Shea's Performing Arts Center, which is now celebrating the 25th year of its Broadway subscription series, is one of the great rags-to-riches stories in the cultural history of Western New York.
Not so long ago, the institution was on the verge of physical and financial collapse, the great promise it once held as an opulent movie house in danger of being reduced to a parking lot. But just as the situation was turning dire in the early '70s, a small group of people stepped in to rescue Shea's from the brink of demolition. That hardworking group gradually grew. And some 40 years later, the theater now ranks as the highest-grossing venue for one-week engagements of touring Broadway shows in the United States.
That small group of people who started it all, and many of the thousands who helped Shea's on its slow and steady ascent to success, were volunteers. And one of them was Anthony Conte, a member of Shea's fundraising group in the '70s who went on to serve on its board in the '90s before taking over the organization from Patrick Fagan in 2001.
Conte, more than any other single person except perhaps Broadway producer Albert Nocciolino, is responsible for the success the nonprofit organization has seen in the last decade.
But he's also put himself at the center of a needless controversy over Shea's volunteers that has already managed to tarnish the organization's otherwise sterling reputation.
When Conte took over as president and CEO in 2001, he began instituting a policy regarding when and where volunteer ushers are allowed to sit in the theater. (Answer: exceedingly rarely and far away from patrons.) Longtime ushers began to publicly complain in 2006 about the policy, which, as one former usher wrote in a letter to the editor that year, prevented them from sitting in the back rows of the theater "if there is a patron in the same row, or from sitting in front of any patron, even though there are empty seats."
Other ushers, some of them elderly and with health problems, shared their complaints about Conte's policy with The Buffalo News' Mark Sommer in March of this year. And the controversy came to a head in late August, when two of the ushers who spoke with The news were told their services were no longer welcome after decades of combined service.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Conte said that the ushers' decision to take their complaints outside the theater gave Shea's "a black eye."
"The reason we decided not to invite them back was because they did not follow the normal procedures for dealing with this," he said. "They could have easily come to me, they could have come to any of our senior managers and we would have addressed the issues but they never did."
One of the ushers said she brought the issue repeatedly to her immediate supervisor - a pretty logical step for filing an internal complaint. When she got no response, she circulated a petition and later talked to The News
The upshot? Conte's unnecessarily strict policy - not the fact that two ushers merely voiced their concerns about it - is ultimately responsible for this "black eye" on Shea's public record. It was well on its way to healing, too, when the theater made the highly inadvisable decision that the ushers who complained would not be welcome back.
The result is a completely avoidable public relations headache - and hopefully a lesson in PR 101 - for the theater. It could have been prevented by a modicum of compassion from the man who is handsomely rewarded for his own hard work and whose history with this vaunted Buffalo institution ought to make him an advocate for Shea's volunteers and not their adversary.