ROCKFORD, Ill. - In some ways, the Starlight Theatre had become a victim of its own success. The popular outdoor venue on the campus of Rock Valley College here regularly staged lavish community theater productions to sell-out crowds.

"We're the only place (around) that does community theater on a large, 1930s-scale," said theater director Mike Webb.

But the popular theater's growth was being limited by facilities that were showing their age. Restrooms, ticket booths and concessions all needed to be modernized. And on the open-air stage, performers had little more than a vinyl tarp to protect them from the elements, and the audience had nothing at all.

But thanks to a large donation of money, materials and labor by Sjostrom & Sons, a Rockford-based general contractor, all that is changing.

The venue, also known as the Bengt Sjostrom Theatre (named after a member of the Sjostrom & Sons family, who built much of the campus and has been a major benefactor through the years), is in the middle of millions of dollars worth' of improvements and renovations. Already the theater has more seating, new restroom facilities, a wall of painted star constellations near the stage and new landscaping. It also now has a handcrafted, copper-clad proscenium, crafted and installed by workers from Master Sheet Metal in Rockford.

Robert Denen served as Master Sheet Metal's manager on the project. All of the 20-ounce copper used on the proscenium was fabricated at the company's shop and then applied by workers on site.

"It was really a siding job, clad siding," Denen said. "You had extremely large areas that we were trying to line up. Starting and stopping in the corners was a challenge."

Still, Denen said the job was fairly easy.

"It really went quite well once we had it all laid out. The building was even plumb," he added, laughing.

For that, Denen credits the Chicago-based architecture firm of Studio Gang/O'Donnell, which designed the new theater.

The theater's design incorporates such unusual elements as a "star wall" near the stage. It recreates stars from five constellations: Pegasus, Hercules, Andromeda, Ursa Major and Virgo. They light up along with the stage and have the ability to change color and twinkle. Hundreds of stars are also hidden in the floor of the theater.

It all adds up to a very beautiful structure, Webb said, adding that he came to appreciate that from sitting in one of the theater's seats.

"What struck me was how the architects had managed to capture so many different natural vistas with the construction," he said.

The architects' design also includes new restrooms and both levels, an on-site ticket booth, concession stands and six drinking fountains (previously, there were none).

The final stage of the Sjostrom Theatre project will be the addition of a stainless steel, retractable roof next year that will protect audience members from the elements ands create what Webb says will be a one-of-a-kind facility.

"Because of this project, we're expecting tremendous growth," he said. "We look for it to be a landmark building for the community and the region."

Rock Valley College was founded in 1966. The 217-acre campus offers 36 technical degree programs, 45 certificates and 55 programs of study that lead to four-year degrees.