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Concert-ed efforts: Documentary tells the story of top Pittsburgh rock promoter Rich Engler

Rich Engler (left) with his wife, Cindy, and Ringo Starr
Rich Engler
Rich Engler (left) with his wife, Cindy, and Ringo Starr

In 1969, Rich Engler was a blue-collar rock drummer from Creighton, Pa., who had more experience keeping a beat than he did running a business. A new documentary tells how Engler became Pittsburgh’s biggest independent music promoter from the 1970s through the ’90s.

“Behind the Stage Door,” inspired by Engler’s 2012 book of the same title, covers everything from the intricacies of the music industry to Engler’s insider stories of high-living rock-stars.

The film, featuring interviews with members of bands like Rush, Kansas, and Styx and local notables Donnie Iris and Joe Grushecky, is streaming on various platforms. It also gets in-person screenings Sat., Oct. 1, and Sat., Oct. 15, at the Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Giant Cinema.

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Engler was born in 1946. His father was a glassworker, but Engler chose music, and his band, Grains of Sand, was a regional success, over the years opening for David Bowie, the Beach Boys, the Yardbirds, and Yes. But he started a side hustle promoting concerts in what was, at the time, an embryonic version of the rock-tour culture that exploded in the 1970s.

Engler’s first company, Go Attractions, was based in the Shadyside apartment he shared with his wife, Cindy. He soon teamed with competitor Pat DiCesare to form DiCesare Engler, which ruled the local concert scene for decades. Engler handled the booking, bringing in everyone from Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones to Metallica at venues including the Syria Mosque, the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center), and the Civic Arena. In 1978, as the film notes, Billboard magazine named the Stanley – which DiCesare Engler then owned – as the No. 1 concert theater in the country.

What does a promoter do? In an interview, Engler said: “I’m a big risk-taker. That’s it. I’m a gambler. … I buy an attraction that costs a lot of money most of the time. I take it to a venue that costs a lot of money most of the time and I add up all those numbers and I have to figure out a break even.”

It helped that, especially early on, Engler was himself a musician of the same generation as the talents he was promoting. “A lot of people look down on a musician, especially some promoters: ‘Hey get up there and play shut up,’” he said. “That was never my ideal. My ideal was make them comfortable, feel like you were one of them.”

Still, some of those gambles failed. As the film notes, the Three Rivers Stadium stop of 1988’s Monsters of Rock tour, with headliners Van Halen and the Scorpions, underperformed badly enough to cost DiCesare Engler $400,000. But Engler said their finances were set right by four big stadium shows the following year, including the Stones and The Who.

The documentary, by filmmaker Brian Stork, was inspired by Engler’s 2012 memoir, “Behind The Stage Door,” which Engler said he wrote because people were always asking him for stories from his career.

Some of those stories: the kids who tried to sneak into a Nazareth concert at the Stanley, one of whom ended up with both feet crashed through the theater’s ornate plaster ceiling. A drunk Joe Cocker projectile-vomiting into the front row. Axl Rose, of Guns ’N’ Roses, demanding a “Greek orgy” for his birthday – and getting one, in the Steelers locker room at Three Rivers, complete with a grape arbor and trucked-in statuary.

There’s also an anecdote about KISS bassist Gene Simmons repeatedly hitting on Engler’s wife, Cindy. No lasting harm done there: Rich and Cindy Engler just marked their 50th wedding anniversary.

More poignantly, Engler recalls giving a down-in-the-dumps Bob Dylan a pre-concert pep talk before a 1990s gig at the IC Light Amphitheater, at Station Square. Most moving of all is Engler’s behind-the-scenes account of a terminally ill Bob Marley’s final live performance ever, at the Stanley, in 1980. (Pittsburgh was one of only five U.S. stops on the tour.)

“Behind The Stage Door” also recounts the role FM radio stations like Pittsburgh’s WDVE played in the music scene, with Engler cultivating contacts at the station to help break acts he liked. In fact, the film is narrated by DVE DJ Michele Michaels.

Engler serves as a co-executive producer, and if there are any unflattering stories about him floating around, you won’t find them here. Interview subject after interview subject testifies to his friendliness and fair dealing.

Key voices include Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and Kansas drummer Phil Ehart, both members of bands Engler helped make big in Pittsburgh. Others are James Young, of Styx; Danny Seraphine, of Chicago; Lou Gramm, of Foreigner; KISS, Bon Jovi, and Motley Crue manager Doc McGhee; and music-industry veteran Peter Asher.

DiCesare Engler was bought out in 1998 by Clear Channel, which later became Live Nation — one of the large corporate entities that now control most national tours.

For his part, Engler, at 76, still has roughly the same shag haircut he sported a half-century ago. He lives in Sewickley but spends winters in Florida, and still promotes shows in both locales.

“My plan in my mind is peace, love, and get this music out and share it with the people, some of this music that I love, this music that wasn’t getting played on the radio,” he said in an interview. “I love bringing new bands and new national attractions into Pittsburgh for a low ticket price and sharing it with the world.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: