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WNY SPOTLIGHT SHONE BRIGHTLY ON THE ARTS IN 1997

For those who like to go out for entertainment, 1997 provided a lot of happy endings. Shea's began its long-awaited expansion, a slew of new movie screens opened, and the Albright-Knox put on one of its most popular exhibits ever. Balancing the good news, however, was the death of Chris O'Neill, the man who personified Buffalo theater. Here are the stories that most affected Western New York's arts and entertainment scene last year.

1. The growth of Buffalo theater
Clear signs of the changing shape of the city's theater scene occurred in 1997. The Irish Classical Theatre Company broke ground, and Shea's Performing Arts Center broke bricks. The Irish company is building a new theater behind the facade at 625-637 Main St. that will open September 1998, and Shea's is knocking out a wall to enlarge its facilities to accommodate those megabuck musicals like "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera." The need for new theaters and new space is interpreted as evidence of a particularly strong theater climate. The Theatre of Youth Company, which has been renovating the Allendale on Allen Street for several years, announced its intention to open in the fall of 1998, too. For its annual "A Christmas Carol," the Alleyway Theatre launched a search for new space and found it across Pearl Street in the Christian Center. The virtually unknown theater inside, called the Forbes, turns out to be the oldest functioning theater space downtown, and it's attractive, to boot. Further requests for its use can be expected.

2. Movies and more movies

The pace of new theater space is nothing compared with commercial movie houses. Movie screens are mushrooming at such a rate you need a calculator to keep track. Thirty-six new screens opened last year (the majority in December). Thirty-two more are lined up for this year. Thirty-five more may happen, but plans are in limbo. A single backward step was recorded when eight projected new screens for the McKinley Mall were scrubbed.

3. Philharmonic moves toward stability
The Buffalo Philharmonic continued its frustratingly slow but inexorable inching forward toward financial stability. Despite understaffing and frequent turnover in the front office, Executive Director Joseph Goodell, who recently assumed the new title of president, has done a lot to enhance the orchestra's long-term position in the region.

Most obvious is a renewed marketing push, with far more regional concerts than in any season in recent memory (and to places such as Arcade, where the orchestra probably has never played before). Even more of a breakthrough is the developing Canadian Series, which opened on Dec. 5 with a sold-out house in the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and now looks forward to three more concerts this season in Welland, Ont., the Shaw Festival Theatre again and another location to be determined.

The Goodell management's philosophy has also apparently succeeded in convincing important foundations and other potential sources of support that the days of the "Band-Aid" approach to solving the orchestra's problems are over and that true long-term planning is taking its place. A new, professionally trained executive director will be hired, hopefully before spring arrives, to help in the securing of these objectives.

4. Pop music
The big pop music concerts were Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones in Rich Stadium and Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac in Marine Midland Arena. Then Buffalo's Ani DiFranco had her biggest selling album ever, "Living In Clip," and the Goo Goo Dolls reached an out-of-court settlement with Warner Bros. in a royalty battle. Rap was in the national news. The good news: Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs took hip-hop and rap to new levels. Call him the performer of the year in pop music. The bad news: His associate Notorious B.I.G was murdered.

5. The comeback of Charles Burchfield
This may go down as the year that the reputation of Buffalo watercolorist Charles Burchfield, after decades of neglect, was finally restored to international status.

A far-reaching exhibition, "The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest," organized by the Columbus (Ohio) Art Museum and presented at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center over the summer to popular and critical acclaim, is now at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., where it is gathering praise from critics and visitors alike.

6. Success at the Albright-Knox
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery sold a work on paper from the illustrious series "Woman" by Willem de Kooning, a piece deemed too small and light-sensitive to play a significant role in the gallery's world-famous collection of abstract expressionist art. It fetched $1.8 million at Christie's auction house. Meanwhile, the Albright-Knox's "Dale Chihuly, Installations 1964-1996" by the celebrated glass artist, on view through Sunday, Jan. 4, has turned into one of the gallery's most popular exhibitions ever, averaging about 5,000 patrons a week.

7. Restaurants coming, restaurants going
On the dining front, an enormous number of national chain restaurants opened in Western New York in the last year -- among them Don Pablo's and the Cracker Barrel. Over the year there were a number of restaurant closings (as every year), but most locally owned restaurants seemed able to hold on. Some of the openings: Osaka, the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, Papaya Cafe, Harry's Harbour Place Grille, North Park Cafe, Grano, Dacc's, Christino's, Kitty O'Malley's.

8. Hallwalls hangs on
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center was subjected to one of those congressional attacks arts organizations have come to expect, and had their National Endowment for the Arts funding dumped. They survived, but not easily. Hallwalls is a place to go to see films, videos, art exhibitions, installations, performance pieces, music, theater, and events you won't get elsewhere, such as tattoo shows. Its uneasy future worries the arts community.

9. Ups and downs of local jazz
Jazz took a blow to the head when Artpark in Lewiston turned away from the exciting level of jazz it had booked in recent summers. The slack, however, was taken up to some extent by the new Tralfamadore Cafe under jazzman Bobby Militello. And the Calumet Cafe on Chippewa Street under Mark Goldman's direction continued to creatively book jazz and other music.

10. The death of Chris O'Neill
Few deaths in the arts have been as affecting as Chris O'Neill's in April. The actor and director had just brilliantly directed Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" for the Kavinoky Theatre. His presence on the city's theater scene, in his own work and through the Irish Classical Theatre Company he helped start, was of immeasurable benefit. A public memorial in the spring turned into a celebration of his work and influence.

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