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A fond send-off for an icon as North Park Theatre makes transition

“One student, please.” “Enjoy the show.” “Two seniors, please.” “Thank you, enjoy the show.”

Two adults. One senior. Two students. More adults.

And so it went this week at the little window of the one-man ticket booth in the welcoming lobby of the North Park Theatre, where they prefer cash and they always have $2 bills to give in change.

The old movie house on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo enjoyed a fond send-off Thursday and earlier in the week, as it heads to a future under new management. Dozens of people were turning out every night for “Queen City,” a film with deep Buffalo roots, just like the theater itself.

“It was the place to come in the 1980s, just to be cool,” said Peter McGennis, director, writer and star of “Queen City.” “It didn’t matter what was on the screen.”

Nick Cintorino, who lives in the Old First Ward, was there Thursday night with Norm Dechert, who worked at the North Park for more than 40 years.

“I’m an old theater historian,” Cintorino said as he recalled the North Park’s various owners and operators.

“It was the North Park Cinema at one point, playing sub-run films at first-run prices.”

Several attendees said they came Thursday for sentimental reasons, but many were also regulars. Sue Overdorf and her husband, Ted, were there from Hamburg, and will be back. “It’s a remnant, but it’s grand,” she said. “We like the arty films, and they’ve always been dedicated to them here.”

The audience was upbeat and curious about what comes next, since word had gone out that the North Park would be reopened in a new incarnation after Dipson Theatres did not renew its lease for the building.

Dipson has been showing art house movies, local productions and Oscar-worthy independent films for decades in the Beaux Arts theater, the last remaining movie house of nine in Buffalo built and once operated by Shea’s. (Dechert could easily cite the dates: It opened in November 1920, and Bill Dipson took over the theater on July 12, 1967, he said).

The building’s current owner, attorney Thomas J. Eoannou, said in late May that he intends to do some restoration work on the theater before reopening it in partnership with Left Bank restaurant owner Michael G. Christiano. Updates could include a new digital projector – considered almost mandatory today to handle the preferred format for movies – and upgraded seating, which would be a dream come true for faithful filmgoers who have endured the theater’s lumpy, cracking cushions in recent years.

Dipson Theatres left the space with a salute to the city and its audience, inviting McGennis to each screening this week. In lieu of previews, McGennis talked to the audience ahead of the shows about making his movie in Buffalo, and he visited with fans and friends afterward.

The film itself is a collection of some of the city’s well-known pieces of art and culture – the photos of Milton Rogovin and the actors Vincent O’Neill and Josephine Hogan, the Hotel Lafayette (pre-renovation) and the Central Terminal, and the Colored Musicians Club and Rick Jeanneret.

McGennis wrote the music as well as the screenplay, and brought in such performers as Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, James Cotton, Sharon Jones, Maria Muldaur and the late Magic Slim, along with Vivica A. Fox. In front of the live audience Wednesday, his enthusiasm for his art and for his city was infectious – “I wanted to honor the living history of Buffalo, but also of Cleveland, Detroit … it’s a Rust Belt serenade.”

No date has been set, but Eoannou was adamant that the North Park will reopen – and still show movies – soon.

As the sign outside the nearby Floral Explorations shop put it, “North Park Theatre is here to stay.”