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Shea’s president announces his retirement

Anthony C. Conte on Tuesday announced his retirement as president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, ending a 14-year tenure in which he oversaw its restoration and helped turn the former movie palace into Western New York’s most financially successful arts venue.

He will step down at the end of the 2015-16 season, but remain with Shea’s as a part-time consultant working on special projects.

“My main goal when I started was to finish the restoration, and we have done that – we should be completed by early spring,” said Conte, who also spent years as a Shea’s volunteer. “I also wanted to strengthen out the finances, which we did in about a three-year period.

“I look forward to spending more time with my wife and my grandchildren, and doing some more traveling.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown applauded Conte for turning Shea’s into a success story.

“Tony is someone that has led Shea’s with great creativity, warmth and a true collaborative spirit. He restored this great jewel, and helped make Buffalo’s Theatre District one of the best midsized theater destinations in the country,” the mayor said.

“It has been a pleasure working with Tony over the years,” Gregg Stalker, Shea’s chairman, said in a statement. “His leadership at Shea’s, mentorship to staff and contributions to the city are immeasurable. We look forward to continuing to work with him on a consulting basis.”

Conte partnered with producer Albert Nocciolino, the theater’s co-presenter, in programming shows. During his tenure, Shea’s became one of the top one-week touring Broadway subscription markets in the country.

But it didn’t start out that way.

When the former M&T Bank executive took over, the theater carried $5.2 million in debt from a $16 million stage expansion that allowed the theater to present large-scale Broadway touring productions. There were 5,248 season ticket-holders.

Now, the theater is in the black, and there are 13,326 season ticket holders for the 2015-16 season. The theater seats 3,019.

A key to Shea’s success that Conte instituted was expanding the theater’s marketing reach beyond Erie County – from Rochester to the east to Toronto to the north.

Conte also is credited with restoring the luster to the 1926 movie palace. He put consultant Doris Collins in charge of that effort; the last major project – repairing and painting the lavish ceiling – was completed in 2014.

Before that, new seats, curtains and carpeting were installed. The proscenium, the high walls and exterior brass doors were restored. Mechanics were updated. Replicas of the 65-foot-tall blade sign and “Wonder Theater” sign also were installed.

Along the way, Shea’s state-of-the-art restoration became a model for other movie palaces making the transition to full performing arts centers.

“You don’t need me,” Conte recalled a theater consultant telling a Fox Theatre employee in Detroit, in a 2009 interview with The News. “All you need is to take a trip to Buffalo.”

Conte also opened the Smith Theatre, presenting off-Broadway musicals and musical comedies, and the 710 Main Theatre, formerly Studio Arena Theatre, for dramas.

The theater community reacted with gratitude upon learning of his departure.

“I can’t say enough about how Tony Conte really turned Shea’s into the anchor of the Theatre District that it is today,” said Scott Behrend, artistic director of Road Less Traveled Productions.

“When Studio Arena went bankrupt, that job fell on his shoulders to basically save that building from the wrecking ball, and he did it. I think we’re all indebted to him for keeping that building a theater. That was a big deal, and he’s the one who made that happen.”

Behrend also praised Conte for fostering the local theater scene while bringing in national shows.

“Tony had the vision, the smarts and made the connections, so I think he’s made a tremendous contribution,” said Meg Quinn, artistic director of Theatre of Youth. “He managed to bring Shea’s to the point where it had an identity, a clarity about what it was to be for the community.”

News Arts Critic Colin Dabkowski contributed to this report. email: msommer@buffnews.com