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Shea’s restoration is behind revival of culture downtown

A 1926 movie palace that was nearly demolished in the early 1970s and struggled in the last decade has blossomed into downtown’s unrivaled success story in the arts.

The 3,019-seat Shea’s Performing Arts Center today is one of the top-grossing one-week, subscriber-based engagements for traveling Broadway shows in the country, with a season-ticket holder base that’s the envy of the industry.

At the same time, the city-owned theater’s top priority – to restore the Rapp & Rapp theater’s neo-classic Spanish Baroque interior, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany – is approaching the finish line. The exterior restoration was completed 10 years ago.

“Shea’s is a phenomenal asset for the City of Buffalo. It is clearly and without question one of Buffalo’s crown jewels, and it’s the centerpiece of our city’s Theater District,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said, noting the city had invested more than $750,000 in the building during his tenure.

“Shea’s is tremendously successful – probably beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, really,” said Randall Kramer, MusicalFare Theatre’s artistic and executive director. “Did anyone really expect them to become one of the top touring houses in the entire country? I don’t think so. It’s a great Buffalo success story.”

That extraordinary success – noted in a December 2011 New York Times article, “Broadway Hits Gold in Buffalo” – has occurred under the leadership of Anthony C. Conte, a former banker and entrepreneur who took the helm as president and chief executive officer in March 2001, when the theater was $5.2 million in debt.

Before that, Conte had a 30-year involvement as a volunteer dating back to 1973, when loans he provided as a banker helped stave off demolition, and to two later stints on the board of directors and one on the executive committee.

Among the theater’s accomplishments under Conte’s leadership:

• Shea’s season-ticket holders for the 2001-02 season – Conte’s first full season – stood at 5,248. The number of subscribers reached 13,154 in 2012-13 for its six Broadway tours, with this year’s total a still-robust 12,243. That ensures more than 50 percent of the seats are sold before tickets for one of the shows even go on general sale.

• The 150 or so shows being presented annually when Conte came aboard have increased to between 260 to 275, helping make the not-for-profit theater financially viable.

• A growing education department saw more than 10,000 youth served last year, including Camp Broadway, Shea’s summer theater camp.

• Shea’s – which also operates the Smith Theatre – reopened the former Studio Arena Theatre in 2012 after the building had been dark for four years. The renamed 710 Main Theatre, with 725 seats, is being used to showcase productions by local theater companies.

Conte credits Shea’s success in part to its quarter-century relationship with producer Albert Nocciolino, the theater’s co-presenter. Nocciolino, who earned his fourth Tony Award in 2013 for his role as a producer of “Kinky Boots,” also presents shows at similarly sized theaters in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Elmira, as well as in Erie, Pa., and Scranton, Pa.

Shea’s movement from red to black began after a $16 million stage expansion, under Conte’s predecessor Patrick Fagan, shut the theater down for a year before it reopened in May 1999.

Faced with significant debt, Conte began by instituting cost-saving measures, from tightening expenses and eliminating leased spaces to scrapping consultant agreements. He established a five-year plan to eliminate the debt and pay for the theater’s exterior restoration, which reached its goal in three years through a successful capital campaign.

An annual fund drive and four fundraisers were instituted, with the goal of bringing in an additional $750,000 a year to supplement other revenue. The Spotlight Committee, a volunteer organization, set about raising money for the interior restoration through a 5-kilometer road race, Academy Awards party and other fundraisers.

The theater also embarked on an ultimately successful plan under marketing director Lisa Grisanti to expand the primary Erie and Niagara county market into the Southern Tier, Canada and northwestern Pennsylvania.

As activity and attendance grew, restoration of the last remaining old-fashioned downtown movie theater moved forward under the exacting direction of longtime consultant Doris Collins.

Major outside work was completed when replicas of the original 65-foot-tall, green-and-gold blade sign and “Wonder Theatre” sign were installed in 2004. A missing pediment recreated from photographs was also put atop the building’s cream terra-cotta facade. More recently, replicas of the brass exterior doors were installed.

Inside the theater, new carpeting, lobby drapes, replastered walls and upgraded HVAC system have been followed by restoring the proscenium, high walls and 20 percent of the ceiling, with the remainder to be finished in the next two to three years.

“The restoration is never really done, because we are a functioning theater. But the reality is that once we finish what we’re doing now, the major restoration will be completed. That’s pretty amazing to me, because I wasn’t so sure I was ever going to see that,” Conte said.

Shea’s, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a boon to nearby restaurants, including the Bijou Grille across the street.

“Shea’s is the main reason whey we’re still open,” said co-owner Bea Millitello, who attributes 60 percent of the restaurant’s business to Shea’s clientele. “It has a pretty major impact, especially this year, when we have three weeks of ‘Wicked’ in January. Without Shea’s, we wouldn’t even have a fighting chance.”

On theater nights, Conte can usually be found standing near the main entrance doors, waiting to greet patrons stepping into the picture palace he’s done so much to revive. Like Millitello, Conte said he’s excited about returning auto traffic to Main Street because of the additional activity he expects it to bring. But that’s not the only reason.

“One of the things that has always bothered me was that 90 percent of the patrons come in through the Pearl Street back entrance and never see anything out front. The exciting part of the theater is on Main Street. People will actually be able to appreciate the whole theater the way it was intended to be appreciated, with the major marquee, the 60-foot blade sign and the expanse of the Grand Lobby,” Conte said.

“It’s always an absolute treat for myself and others when strangers walk in and their jaws drop.”