Change is in the air in Western New York, and it might be most noticeable when it comes to entertainment and culture.
That’s the case whether it’s music, dining, art, theater or just feeling like there is more to do and see.
The region’s resurgence was the big ongoing change, but 2015 featured other news events, from the sad to the weird, from moments in the international spotlight to departures of familiar faces and voices.
1. Restaurant revival spurs parking problems
The story of the year in downtown Buffalo was how people began to complain about parking. Specifically, how finding a free spot on the street has become horribly difficult on weekend nights.
Restaurants opening downtown are largely to blame for this new civic scourge. From local fast food icons such as Ted’s Hot Dogs to newcomers like Deep South Taco, new places to eat and drink were everywhere this year, around every corner, unavoidable, like a parking enforcement officer, you might say.
Toutant and Marble + Rye raised the snazziness quotient, Casa Di Pizza and Marco’s decided downtown should be part of their business plans, and breweries such as Big Ditch started to make beer-based restaurants a whole new Buffalo restaurant genre.
2. Buffalo is back on the musical map
The arrival of Paul McCartney in Buffalo, for the first time in his 50-year career, fulfilled a long-held dream for Beatlemaniacs in Western New York.
More significantly, it signaled a sea change for Buffalo as a concert market. For the first time since the 1970s, the region was back on the map as a primary destination for the biggest names in the touring business.
The major bookings at FNC have already been extended into 2016, with AC/DC, Rihanna and Justin Bieber among the top-tier shows already on the books for our downtown arena.
3. ‘Scary Lucy’ goes viral
In April, the tiny Village of Celoron became the center of an international controversy over a bronze statue of native daughter Lucille Ball that had long stood in a lakeside village park.
A social media campaign to have Dave Poulin’s dead-eyed, zombie-esque sculpture replaced with a more faithful likeness to the famous comedienne went viral, appearing in media outlets around the world including “Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Central’s “@Midnight” and in Entertainment Weekly.
After the hubbub died down, a plan was hatched to move the sculpture from Celoron to the nearby Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy in Jamestown.
4. Williams weds in Buffalo
Hearing Vanessa Williams say words like “Tim Hortons,” “Canalside,” “beef on weck” and “Elmwood” has a nice ring to it.
And knowing a Buffalo guy put a ring on her finger?
Western New Yorkers couldn’t resist the temptation to lap up every detail of the 52-year-old entertainer’s July wedding to Jim Skrip, a St. Bonaventure University graduate and retired accountant from Depew.
Williams and Skrip, who met on a Nile cruise, wedded during a Fourth of July weekend celebration that included a party at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, Mass at St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Church, a ceremony and reception at Statler City, and Williams’ own bridal digs for the weekend, the Hotel @ the Lafayette.
Nearly 400 guests, many from out of town, celebrated for the weekend by hitting must-see spots like Canalside and must-shop spots like Elmwood, with plenty of Tim Hortons stops in between. Among the stars who hit Buffalo: Williams’ “Desperate Housewives castmate Teri Hatcher; and her “Ugly Betty” co-stars Ana Ortiz, Christopher Gorham, Mark Indelicato and Tony Plana.
The nuptials made a splash nationally, including exclusive coverage in People magazine (along with The Buffalo News). For Williams and Skrips’ guests, though, Buffalo was the co-star. “They’ve noticed how it’s on the rise again, that their visions of what it used to be and what it is now are definitely different and improved,” Williams told The News. “I think that’s a big positive point for the city. People do recognize that it is on the uptick. There is a lot of young energy coming in. It’s hip.”
5. Concerts return to the Ralph
During the 1970s and 1980s, what was then known as Rich Stadium was often the site of multi-act bills featuring the biggest names of the era, among them the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Who, Eric Clapton, Yes, Bob Dylan & Tom Petty, and the Grateful Dead. However, following an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band in the summer of 2001, the stadium went dark as a a concert venue.
On July 11, the Rolling Stones became the first act to play the Ralph in over a decade. Not surprisingly, the Stones sold every available seat.
A few months later, boy-band One Direction came close to doing the same. Rumors abound that summer 2016 will find the Ralph fully active as a concert venue.
6. ‘Voice of the Bills’ dies
The radio voice of some of the greatest sports moments in the region’s history was stilled this year when Van Miller died July 17.
Miller, a Dunkirk native and the longtime sports director for WBEN and then WIVB TV, became synonymous with the Buffalo Bills thanks to an association that started when the AFL team began play in 1960, through the Super Bowl years of the 1990s until his retirement following the 2003 season.
During his career, Miller called Buffalo Braves games in the National Basketball Association and Niagara University basketball games during the Calvin Murphy era. He also hosted the game show “It’s Academic” and a Saturday bowling show called “Beat the Champ.”
But for legions of fans, Miller will always be the Voice of the Bills.
John Murphy, the man who succeeded him in the booth for Bills games, may have said it best: “He’s what Bills football sounds like. Has there ever been anyone better and more popular in Buffalo broadcasting history than Van?”
7. Local media personalities move on
The comings and goings of local broadcast personalities is always news in Western New York, where it’s not uncommon for the same person to be on the air for generations.
This year featured several “goings” that drew our attention.
• Larry Norton, the morning man on 97 Rock for more than 30 years, retired in December.
• Rich Newberg, a reporter at WIVB, Channel 4, since the 1970s and one of the longest-tenured television reporters in Buffalo broadcast history, announced his retirement.
• Joanna Pasceri, who had worked at WKBW, Channel 7, for more than 20 years – nine as the station’s primary co-anchor – resigned after the station hired a reporter who was to become her replacement.
8. At least there’s ‘30 for 30’
Someday, Bills fans may have a chance to enjoy the moment again, to watch a highlight package to see the winning play again and again; to wake up on Monday mornings with a smile, excited about what the team did the day before; to imagine a playoff game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
But this year, we at least got to revel in nostalgia for the Super Bowl glory days of the 1990s, thanks to an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on those teams, “Four Falls of Buffalo.”
The film aired on the sports network on a Saturday night, but several hundred lucky people were invited to see it in advance and hobnob with some of the Bills of that era at a premiere in the North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue. It had all the makings of a Hollywood event in Buffalo.
The film itself even had a happy ending, a fantasy scene in which the infamous wide-right kick of Super Bowl XXV sails through the uprights. If only …
9. East Aurora charms on made-for-TV movie
We know how lovely our snowy winters can be, but they tend to be shown on national television in a negative way. That changed when the locally made movie “A Prince for Christmas” premiered Nov. 29 on ION and showcased the winter glory and small-town charm of East Aurora.
The Christmas movie, shot under the title “Small Town Prince,” took over East Aurora in early 2015. Los Angeles-based director Fred Ray and crew were attracted by the “old-fashioned, snowbound charm” of East Aurora, which was perfectly captured in the film. The red-and-white awnings of Vidler’s 5&10 and the Aurora Theatre marquee give a taste of nostalgia to the film. Colden Kitchen, Firefly Cupcakes and Arcade & Attica Depot also have nice roles.
“A Prince for Christmas,” about an engaged prince with cold feet who heads to the U.S. in search of true love, starred Viva Bianca and Kirk Barker as well as local actors Mary Kate O’Connell and Peter Johnson.
10. Comfort at the theaters
Buffalo is famously the birthplace of the Barcalounger, invented here more than 50 years ago.
The year 2015 renewed that commitment to comfort.
Reclining seats are becoming the norm in movie theaters, as multiplexes strive to coax people to get up off their couches and come out to the movies. The AMC theaters to be opened in spring 2016 in the Market Arcade building downtown will feature reclining seats, it is promised. That follows a trend already set by the AMC Maple Ridge 8. Dipson Theatres, which has already updated its McKinley Mall and Chautauqua Mall locations with motorized reclining seats, recently announced plans to do the same with the Amherst Theatre.
Most memorably, Kleinhans Music Hall jumped on board. Coinciding with the appropriately supersized Rachmaninoff concerto that kicked off the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th season, Kleinhans unveiled roomier seats.
At first glance, the hall doesn’t look different. Its graceful proportions are unchanged. But there are about 400 fewer seats than there used to be, and each one is three inches wider. Each seat now has a total width of 22 inches. There is also more leg room in the first 10 rows.
“We’re just trying to make things a little bit better for the next 75 years,” BPO Executive Director Dan Hart told The News, announcing the improvements.