By GUY D’ASTOLFO
When it came to entertainment, the year 2017 brought an equal measure of “premieres” and “grand finales” to the Mahoning Valley.
The community theater scene saw the rebirth of an old name when the Oakland Center for the Arts announced it was returning to action after a two-year hiatus. A few months later, an old name was exchanged for a new one when the Victorian Players rebranded itself as the Hopewell Theatre.
In the downtown nightlife district, Rust Belt Tap House – Youngstown’s original brewpub – closed in the summer. But a couple of months later, the Whistle and Keg, which introduced the “pour your own” concept, opened. And last week, the Noble Creature Cask House opened on Rayen Avenue, bringing small-batch brewing back to the city center.
Early in the year, the always-newsworthy California Palms Hotel and nightclub unexpectedly shut down at the height of its popularity and transformed itself into an addiction recovery center.
A few months later, the Dana Chorale became the first music ensemble at Youngstown State University to perform in Asia when it went on a 10-day tour of South Korea.
I could go on.
But let’s focus on the top 10 stories of the year in Mahoning Valley entertainment:
1) Zac Brown Band plays Stambaugh Stadium. What started as an audacious idea became what was almost certainly the largest concert ever in the city of Youngstown. The first concert at Stambaugh Stadium featured one of the world’s top touring acts and drew a crowd that approached 17,000 on Aug. 24. Eric Ryan, president of JAC Live, which co-promoted the event with the Muransky Companies, called it “historic” and declared it the first in what will become an annual event. Fans tailgated in the lots near the stadium before the show by the country-pop band.
2) Amphitheater underway. A fleet of giant dump trucks began a daily parade this year as bulldozers began preparing the site for the city’s amphitheater. Located on a strip of land downtown, between Front Street and the Mahoning River, the amphitheater will have a capacity of up to 4,500 and is slated to open for the 2019 season. In November, the Youngstown Foundation presented a $3 million gift to the city project to help fund construction. In exchange, it will receive 20 years of naming rights.
3) Covelli Centre events. As always, the downtown arena was the focal point for live shows. The year saw concerts by Stevie Nicks, Pitbull, Brantley Gilbert and Migos. Returning to big crowds were the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney On Ice, the WWE and Long Island Medium.
4) Kuzman’s closes. The longtime mecca for polka music closed after the January death of owner Helen Kuzman. The Girard bar and dance hall was purchased by Rand Fusselman, who renovated it and reopened it in July as Rolling Mills Bar and Grill. It’s no longer a polka place, although polka lives on in the Valley with a new series of monthly shows at Avon Oaks, also in Girard.
5) “Them That Follow.” It’s rare that a Hollywood production company comes to the area to shoot a film, but that’s what happened in October and November. Amasia Entertainment and G-Base Productions took advantage of a $1.2 million float loan from the city of Youngstown and shot their low-budget thriller at various locations in Youngstown and northern Columbiana County. The independent Youngstown Regional Film Commission did the legwork to lure the film, and is working on more. “Them That Follow” will likely be released late next year.
6) Dennis Drummond on “The Voice.” The Nashville-based musician, and Warren native, had a short but interesting run on the NBC singing competition show in October and November. Drummond returned to his hometown Nov. 24 to do a show at the Hippodrome before a packed house. Drummond wasn’t the only Valley native to appear on reality shows this year. Canfield native (and Southern California resident) Joele “Jojo” Romeo-Watson became a key cast member of Bravo’s “Real Estate Wars,” which premiered in October; Youngstown police officer Jessica Shields had a run on CBS’ “The Amazing Race” in the spring; Boardman chef Mark Canzonetta and his daughter won on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” in June; and Austintown native Daniel Ferguson, a comic impressionist, appeared on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” this summer.
7) Tommy Simon, Jeff Sanders die. November brought the unexpected deaths of Jeff Sanders, 52, music director of Easy Street Productions who had also played in local band the Sharkbites; and Tommy Simon, 63, who founded Cedars rock ’n’ roll bar and ran it for decades. The deaths, within a couple weeks of each other, unleashed an outpouring of memories online. Other notable deaths include former 21 WFMJ-TV anchorman Bob Black, 68, in April; and WHOT radio legend Dick Thompson, 89, in November.
8) “People of the Mahoning Valley” exhibition opens. Ever since the Tyler History Center opened in 2014, the local history museum in Youngstown had been working toward its centerpiece. The $500,000 permanent exhibition, which opened in November, gives a lively and concise overview of the area and its people.
9) “Rocktopia” expands. The classsical music-meets-classic-rock stage show co-created by Randall Craig Fleischer, music director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, mounted a tour this year that played in more than 20 U.S. cities. In October, the show – which premiered in Powers Auditorium in 2012 – announced a six-week run on Broadway that will begin in March.
10) Downtown art projects. Five public art projects were created for various gateways to downtown Youngstown. Funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the INPLACE project was administered by YSU. The most dramatic of the projects might be the lighting of an unused concrete railroad arch over Mahoning Avenue. Others include a stage off North Hazel Street, a sculpture in front of The Vindicator, a bus stop made from a shipping container on East Boardman Street and a light projection system that will be visible from the Market Street Bridge when it is ready. The lights will be projected onto the south wall of the City Hall Annex building, which is currently undergoing renovations.