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New life at Studio Arena; Shea's has an ambitious plan to bring a mix of productions to the old theater

The curtain will rise again at the former Studio Arena, the renowned Buffalo theater that went dark four years ago.

The purchase of the Main Street theater building by a nonprofit organization at a foreclosure sale this week was a welcome plot twist in a drama that heretofore featured too much tragedy.

The new owner, 710 Main St., which is the address of the theater, bid $2.1 million for the property, which can seat up to 625 people.

Theatergoers must accept the reality that the Studio Arena Theatre, Western New York's oldest theater company until its unraveling in bankruptcy in 2008, isn't coming back.

Instead, 710 Main St. is contracting with Shea's Performing Arts Center, which will book plays for the stage -- produced by professional theater companies primarily from outside of Western New York.

"It's going to be a variety, a mix of product, as to where it's coming from," said Anthony Conte, president of Shea's. "A key on our part is to assess, evaluate, if we think XYZ show can sell in Buffalo."

Conte mentioned regional theater groups in Cleveland, Rochester and Syracuse as possibilities, as well as some organizations in New York City.

The theater building will be renamed. Shea's plans to seek bids within a month or so for naming rights to the facility, which additionally will be used for private events, corporate functions and concerts.

The building also could serve as a booking site for local theater companies that need a larger venue for an especially popular production, Conte said.

The whole operation will be in keeping with what Shea's does now on a larger scale in its historic theater down Main Street, where big musical productions and concerts are presented.

Studio Arena dated to the 1920s and had links to Broadway and to well-known performers, including James Whitmore, Colleen Dewhurst, Glenn Close, Kelsey Grammer and many more. Its loss stabbed at the heart of Buffalo's proud history of live theater.

But there was little sense in trying to revive a regional theater model that didn't work financially.

Shea's and 710 Main St. will be delivering something new that could take off in theater-hungry Western New York.

The two organizations won't have the significant overhead costs that burdened Studio Arena, which employed dozens of people. Shea's also has a solid track record of bringing in quality productions and marketing them.

Conte said he's not aware of another community in the country attempting to present plays in this fashion.

"We still will be taking a certain amount of risk," he said.

A risk that will be worth taking to restore life to a key venue in the Theater District.