Categories: Everyday Life, Popular Culture, Sports and Recreation, Wallingford

The Story of the Oakdale Makes Great Theater

Oakdale Musical Theatre, Wallingford
Oakdale Musical Theatre, Wallingford

The legendary Oakdale Theater in Wallingford reflects over 60 years of evolution in American pop culture. From its earliest days as a modest show tent, the Oakdale played host to some of the most iconic shows, entertainers, and sporting events of the modern era. Now a state-of-the-art entertainment complex, the theater continues to provide audiences with sound and stage experiences that make the Oakdale one of the state’s premier concert venues.

The Oakdale Theater opened in 1954 under the protection of a large tent planted in the middle of an alfalfa field. A two- or three-dollar ticket entitled audiences to one of 1,400 seats and a “theatre-in-the-round” experience. From its earliest days, the Oakdale faced numerous challenges, including the arrival of Hurricanes Carol and Edna that destroyed large sections of the show tent during the theater’s very first season.

"The Pajama Game" program from the Oakdale Musical Theatre

“The Pajama Game” program from the Oakdale Musical Theatre’s 1957 season.

From “Oklahoma” to Led Zeppelin

Ben Segal founded the theater and he made the Oakdale a family-run business in the decades that followed. As a result, much of the early entertainment proved family friendly, such as musicals like “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma.”

In 1961, renovations to the Oakdale provided large cables and brackets to support the tent from the outside, thus allowing for the removal of interior support poles that obstructed stage views. In addition, the Segals added a new sound system and electric heat to improve the audience experience. Musical acts ranging from Paul Anka and Tom Jones to legendary rock bands like The Who, The Doors, and Led Zeppelin graced the Oakdale’s stage during this period.

A wood dome erected in 1972 provided a more permanent structure for the theater and coincided with an increase in seating capacity from 1,700 to 3,200. In addition to concerts and musicals, the Oakdale now hosted sporting events as well, including a 1972 ice show starring Olympic Gold Medalist Peggy Fleming.

The 1980s provided difficult times for the Oakdale. With theater-in-the-round suddenly “out of style,” and with high-profile acts demanding huge paydays affordable only to larger venues like the Hartford Civic Center and New Haven Coliseum, the Oakdale faced financial ruin. A series of outstanding debts and over $200,000 in deliquent tax liabilities almost ended the Oakdale Theater, but the theater managed to persevere into the 1990s and reinvent itself.

In 1996, the Oakdale abandoned the theater-in-the-round concept for a more traditional staging arrangement. It turned the old stage area into a spacious lobby and increased its seating capacity to 4,600. Two years later, Connecticut concert promoter Jim Koplik joined the Oakdale and the theater became a part of Live Nation, the largest entertainment company in the world. Today, the Oakdale continues to provide audiences with a wide range of entertainment options, from child-friendly performances and stand-up comedians, to some of the biggest names in live music.

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