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At 90, Shea’s Performing Arts Center is better than ever

When Shea’s Buffalo Theatre opened its doors 90 years ago Saturday, publicity material breathlessly heralded its arrival.

“We’ve made this theatre tremendous in size as well as overwhelmingly magnificent in decoration. It will hush you, awe you, stagger you – an acre of seats.

“The mightiest sight within four walls in all America will burst upon you when you step inside our colossal new theatre!”

Showbiz hyperventilating aside, the lavishly built 1926 theater by Chicago-based Rapp & Rapp, one of the handful of great movie palace architects, and boasting a rare theater interior by Louis Comfort Tiffany, was a sight to behold.

The palatial “Wonder Theatre” – opening just three years before the start of the Great Depression – allowed anyone with a movie ticket to experience a scale of ornate grandeur previously reserved for the nation’s 1 percent.

There were other grand theaters in Buffalo. But over the years, they – like most movie palaces throughout the country – fell victim to the decline of urban downtowns, and were torn down.

That was nearly Shea’s fate in the mid-1970s, before activists intervened.

That seems hard to believe today, with Shea’s months away from completing its restoration following the completion of its last major project – repairing and painting the ceiling – in 2014.

“The reward is seeing people coming through the doors and taking three or four steps, their jaws dropping and just staring up. You can always pick out the people who have not been in the theater before,” said Anthony C. Conte, a longtime volunteer who moved from a banking career to become Shea’s president and chief executive officer in 2001.

Conte, who likens the experience of entering Shea’s to walking into a European opera house, has focused like a projector beam on the theater’s restoration. He announced in December that he will retire after the 2015-16 season, and said the way the community has embraced and respected the theater has made his job “an absolute honor.”

About $15 million has gone into restoring Shea’s interior and exterior, with theater restoration consultant Doris Collins leading the effort from the start.

The historic marquee and blade sign returned. Walls and ceilings were repaired and painted. New seats, drapes, carpeting and brass doors arrived. Hundreds of floodlights and other lighting were replaced with energy-efficient bulbs, electrical work was rewired and the HVAC system updated. A new sound system will be installed this summer.

Collins often had to turn into a movie theater version of Sherlock Holmes to identify and locate the exact original materials and color schemes once used in the theater. She has led almost 100 volunteers through the years, from repairing plaster and painting wall surfaces, to stenciling and painting an almost 7,000-square-foot pattern across theater lobbies and stairwells.

Collins, now in her 20th year in the job, said it’s been wonderful to see the theater, one project at a time, returned to its former splendor.

“I have seen it go from dark and dingy and damaged to sparkling, like I can only imagine it was in 1926. I think we’re at that same feeling of awe again,” Collins said.

The theater’s financial fortunes also turned around after Conte came aboard, making the restoration possible. The theater was $5.2 million in debt after a $17 million stage expansion, but Conte steered Shea’s into the black and kept it there while the theater, with co-presenter Albert Nocciolino, became one of the top-grossing one-week touring Broadway subscription markets in the United States.

The number of season-ticket holders from year to year – there are 13,326 for the 2015-16 season – has become an envy of the industry. It has made Shea’s Performing Arts Center – renamed in 1993 – Western New York’s most financially successful arts venue.

That extraordinary success was noted in a December 2011 New York Times article, “Broadway Hits Gold in Buffalo.”

Shea’s leadership also saved the former Studio Arena Theatre, now the 710 Main Theatre, and opened the Smith Theatre adjacent to Shea’s.

Illustrious past

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, the 13th and largest to take theatrical promoter Michael Shea’s name, was built in one year for roughly $1.8 million. Shea’s was one of 104 theaters built by Rapp & Rapp, but proclaimed to be one of the architecture firm’s three greatest by Motion Picture News when it opened.

“You would expect to be bowled over when you walked into a Rapp & Rapp theater, with layer upon layer of decoration,” Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, told The News in 2009.

“The interesting thing about Shea’s is it was by no means a cookie-cutter copy of other theaters. The draperies, carpets, light fixtures and plaster detail had all been used in other places in other locations, but they were able to tie all those elements together into one sumptuous package that was Shea’s.”

The theater, with its neo-classic Spanish Baroque interior, presented motion pictures and live stage shows. It was partly financed and programmed by Paramount Studios into the 1940s, when Loew’s Corp. took over.

By the mid-1970s, Shea’s had fallen on hard times, and the city foreclosed on the property’s then-owner Leon Sidell for back taxes. When Loew’s, now leasing the theater, announced it was going to shut down, the volunteer group Friends of Buffalo Theatre got a court injunction to stop the company from stripping the building.

The group operated Shea’s for six years, and is credited with saving Shea’s from the wrecking ball. The group’s chairman, 22-year-old L. Curt Mangell III, even slept overnight in Shea’s for a few months to guard against a sneak demolition.

Conte succeeded Patrick J. Fagan, who conceived the stage expansion to allow for traveling Broadway shows, and guided the project to completion in 1999. Nonetheless, the theater’s debt and low subscription rate – barely more than one-third of what it is today – still left the theater’s future precarious.

Thanks to the success of shows like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” and financial support from local government, foundations and the public, the debt was paid up five years after the theater reopened. That allowed revenues to cover the theater’s operating budget, and money to be used on the theater’s restoration.

Now, 2016 stands to be the year when the restoration of the soon-to-be 90-year-old movie palace – which became rundown and was threatened with demolition, only to be resurrected as one of the nation’s most successful theaters – is finally achieved. That’s quite a birthday present.