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Shea's unveils portrait of woman who saved theater from demolition

No one was more responsible than Roberta "Bobbie" Drapanas for saving the Buffalo Theater and midwifing its rebirth as Shea's Performing Arts Center.

When the onetime Main Street vaudeville house was threatened with demolition in the 1970s, she helped organize Friends of Buffalo Theater, which went to court to stop the property's slide toward oblivion. Drapanas later co-founded the successor Spotlight Committee, which propelled the landmark show house's continuing restoration and expansion, and served on Shea's board for many years before dying at age 80 in 2003.

"She was one of our staunchest supporters," Shea's President Anthony C. Conte said Tuesday as a portrait acknowledging Drapanas' starring role was unveiled in the Spotlight Lounge, overlooking the Grand Lobby, where VIPs are feted during Broadway shows.

"She put her all into making sure that with the little money we had, we could get things done," said Conte, who teared up during the ceremony.

An interior designer, Drapanas put her money where her heart was. She left $1 million for an endowment "to ensure the long-term future of Shea's," said Conte, a friend of Drapanas for more than 30 years.

Buffalo portrait artist George Palmer rendered the petite Drapanas in a glamorous youthful pose, wearing an off-the-shoulder gown with her black hair done in a swirl.

She would have been pleased by the fuss, said her sister, Marylou Roberts of Varysburg. Shea's "was her life -- her baby," Roberts said. "She got everybody involved."

Shea's used the occasion to show off new carpeting recently installed throughout the house. The five patterns, all variations of the burgundy, blue and gold originals designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1926, were replicated at a cost of about $600,000 with a $200,000 state grant and contributions from private donors.

Conte also noted the return of lush draperies in the original gold and mauve colors that adorned the theater's Petite Lobby but were removed at least 40 years ago. The replacement material was loomed in Austria.

Outside, workers were busy placing new energy-efficient LED message boards on the Main Street marquee and repainting the Pearl Street entrance for Friday's Curtain Up! gala for 500 guests on Shea's main stage.

Conte told supporters gathered for the Drapanas portrait dedication that the Broadway road-show house has sold a record 11,671 season tickets for 2009-10, with two weeks remaining in the subscription campaign.

There are theaters in cities "two or three times the size of Buffalo that don't have 11,000 season ticket holders," he said. "We'd love it to be 12,000."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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