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North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre to celebrate 90th anniversary with $6.1 million in upgrades

NORTH TONAWANDA — How do you celebrate 90 years? By treasuring mementos of the past and looking ahead to the next 90 years, if you are associated with the historic Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center.

The nonprofit club that owns the 1,138-seat theater and its unique Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ will soon unveil detailed plans for a $6.1 million expansion and development project, which includes 23,000 square feet of new performance space and amenities. More than $2 million has been raised and organizers continue to seek funds.

The marquee of the Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center in North Tonawanda was fully restored in 2014 by Flexlume Sign Corp. and Wagner Signs. The restoration included bringing back the original paint colors, neon and flashing lights. Click on the photo to see more images from the theater. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Featured in the plans are updated dressing rooms and washrooms for the performers; updated restrooms for patrons; a new lobby with concession stand and bar; and a “black box” theater with 244 seats for smaller events, like community theater, according to Gary J. Rouleau, the Riviera's co-director and director of development.

Rouleau said detailed plans are “in the final design stage, about 85 to 90 percent complete, and we hope to unveil them in the next couple of months. I think the community will be proud and happy. We’ve raised over $2 million and our goal is $6 million, so we have work to do. We’re looking to state and local foundations and the community for help.”

As a way of focusing on its rich history, the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society, which owns the theater at 67 Webster St., is sharing photos, memories, video clips and facts about the Riviera each day through its website and social media and encourages the community to do the same.

“We’re always looking for new information on how the theater looked in the 1920s -- it changed hands so many times,” Rouleau said.

The theater observed the 90th anniversary of its opening day on Dec. 30. When it opened in 1926, the theater was called the “Twin Cities Riviera.” Reservations for the opening night show cost $1. The gala featured the movies, “Upstage,” starring Norma Shearer,  “The Mona Lisa,” in Technicolor,  a short comedy and a newsreel. Organist Fred Meyer accompanied the films and also soloed on the Mighty Wurlitzer, an organ built in 1926 at the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda. The evening also featured vaudeville and musical events.

“We had hoped to play 'Upstage' on our 90th anniversary, but we can’t find a copy in existence,” Rouleau said. “If there is one and we find it, we’d like to play it at a later date, because it’s part of our history.”

Built in 1926 by the Yellen family, the Riviera was billed as the “Showplace of the Tonawandas” and featured the work of architects Leon H. Lempart and Son, who patterned it after the Italian Renaissance. The interior artwork was created by Ferdinand Kebely at the Rochester Studio of Willard M. Lusk.

The theater was facing the wrecking ball when the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society took ownership in 1989.

The Riviera is one of only two remaining theaters open in Western New York with pipe organs that are original to the theaters. Click on the photo to view more images from the gallery. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The Riviera and Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo are the only two movie palaces still left in Western New York that feature their original pipe organs. The area once boasted more than 40 such theaters.

“And, there are less than 40 theaters left in the country that have organs in their original locations, and that number is getting closer to 30 as more theaters are being demolished,” Rouleau added.

These days, the Riviera offers an eclectic variety of entertainment, from silent movies accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer, to national and international touring acts. It is also rented out for dance recitals, corporate conferences, high school graduations -- and even weddings, Rouleau said.

Rouleau called the theater “a regional destination,” with 100,000 visitors annually from across the state as well as from southern Ontario, Canada, Ohio,  Pennsylvania and beyond. The theater’s resurgence has further helped inspire new restaurants, bars and shops in the neighborhood, he added.

During the “Celebrate 90 Years Campaign,” the nonprofit is asking for donations of $90 (or any amount supporters can give) to continue its mission to preserve and maintain the Riviera and its Mighty Wurlitzer organ and to promote the performing arts. A “Celebrate 90 Years” donation also earns a spot for the donor’s name on a gold star inside the theater’s lobby.

“We want the Riviera Theatre and Mighty Wurlitzer Organ to continue as a community treasure and a regional destination for the next 90 years and beyond,” Rouleau said.

To share Riviera memories or photos, visit:;;;; or

To donate to the “Celebrate 90 Years Campaign,” visit:,  call (716) 692-2413 or visit the box office at 67 Webster St. Make checks payable to Riviera Theatre, with “Celebrate 90” on the memo line. More information may be found at:

(Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The Buffalo News' Closer Look series continues with the Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center in North Tonawanda. Billed as the “showplace of the Tonawandas,” the Riviera Theatre was built in 1926 by the Yellen Family. Click on the photo at left to explore the historic theater through photos by News Photographer Mark Mulville.

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