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Riviera revival ; North Tonawanda's little theater-that-could makes great strides as it takes small steps toward booking bigger acts, getting more donations and filling its seats

George Jones, the country music legend, is 79, and on what could be his final tour. He is coming to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.

Jones is not the only one. Loretta Lynn is also playing the Riviera. And just announced is a concert by soul diva Dionne Warwick.

Finally, don't forget the opera. In June, Nickel City Opera is staging Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

Not many places offer everything from grand opera to Grand Ol' Opry. All this activity begs the question:

What is going on at the Riviera?

Like Shea's Buffalo, its big sister to the south, the Riviera dodged the wrecking ball before returning, against all odds, to its former grandeur.

But while Shea's has been hailed as the victory it is, the renaissance of the 1,100-seat Showplace of the Tonawandas has been a quiet success.

Frank Cannata, who since 2006 has headed the nonprofit Riviera, thinks creatively. He does not necessarily think big. His story could inspire other cultural entities struggling toward financial independence as government funding dries up.

"Our government [and] society as a whole needs to preserve these gems," says Cannata, 46. "That being said, I think we should provide programming so we can pay for ourselves. We maximize use of volunteers. We go by baby steps."

Those small steps add up.

"We booked Loretta Lynn, and a week later, literally, George Jones' agent called me," Cannata says. "He said, 'I see you have Loretta Lynn coming to your theater. We'd like to have George Jones come there.'

"You're building a resume of national acts that have played your room. Which makes it easier to negotiate with other performers. They know we're not just a bingo hall transformed into a performing arts center. We're a legitimate performing arts center."

As goes the Riv, so goes the region, says Joyce Santiago of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.

"You can see the development happening because of this," she says. "We're starting to see the traffic made by the different programming that Frank has been able to bring in. You have restaurants and shops where you had storefronts that were empty.

"The Riviera is an important piece of the Tonawandas as a whole. It's a centerpiece, drawing people. And some of them are finding out about the area for the very first time."

Robert Ortt, the mayor of North Tonawanda, also has seen the Riviera's ripple effect. He points to the Remington Lofts, a renovation of an old building near the theater undertaken by Kissling Interests.

"The Riviera has created a lot of talk, buzz and excitement, not just in North Tonawanda but in the surrounding area. It's bringing people into the city."

The Riv, he laughs, has also worked its way into his own life.

"Last year, I went to a rock concert, an opera and an awards ceremony, all in the Riviera, all in three months." The rock concert was Our Lady Peace, a band he had loved growing up. The opera was Nickel City Opera's "Rigoletto." "It was my first opera," Ortt says.

>Signs of the past

The Riviera sits on Webster Street by the Erie Canal, rising over a quaint block of shops, bars and restaurants.

There are the Yummy Thai, Nestor's, Lou's, Ava's, Dwyer's Irish Pub, Crazy Jake's and the Hodgepodge, a cafe, gift shop and gallery.

Stepping into the theater is like stepping back in time.

The theater was designed by Leon Lempert and Son, a Rochester firm that also designed Buffalo's Allendale Theater and Lockport's Palace Theater. The chandelier is from Buffalo's old Genesee Theater, now gone. But most features are original.

The Mighty Wurlitzer still rises majestically from the pit thanks to an old motor in the basement, made by the Warsaw Motor Co. High up in the projection room, reels are identified by an ancient sign made from a coat hanger and masking tape, reading "Next."

It's quite an atmosphere, laughs Eileen Breen, executive director of Nickel City Opera.

"When we were doing 'Amahl and the Night Visitors,' it was like 2 in the afternoon, no one was in the theater but me, and I was down in the basement doing costumes. I sort of heard stuff. Then I heard there's supposed to be ghosts there."

Otherwise, the ornate Riviera has been perfect for their purposes. "We were looking for a traditional-sized opera theater -- 1,100, 1,200 seats. In Buffalo, other than Shea's, which is much bigger [about 3,000 seats], there aren't that many facilities.

"I'd like to see more theater companies use the Riviera," Breen reflects. "I'd love to be able to get it on the map where, say, they have an Off Broadway act in New York looking to tour -- maybe not big enough for Shea's, but No. 2 is the Riviera."

The Riviera retains its 1920s art nouveau exit signs, and the fanciful stained glass front windows picturing masks and theater curtains. Cannata delights especially in the huge stage curtain depicting Niagara Falls -- the same curtain that rose when the theater opened in 1926.

The opulence is a far cry from 1989, when the Riviera was taken over by the nonprofit Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society. Then, the theater was shabby and worn. The organ had been souped-up and practically ruined. Most insultingly, the theater's exterior was painted what Cannata calls "Pepto-Bismol pink."

Teams of volunteers set to work. Cannata, an organist himself, loves that the Mighty Wurlitzer was restored -- down to the sound effects, such as siren and doorbell, used to accompany silent movies.

Diane Krause was one of the volunteers who painstakingly reupholstered the torn velvet seats. "I got started here because a friend asked if I could help popping popcorn," she says. "Then I got into sewing. It just takes hold of you."

Luckily, theater buffs are passionate, and generous. An Australian visitor donated bathroom tiles that matched the tiles at the Riviera. Krause also tells of a man from Denver who took a tour of the Riviera and was distressed that the stained glass was missing from the interior front doors.

"His family owned a stained glass company," she says. "They made new windows, free. He delivered them on a truck."

>Help from friends

The Riv received a $500,000 grant from Empire State Development. Another $200,000 came from the Environmental Protection Fund -- half for the roof and half for the marquee. The Wendt Foundation gave $250,000; the Oishei Foundation, $300,000.

Otherwise, the theater runs itself, paying for day-to-day operations and the salaries of the three full-time and two part-time employees.

"I try to think outside the box and think of ways to save money and cut costs," Cannata says.

He was able to get a lower, municipal rate for his utilities. And he obsesses over programming. "We're not a museum," he says. "I need to plan programming that appeals to all audiences of all generations."

Recently, the Riviera bought the building next door, an old automotive shop. It will be used to add more restrooms and dressing rooms. Plans also call for better backstage equipment that will allow for modest touring musicals.

"We can't command higher ticket prices. Our economy just doesn't dictate higher ticket prices," Cannata reasons.

He describes the ideal candidates for the Riviera stage as "people who are on their way up and on their way down."

He points to Stephen Page, the former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies. "The Barenaked Ladies, starting out, would have been much too large. Now that he's striking out on his own, I don't want to say he's at ground level, because he has a certain recognition, but he's not going to play big venues."

>Open to suggestions

Cannata is always casting about for ideas.

"If there's someone you want to see, let me know," he says.

A Three Stooges fan asked to hold an annual Three Stooges Film Festival, and was told yes. The festival is now a tradition.

In another nod to vaudeville, the Riviera regularly offers Eye Candy Burlesque, a local risque revue. It was begun by a woman who had been laid off from her teaching job. Don't laugh, a volunteer whispers. He says the ladies look great, and it draws several hundred people.

Cannata loves to design packages.

"We're kind of a unique venue in that we can do everything from movies to concerts to dances," Cannata says. "For example, the night before Loretta Lynn, we're going to be showing a free screening of 'Coal Miner's Daughter.' "

He keeps an eye on future audiences.

"What's been a real treat for me, with younger people, a lot of the time they're brought here by a film class, but no one has left a silent film not totally in awe," he says.

"And the Glenn Miller Band, grandparents brought their grandkids. The kids loved it."

Thinking creatively, Cannata had the notion to allow local elementary schools to use the Riviera, free, for their musical productions. Concession sales cover the costs.

Most importantly, the events generate goodwill.

"Maybe someday, long after I'm gone, one of the kids who played there will be successful and financially gifted," he reflects. "He or she will look back on those concerts at the Riviera, and maybe write the Riviera a big check.

Or maybe those kids will just bring their own children to the Riviera and support it from the seats. Either way works.

"It's so important," Cannata said, "to plant the seeds of pride in community ownership from the time they're very young."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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