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Three years after his induction into the Western New York Entertainment Hall of Fame at Shea's Performing Arts Center, A.R. Gurney has returned the compliment.

The nation's most-produced playwright stepped to the lectern Thursday outside Shea's new stage house as honorary chairman of the theater's 1999-2000 fund drive and pledged to throw himself into the supporting role with show-biz enthusiasm.

Recalling the gilded Shea's Buffalo Theater of his youth, where he watched movies and took in live performances by the likes of organist Ethel Smith and crooner Vaughn Monroe, Gurney said, "It imprinted on my soul the importance of the theatrical experience."

With government funding of the arts in decline, Shea's private-sector supporters must offer similar opportunities to today's children through discounted tickets and educational programming, he said.

The success of Buffalo's Theater District proves that playhouses can live side by side and prosper, he added.

"There is no competition among theaters. There is a synergistic effect," he said.

Gurney has closely followed Shea's resurrection from the city's demolition list in the early 1980s to the spectacular home for touring shows it became with completion of the $15 million stage house last spring. "It's a major step forward for Buffalo," he said.

Gurney, who has seen several of his plays about growing up in upper middle-class Buffalo have been produced in the nearby Studio Arena Theatre, is a rarity -- a major artist who hasn't let success weaken his hometown ties.

"I'm very rooted here. Studio Arena has been good to me; my wife, Molly, is from here; and my mother (Mary Goodyear) lives here," he said.

Gurney, whose friends and family call him Pete, wrote the libretto for "Strawberry Fields," the central opera in a trilogy about Central Park that will be produced by the New York City Opera in November. Composer Michael Torke was his collaborator on the piece.

"I did one-half of one-third (of the trilogy). So that's one-sixth of the total. If it gets lousy reviews, remember that," he joked during a news conference.

James M. Wadsworth, chairman of the law firm of Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear, will head the $470,000 drive.

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