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Act Three of Shea’s renovation under way

The summer run of “Auditorium Restoration 3” opened Thursday at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, with a tangle of metal scaffolding rising from the stage, 60 feet in the air, to the edge of the balcony.

The $500,000 project to restore the ornate theater’s proscenium arch, high walls and ceiling area near the stage is expected to be completed by Sept. 13, one week before the annual Curtain Up! celebration. Work on the remaining 80 percent of the ceiling, at a cost of $2 million, is planned for the summer of 2014.

“This is the last major restoration project in the theater,” said Anthony C. Conte, Shea’s president since March 2001. “Once we’re done with this, all the major stuff will be completed. We’ve been preparing for this for awhile, and it’s great to see it getting started.”

The other finishing touches expected to add luster to Shea’s movie-palace grandeur will take place in 2015. That’s when the worn-down grand curtain and fabric on the back walls are expected to be replaced, and replicas of 50 lighting fixtures are to be manufactured and put in place.

But those projects, which can mostly be done while Shea’s is open, pale in comparison to the amount of meticulous effort needed to clean and paint the ceiling and front of the house during what is the auditorium’s third phase of restoration.

The scaffolding, erected by Safe Span of Tonawanda, was in place four days after Shea’s closed its sold-out run of “The Book of Mormon,” capping another successful season for one of the country’s most successful theaters for traveling Broadway productions.

The scaffolding includes bridge-like braces across the orchestra pit, since it would not have been able to support the weight.

Nine workers employed by Swiatek Studios, a Buffalo-based company with an extensive track record of church restoration, will be working on the theater through the summer, with union workers providing additional support.

Doris Collins, the theater’s restoration consultant, over the last 17 years has researched Shea’s past and worked with suppliers and restoration companies to ensure exact materials, patterns and colors, from carpeting to wall fabrics, are reintroduced to the theater.

One of the challenges now, she said, will be to determine the precise colors used on the proscenium’s painted fruit and garlands.

Collins will use a chemical stripper – a kind of lie detector test for color – to find out. It’s been used successfully on box seats to determine their original color scheme underneath layers of paint.

The original color was found to be far more subtle, Collins said, than the “bright, circus wagon” colors later applied.

Oil paints will be used, since that’s what was originally brushed on, and because latex doesn’t have the depth of color that oils do, Collins said. Nothing will be rolled or sprayed, either, since those applications provide a less desirable texture than brushes before the glaze is applied.

Collins also has been helped by more than 100 volunteers and students who through the years have made significant contributions toward the theater’s restoration, while helping the non-profit save money.

“Buffalo has a spirit of volunteerisim you don’t get in many, many cities. This will probably be my swan song, but I’ll come back as a volunteer and haunt everybody,” Collins laughed.

She added that the theater is always recruiting volunteers to help with the restoration; interested volunteers can call 829-1155.

Shea’s, which opened in 1926, was designed by Rapp & Rapp, the Chicago architectural firm considered among the handful of greatest movie-palace designers. The interior glasswork was done by Louis Comfort Tiffany, one of only four theaters he decorated.

The theater went through tough times for years before the stage house was enlarged to allow for traveling Broadway productions. This year, nearly 13,000 people were season ticket holders, once again putting the 3,019-seat theater among the highest one-week markets in the country.

“The community continues to support Shea’s, and we continue to appreciate it,” Conte said. “We continue to work to bring the best and newest shows from Broadway to Buffalo.”

Subscriptions are available for the 2013-2014 Broadway Series. It features “Ghost: The Musical,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Once,” “Evita,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and one non-musical, “War Horse.”

There also will be engagements of “Wicked” and “Beauty & the Beast.”