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VOLUNTEERS KEEP RIVIERA THEATRE GOING

NORTH TONAWANDA - When Riviera Theatre opened in 1926, it showed two silent movies, "Upstage," starring Norma Shearer, and "Mona Lisa." And it threw in some vaudeville acts.

When the ornate theater at 67 Webster St. celebrates its 75th birthday on Dec. 30, it is planned to show the same two silent flicks, and they might even throw in some funny live stuff on the side, just for good measure.

Members of the public may even be invited to come in costumes reflecting the Roaring Twenties as they arrive for the gala celebration.

But how will the Riviera be able to stage such an extravagant event when its tiny budget allows for only one paid employee, theater manager James R. Kretz?

The answer lies in how the theater building was restored over the past dozen years, and how the brass rails are kept polished, the rugs are blown clean of popcorn, and the old-time carbon-arc lamp projectors are kept spinning:

Nearly 180 volunteers.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the Riviera is visited by a work crew, a maintenance crew and an organ crew. Some of them are senior citizens. And many are working people who come in at night. And a few of them are working for their welfare check by helping out.

"We couldn't pay people to do what these people do for nothing," said Kretz. "If I asked the woman who's my "executive secretary' for today to go down and clean the brass rail, I'm sure she'd rush right down."

Even Barbara Maedl, who coordinates volunteers from all over Niagara and Erie counties, can't resist getting her hands dirty when it's time to polish the brass.

"We have a barbershop quartet show tomorrow," she said, "and we kind of like to put the spit and polish out for the people."

There are volunteers for ticketing, for ushering, for the concessions and display cases, as well as volunteer plumbers and carpenters. It took half a dozen years for volunteers to reupholster the 1,149 seats. And then there are the corporate donors, too numerous to list here.

But the pride and joy of the Riviera is its Mighty Wurlitzer. A half-hour organ concert precedes all shows, and full concerts are still held the third Wednesday of the month, with a sing-along and a silent movie as well.

As the organ dramatically rises from the orchestra pit to the stage, the organist shows his back to the audience, as in the days when the player had to watch the screen while improvising music and sound effects for silent movies.

Barbara A. Tucker, chairwoman of Friends of the Riviera, said F.R. Wurlitzer installed this organ as a "demo" for customers of his North Tonawanda company to try out inside a real theater.

"And he said that if the theater closed, he would take back the organ," Tucker said. "But instead, Wurlitzer closed. So we ended up with the organ."

"It kind of makes service difficult now," said Fred Utech, the chief projectionist and theater historian. The volunteer organ crew comes in Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he says. A work crew and a maintenance crew of volunteers also show up, so that "it looks like an ant hill" on some days.

"It doesn't take much to get volunteers," Utech explained. "Once you come all the way into the theater and discover the elegance, we know you'll be back."

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Riviera has gone through many hands since being built in 1926 by the Yellen family. Then for nine years it was run by Shea's/Paramount Publix. Sold in 1939 to Basil & Dipson, it became part of the Key Theaters before being taken over in 1989 by the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society.

Along the way, the theater came close to folding. Like the time it couldn't pay for a live act, so it surrendered the stained-glass windows in the interior doors. Decades later, the windows were replicated, based on old photos, by Nick O'Connor of Denver, nephew of the late Neil Brick, who had decorated the theater. Neither charged a penny for their work.

Coming attractions at the Riviera:

Friday at 7:30 p.m., a Glen Miller tribute by the Sentimental Journey Orchestra.

Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the Variety Show of the Lions Club of the Tonawandas.

Oct. 6, Mike Randall as "Mark Twain Live."

Oct. 7, Ramblin' Lou with Ray Price.

Oct. 13, Gospel Night at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 17, Monthly organ concert at 8 p.m., featuring Dan Thompson, with silent movie and sing-along.

Oct. 20, Pink Floyd's "The Wall" at 7:30 p.m.

e-mail: acardinale@buffnews.com