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Shea's sets record in season tickets

In hard times, a stage performance with upbeat music and dancing -- on Broadway in Manhattan or Main Street in Buffalo might help with forgetting cares and woes.

Michael Shea believed that in 1926 when he opened the Buffalo Theater, and 82 years later, he still seems to be right. Despite a struggling economy, Shea's Performing Arts Center signed up 11,013 season-ticket buyers for the current season, easily surpassing the previous high of 9,910 in 2004-05.

"We knew we had a good season coming up. We were pretty confident of a high renewal rate," said Anthony C. Conte, Shea's president. "What surprised us was the number of new subscribers."

The 3,427 newcomers total just 1,373 fewer than the 4,800 subscriber base in 2001, Conte's first season at the helm.

The subscription total for the 3,000-seat showplace includes packages for a limited number of productions as well as tickets for the full schedule.

Conte credited strong interest in touring Broadway productions for most of the gain. The schedule opened Oct. 14 with "Legally Blonde the Musical" and will resume Nov. 13 with "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular," followed by "Mamma Mia!" in February, "The Wizard of Oz" in March, "A Chorus Line" in May and "The Color Purple" in June.

Subscribers to the Broadway series also got priority ordering for "The Nutcracker" and "Annie" in December, "Rent" in January and "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles" in February, plus other special events.

Albert Nocciolino, the Binghamton-based producer who has booked Broadway shows into Shea's for 21 years, says he thinks variety lured more people this year. "Legally Blonde" and "The Color Purple" are on their first national tour; the return of the Radio City Christmas show appeals to families; the London production of "The Wizard of Oz" is a new take on that story; and the "Chorus Line" revival adds something old, he noted.

Advance sales benefited from a marketing push that began last spring during the monthlong run of "Wicked," the Tony Award-winning musical that broke attendance records, Conte said.

Thirty of the 32 performances sold out fast. The captivating witches tale based on "The Wizard of Oz" persuaded many audience members to buy subscriptions for the fall-spring schedule, Conte said. Others who were unable to find any "Wicked" tickets or were shut out of prime seats decided to subscribe early.

"If you want good seats for big shows, the only way to guarantee them is to buy season tickets," Conte said.

The promotions during "Wicked" included ushers' lapel pins advertising the upcoming season, brochures, a subscription booth and ribbons bedecking seats still available.

Conte also said sales benefited from an industry truism: "If people have a positive experience the first time, they'll come back for shows they normally wouldn't go to."

As Michael Shea suspected in his day, bad economic news also might have worked in the theater's favor, said Conte and Lisa Grisanti, marketing manager.

"Some people won't be going on expensive vacations, and are looking for things to do here," Conte said. "They know a $300 season ticket costs a lot less than a week in Florida."

Grisanti noted that ticket packages sold for as little as $162.


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