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Finishing touches ; Craftsmen high in the air will work to restore Shea's ceiling to its original splendor

The grand ceiling in Shea's Performing Arts Center hasn't seen a sponge or coat of paint since Cornelius and George L. Rapp's movie palace officially opened 85 years ago today.

That's slated to change with a $1.7 million, three-phase campaign to put the finishing touches on Shea's neo-classic Spanish Baroque interior.

"It's really the last major restoration project in the building, the last big project," said Anthony C. Conte, Shea's chief executive officer.

In the next two weeks, Conte expects to sign a contract that will bring in engineering and architectural experts to determine whether the wooden catwalk system above the ceiling meets safety standards. If it needs to be replaced, Conte expects the work to occur during July and August.

Phase two calls for starting, one year from now, the cleaning, minor repair and painting of the molded plaster ceiling and dome. The auditorium's high walls will also be done, with the work expected to take up to 18 months.

The proscenium arch, front wall and balcony underside would require similar treatment for two to three summer months in the project's final phase.

Suspended scaffolding, like that used to paint the underside of bridges, will eliminate the need to remove seats or shutter the theater.

The scaffolding will attach to steel beams in the attic, allowing up to a half-dozen workers to work within a 20-by-20-foot area.

All lighting fixtures, including the crystal chandeliers, will also be taken down, cleaned and in some cases reassembled or replaced.

The interior is catching up to the completed exterior, which in 2004 saw the theater install a replica of its original 65-foot-tall green-and-gold blade sign, re-establish the "Wonder Theatre" sign above the theater's entrance and replace the missing pediment atop Shea's cream terra-cotta facade.

Restoration of the auditorium is contingent on whether all the funding is in place, Conte said.

A $712,500 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, secured through Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, together with other dollars means the theater needs to raise an additional $700,000.

Conte hopes that helping to complete the theater's last major restoration project may be an added incentive for donors.

So far, $20 million has been spent on restoration, plus $16 million to expand the stagehouse since Shea's O'Connell Preservation Guild formed in 1980 and took over management of the city-owned building the following year.

The costs to the theater over the years would have been more -- $2 million to $3 million more, at least -- if not for volunteers, Conte said.

"You look at the grand lobby, and everything with the single exception of the draperies has been restored by volunteers, such as plaster repairs, painting, chandelier rehabilitation, and [marblelike] scagliola repairs," he said.

"We are very thankful for the volunteer support we get. It's pretty amazing."

The volunteers -- 22 at present, from the novice to the highly skilled -- are guided by Doris Collins, the restoration consultant who for nearly 15 years has focused on returning the theater's Louis Comfort Tiffany-designed interior to its original condition and gleam.

On a recent day in her basement workshop, longtime volunteer Dominic DeFillippo was shaping modeling clay-like plasticene, mixed with linseed oil, with rasps and other sculpting tools to reconstruct an open, gaping mouth on the decorative, hand-carved throne chair.

Three other original matching theater chairs, normally located in the petite lobby, needed work, include one that will be reupholstered with a synthetic velour done by an outside company and approved by the State Office of Historic Preservation.

"Substitute materials are allowed as long as they look the same, function the same and are safe," Collins said.

DeFillippo is retired from his former antiques restoration business, and few volunteers are as skilled as he. But their labor is equally valuable, Collins said. They can be found in the cavernous theater scrubbing, staining, stenciling, polishing and painting.

Collins relies on a notebook containing original photographs commissioned by architects for replicating the theater's past, as well as original scraps of material from carpets and draperies.

Her efforts to restore the theater take her to suppliers around the world. The theater's original carpeting was reproduced by a company in Northern Ireland that still looms carpets the same way. She is currently working with a company in the Czech Republic to replace missing crystals in light fixtures.

Closer to home, a company in Oregon is trying to manufacture orange-pink glass globes in the right color mix.

"Fortunately, because we're not in and out of here to do the whole theater in a year, I have the luxury of doing all this research," said Collins, who previously spent five years restoring Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.

Sometimes, Collins said, she likes to go way up in the last row of seats and look around, thinking of how it might have felt when movie palaces were the first form of mass entertainment in the United States that people from all walks of life could attend.

"People coming in off the street were already in the world of make-believe before they saw what was on the screen," she said.

The theater, partly financed and programmed by Paramount Studios when it opened in 1926, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. In the same decade, the volunteer Friends of Buffalo Theatre helped stave off likely demolition.

When Conte, a former M&T bank executive, took over in March 2001, the theater carried a $4.6 million debt and a subscription rate of 4,800.

Since then, Shea's has become one of Western New York's best success stories.

The 3,019-seat Shea's set a theater record for the 2010-11 season for most Broadway season tickets sold. The 13,017 subscribers topped last year's previous high by some 987 tickets, prompting Shea's co-presenter and producer Albert Nocciolino to proclaim, "Shea's has become the single best one-week Broadway subscription market in America."

In honor of its anniversary, Shea's is presenting the 1925 silent film "The Lost World," with stop-motion effects by Willis O'Brien, later of "King Kong" fame, at 2 p.m. today. House organist Bruce Woody will perform on the restored Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. Tickets are free, and available at Wegmans.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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