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THE ROLLER COASTER OF AREA AMUSEMENTS HEADS UPHILL

Screen goddess Norma Desmond is coming to Buffalo for her big comeback. And it's the Queen City's comeback as well, as Desmond stars in "Sunset Boulevard" this spring in the newly expanded Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo.

"A Star Is Reborn" is the theme of Shea's 1998-1999 Broadway Season. And it will go a long way in the comeback of Buffalo as a regional entertainment leader in the new millennium.

As the largest venue for live theatrical entertainment in the Theater District, Shea's will present touring Broadway shows like the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musicals "Sunset Boulevard" and longtime favorite and Toronto mainstay "The Phantom of the Opera."

In May, Shea's mainstage reopens with "Phantom," followed by "Sunset Boulevard."

"I am big," asserts Hollywood star La Norma, played by Petula Clark. And Shea's will be big, too, with its $14.5 million expansion to bring in those musicals.

Most of "Sunset Boulevard" takes place in Norma's mansion. That new mainstage, roomy enough to fit in the actress' Gothic, art deco and Empire furnishings, will raise the theater's impact on the area economy, from $23 million a year to $50 million, officials said. Attendance is expected to leap from 300,000 a year to 500,000, helping the Buffalo area with $2.5 million in sales tax revenue, almost $10 million payroll and nearly $38 million in services and goods.

It's called entering "the entertainment major leagues," said Shea's President Patrick J. Fagan.

Already a couple of new restaurants are scheduled to open in the Theater District. London architect Peter Cook said that Buffalo in years past was one of the "great cities of action," along with Berlin and Glasgow, and next year that title may be returned.

One action that didn't take place in 1998 was that New York State's casino backers didn't get the same benefits that Casino Niagara produces. After Gov. Pataki gave a pro-casino speech at a Niagara Falls gathering, local casino supporters expected a bill allowing (non-Indian) casinos in the Buffalo area to pass this year. It didn't happen.

Pataki denied critics' suggestions that he didn't push hard enough on the casino bill, and talks were initiated with the Seneca Nation on the issue. Niagara Falls Mayor James C. Galie wrote to all 61 state senators asking them to revive a casino referendum bill.

But anyone who spoke to Atlantic City residents when the casinos first arrived on their ocean shores will feel the region didn't lose after all, as Atlantic City natives complained about higher taxes and crime, with no payoff to them.

Life magazine once characterized Buffalo as "the Acropolis of the avant-garde," and University at Buffalo events last year attracted interest from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to that West Coast Acropolis, the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

A five-week Walker Evans photo exhibition at UB's North Campus celebrated the anniversary of one of Evans' first shows in Buffalo almost 50 years ago. Evans portrayed the antithesis of Hollywood glamour in the tired and poor people he immortalized.

The college students appreciated the show, but when school let out, they headed for the lake: Darien Lake Theme Park, now called Six Flags Darien Lake. With more than $12 million in new capital investment in '98, Darien Lake transformed itself from a regional amusement park to a resort with spectacular new attractions, noted Lisa Grisanti, Darien Lake representative, adding that it's "New York State's largest entertainment attraction."

"We have enjoyed a dramatic resurgence the past three years," she said.

With new projects, more than 500 new construction jobs have been brought to the area, along with eight full-time positions and 100 seasonal positions. More than 2,400 people work there during the season. This year, look for new attractions like the Superman-Ride of Steel coaster and the Batman/Robin Thrill Show. This year's capital budget of more than $20 million brings Premier Parks' total investment at Six Flags Darien Lake to more than $60 million.

Even in the rain, the Spice Girls sold out their show there.

Hailing from the real land of spice, India native Deepak Chopra enthralled devotees at Artpark last fall, adding to his millions of book sales in 30 languages, CDs, tapes, videos and other enterprises. The so-called "Marcus Welby via Delhi" combines ancient healing traditions with modern research.

Last year was also the era of the East, as local readers and film buffs caught Everest mania. "Into Thin Air" by journalist Jon Krakauer -- about the deadly 1996 expeditions -- stayed on the top of best-seller list. There were also books like National Geographic Society's "Mountain Without Mercy," and "Climb" by Anatoli Baukreev, who died at age 39 in an avalanche.

"There's this fascination with stories of astonishing personal strength and determination," said Jim Landau, community relations coordinator at Borders Books and Music in Cheektowaga.

"It's a message people need to hear. Everest mania is like the Titanic, attention to stories of bravery and surmounting great odds," he said.

Buffalo-area video stores had trouble keeping the acclaimed "Seven Years in Tibet," with Brad Pitt, in stock. "The Death Zone," an Everest episode of "Nova," aired on Channel 17. And the documentary "Everest" brings audiences right to the top of the world, through the magic of Imax. Western New Yorkers may be viewing Imax movies on a 56-foot-high, wraparound 3-D screen by spring, on Transit Road in Lancaster, with gallery seating for about 260 people.

Film buffs will love the 3-D in-your-face dinosaurs, eye-poping salivating tyrannosaurus that leap off the screen in Imax's "T Rex." It's "Jurassic Park" without blood. The sound system -- not just blast-your-eardrums loud -- makes you feel you're right back in the middle of a Jurassic jungle.