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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 returned the compliment.

America's most-produced playwright stepped to the lectern outside Shea's new stagehouse Thursday 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, it's up to Shea's private-sector supporters to 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 that it became with completion of the $15 million stagehouse 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 at 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. The other two operas were written by Wendy Wasserstein and Terrence McNally in collaboration with other composers.

"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.

The theater's annual campaign, which has a $470,000 goal, will be headed by James M. Wadsworth, chairman of the law firm of Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear.

The fund drive will serve the dual purpose of helping Shea's balance its operating budget and pay off $7 million lent by banks for the expansion, noted Patrick G. Fagan, president and chief operating officer.

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