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Shea’s Conte leaves legacy of preservation

Without Anthony Conte, Buffalo’s Theatre District would likely look much different than it does today.

For one thing, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which Conte has headed since 2001, might not be the national success story or pre-Pegula anchor it became under his leadership. For another, the former Studio Arena Theatre, now known as 710 Main, might be a parking lot.

Instead, thanks to Conte’s single-minded passion for the job across an extraordinary 14-year tenure, Shea’s is on the verge of completing its decades-long restoration project and is pulling in some of the most lucrative business on the Broadway touring circuit. And 710 Main, far from being reduced to rubble, is hosting a diverse array of local and national theater productions.

So it stands to reason that when Conte announced his semiretirement from the top job at Shea’s at the end of the 2015-16 season on Wednesday, local theater folks and businesspeople sang his praises and collectively scratched their heads about the future of district he helped to build and maintain. No successor has been named, but thanks to Conte’s work and that of his keen collaborators, its future looks brighter today than it has at any time in at least the past 30 years.

Conte, a former banker, began his long association with Shea’s as a volunteer in the 1970s, when it was under the threat of demolition like so many architectural treasures in shrinking Northeastern cities. Following the lead of the preservationists who saved the Ohio Theatre in Columbus from the wrecking ball in 1969, Conte and many other volunteers worked to launch the theater on a four-decade restoration process that will come to an official end next year.

It’s clear that Conte’s passion has always been the meticulous restoration of the 1925 movie house, which he and his staff have undertaken with tremendous zeal in project after project. In interviews about the theater’s recent successes, Conte rarely failed to remind me that the first part of Shea’s mission statement was “to restore and maintain Shea’s Buffalo Theatre for present and future generations to enjoy as a working historic theatre.”

On that point, 14 years after taking the helm, Conte can confidently say, “Mission accomplished.”

Conte’s strongest suit was smart fiscal oversight and no-nonsense management, not theatrical programming. But that was no problem, because, like his hardworking predecessor Patrick Fagan, Conte had a partner as well-versed in the Broadway business model as he was in the realm of fundraising and project management. That partner is the Rochester-based producer Albert Nocciolino, with whom he built Shea’s into one of the most sought-after venues for one-week Broadway touring engagements in the United States.

While Conte’s own theatrical tastes often ran to more conservative fare and some Shea’s seasons earlier in his tenure could reflect that conservatism, his collaboration with Nocciolino and frequent trips to Broadway helped pushed his taste forward through the years. He was adventurous enough to bring such borderline controversial shows as “Avenue Q,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Kinky Boots” to town, creating in Buffalo a microcosm of Broadway – for better or worse.

Aside from Shea’s nearly finished restoration and sterling reputation, Conte’s other great accomplishment was his successful effort to preserve the former Studio Arena and to lay a foundation for its revival under the 710 Main moniker.

In the wake of Studio’s failure, a consortium of banks held joint claims on the property. Conte was the man who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, with those banks and other stakeholders in the community, to save the building from demolition. It was a difficult balancing act that required the kind of infinite patience and skill only someone with Conte’s experience could have brought to the situation.

And while the current state of 710 Main is far from perfect, with a half-hearted mix of touring shows and local productions that struggle to fill its many seats, it is far preferable to the alternative that Conte and his collaborators avoided. Because of his work, one of the city’s best theater spaces remains intact and the real – if distant – prospect of a new regional theater remains possible.

Conte’s only major misstep was his draconian treatment of Shea’s ushers, two of whom were relieved of their duties there after complaining about his unnecessarily harsh policy that prevented elderly volunteer ushers with health problems from sitting during performances under many circumstances.

Despite this, the effect of Conte’s tenure on downtown is quite clear even before it comes to an official close next year. Now we just need figure out what we’re going to name after him.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com