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'A Starry Night' is a family affair

Entertainment event Saturday night allows Northwestern alumni to reconnect and mentor students

Don Weiner headshot
Don Weiner, executive producer, "A Starry Night"

EVANSTON - Don Weiner has come full circle.

This weekend, the 1979 Northwestern University graduate will produce “A Starry Night,” the School of Communication’s star-studded variety show and reunion that Weiner views as a family affair — a way to give back to the University that has given him so much.

“This place has had an indelible impact on my life,” Weiner said of Northwestern. “The evening is not just song and dance — it’ll be filled with a lot of emotion.” 

The celebratory weekend, which includes a series of workshops, showcases and parties, culminates with the Saturday night show — a labor of love that, for many involved, bridges the gap between past and present and continues the rich tradition of accomplished School of Communication alumni teaching the next generation of stars how to impact the world.

Current students have been involved in every phase of “A Starry Night,” which will be hosted by alumnus Stephen Colbert — from planning and production to performances, enabling them to learn from some of the best in the world — and make connections that can benefit them for decades.

Weiner, executive producer and director of the new “Showtime at the Apollo” on Fox and the original director of “So You Think You Can Dance?” remembers serving as an associate producer for the School of Communication’s landmark “The Way They Were” production in October 1980, which assembled prominent alumni from Hollywood and Broadway to celebrate the completion of an on-campus dramatic arts complex, the Theatre and Interpretation Center (now the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts).

Preparing for that show more than 37 years ago, Weiner worked under the tutelage of producer and director Bob Banner, who had a huge influence on Weiner’s professional career. Banner, a former Northwestern Ph.D. student who went on to co-produce “The Carol Burnett Show,” took Weiner under his wing and helped fuel Weiner’s love for both Northwestern and producing. When School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe called Weiner and asked him to produce “A Starry Night,” he didn’t think twice.

He saw it as a way to pay tribute to his mentor, Banner, who died in 2011, but also to pay it forward. Throughout Weiner’s work on the show, Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises graduate student Danny Bittker has been by his side, learning the intricacies of producing a show of this magnitude.

“Northwestern students are all over this production, and they’re being supported by the professionals,” Bittker said.

About 200 students are involved, including performers, stage hands, talent escorts, production assistants and others. For Bittker, being able to learn from Weiner and others in a real-world setting has been invaluable.

“They would give me things to do and I’d go figure it out, and I would,” Bittker said. “I learned from watching them.”

It isn’t just the producers who felt Northwestern’s gravitational pull during the planning stages. Weiner said almost everyone he called and asked to participate in “A Starry Night” immediately agreed to do so, no questions asked.

“One of the most inspiring parts of working on the show has been seeing and hearing all the alumni and how passionate they are about giving back to Northwestern and the show,” Bittker said. “There’s so much excitement.”

This weekend is like a family reunion for us, and while we’re all here we’re going to put on an amazing show.

Don Weiner
Producer of 'A Starry Night'

Writers for Colbert and Seth Meyers (who is unable to attend) collaborated to come up with the show’s taped introductory comedy segment, and others, like Brian d’Arcy James, Richard Kind and Gregg Edelman, are close personal friends and were thrilled to finally get the chance to perform together. The show has enabled multiple generations of School of Communication graduates to come together in ways they couldn’t in the past.

“This weekend is like a family reunion for us, and while we’re all here we’re going to put on an amazing show,” Weiner said. “It’s an emotionally complete show and a student-designed show. It will be great entertainment, and we will see the joy of the stars and the emotion of this landmark event infusing the night with incredible, once-in-a-lifetime energy.”

 CommFest 2018 runs Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21. The schedule of events includes receptions, seminars and other activities. 

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