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Landmark theater is on solid footing thanks to Conte’s 14 years of leadership

Before Buffalo was booming again, when there was little reason to suspect that an upturn might ever arrive, there was Shea’s Performing Arts Center. As its restoration began, and it attracted better and better productions, it was downtown’s star. Much of that credit goes to Anthony C. Conte, who on Tuesday announced his retirement after 14 years as president of Shea’s. His shoes will be difficult, but essential, to fill.

Shea’s would not be what it is today without Conte’s passion and leadership. He oversaw the restoration of the former movie palace, built in 1926, and just as important, put it in the black after eliminating a $5.2 million debt. Without those efforts, the stunning theater would not be what it is today, and might not even exist at all.

That would have been a blow to Buffalo. For many years Shea’s was the reason many people came downtown. It was an anchor when Buffalo needed one.

The restoration of Shea’s was a remarkable and intensive undertaking. New seats were installed, as well as curtains and carpeting. The proscenium, the high walls and exterior brass doors were restored. Mechanics were updated and replicas of the 65-foot-tall blade sign and “Wonder Theater” sign were installed. Most recently, the repair and repainting of the theater’s beautiful ceiling was completed. What remains to be done should be finished by spring, Conte said.

But that’s not all that Conte accomplished. Along the way, he turned Shea’s into one of the best theaters of its size anywhere in the country. With the expanded stage, the theater has been able to attract major traveling productions, feeding Buffalo’s stature as an important theater destination.

That expanded stage was crucial to Shea’s success, but it cost $16 million and produced the $5.2 million debt that Conte had to confront. When he began his tenure, Shea’s had 5,248 season ticket-holders. Today, the 3,019-seat theater has 13,326 subscribers, its debt is eliminated and it is turning a profit. Part of the trick was the success of Conte’s strategy of appealing to theater-goers beyond Erie County, from Rochester to Toronto.

Conte had other successes, as well. He opened the Smith Theatre to present off-Broadway musicals and musical comedies, and for dramas, rescued the former Studio Arena Theatre, renamed the 710 Main Theatre. He will be a tough act to follow, but that’s the challenge.

In some ways, Conte and his team have done the heavy lifting. Shea’s is a sumptuous place, renowned within the theater world, because of his work. It attracts top productions. Its restoration is a model for other cities to follow. His successor must continue that path, maintaining the theater and ensuring that it remains current and open to new ideas.

If possible, it would be best to find that successor from somewhere in Western New York, and there surely are possibilities. As Conte, a former banker, demonstrated, talent can be found outside the theater community.

Still, what is most important is to find the person who has the skills and temperament to maintain this restored jewel and, if possible, make it even better. Conte has set that bar high.