BEVERLY — North Shore Music Theatre is back in the celebrity concert business.
After a two-year absence of famous singers on its stage, the Beverly theater has signed Debbie Reynolds, Marie Osmond and B.B. King to perform this summer.
The deals mark a return to the theater's long tradition of supplementing its stage performances with concerts by well-known singers or comedians. North Shore Music Theatre hosted its first concert in 1957 and over the years has brought in such stars as Louis Armstrong, Bill Cosby and Wayne Newton.
"It adds to the cache of the theater," North Shore Music Theater owner Bill Hanney said. "It's famous for it."
The last celebrity concert came in 2008 with Tony Bennett. The theater closed in 2009 after going bankrupt. It reopened last year under Hanney's new ownership with a series of musicals, but without the celebrity concerts.
Hanney said he doesn't expect the concerts to be big money-makers because of the performance fees the stars command. The previous owners paid $100,000 each to bring in Vince Gill in 2007 and Bill Cosby in 2006.
Hanney said he had to pass on performers in that price range because the theater would have to fill all of its 1,500 seats to make money.
"As long as they break even, I'm happy," he said.
The theater has scheduled eight concerts, including Steve Tyrell and Harold Robbins' Royalty of Doo-Wop and Royalty of Rock 'n Roll. Hanney said he would like to bring in younger performers, as well, to attract a younger audience.
The series opens Wednesday and next Thursday with shows by Reynolds. Also scheduled to appear are Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and Kenny Rogers.
Hanney, who also owns Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island and a chain of New England movie theaters, said he lost money last year at North Shore Music Theatre but was encouraged enough to stay in business.
Attendance for the musicals was down 25 percent from 2008 levels, according to the theater. Hanney also spent $500,000 on renovations, which factored into his bottom-line losses.
But Hanney said sales picked up as the season went along and customers regained confidence in the theater's viability. "A Christmas Carol" in December played to 90 percent capacity and sold out its final week and a half of performances, he said.
"If nobody showed up, I probably would've cut loose earlier," Hanney said. "But I see the life of this theater."
Sales during the opening week for the 2011 season were five times those of last year's first day, according to the theater.
North Shore Music Theatre is staging six musicals this year — "My Fair Lady," which ran in June; "Tarzan," which opened Tuesday through July 24, and stars Gloucester resident Jack Favazza as young Tarzan; "Footloose," "The King and I," "Legally Blonde," and "A Christmas Carol." There are also four children's musicals.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.