostly Broadway offerings, were held in an un-insulated, multi-striped tent with room for some 1,800 patrons. The locale was beneath the path of planes flying in and out of Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport), which sometimes resulted in difficulties hearing the performance.

By the mid-1960s, Ford left the partnership. Undaunted, Gross and Guber built a new theatre—a concrete building that increased seating by more than 50 percent. Music lovers as well as Broadway fans could enjoy the new theatre. In fact, the first show featured headliner Jack Benny with special guest Wayne Newton. The brand new facility boasted heat and air conditioning, folding metal chairs, carpet and tickets priced as little as $2.50. Not long after, permanent seats were installed and ticket prices were raised slightly. Additional remodels and renovations have been done through the years to make it a state-of-the-art venue.

In 1998, the venue, and its trademark rotating stage, was sold to SFX Entertainment, now owned and operated by Live Nation. New York Community Bank acquired naming rights in 2010. It’s now known as the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, and it celebrated its 60th anniversary in the summer of 2016.

Over those 60 years, Westbury has had its fair share of big acts and big moments: Diana Ross sold out 18 performances during a two-week period in 1984, still a NYCB Theatre record. Judy Garland performed there once. It’s where Jim Morrison had a tantrum and it’s featured on the cover of Johnny Cash’s American III: Solitary Man album. And if you ever have the chance, take a good look at the kitchen—in 2002, Luther Vandross autographed the wall, starting a tradition that still lives today. Perform at the NYCB Theatre, and your signature can be next.