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What It Looked Like Wednesday: The North Park Theatre

When it was announced in June 2013 that Dipson Theatres would not renew its lease with North Park Theatre, many wondered if the curtain had finally fallen on the historic neighborhood theater. The passage of time, previous owners’ indifference to the building, and the exorbitant cost of digital projection were all capable villains for this poor damsel in distress.

Fortunately, much like the heroes of the silver screen who arrive just in time, two men – attorney Thomas Eoannou and restaurateur Michael Christiano – appeared and saved the theater from a certain death. The story of the North Park Theatre’s survival, however, is something akin to a trilogy.

Part I: The early years

When the North Park Theatre opened in November 1920, it was one of several movie theaters in the city owned and operated by dock laborer-turned-theater mogul Michael Shea (whose Shea’s Performing Arts Center bears his name).

One local newspaper proclaimed it “Buffalo’s finest neighborhood theater,” whose splendid interior rivaled in “beauty and appointment that of any opera house in America.” Indeed, the theater’s ceiling boasted a five-paneled dome painted by Pan-American Exposition artist Raphael Beck. An elaborate proscenium – also painted by Beck – loomed over the stage. A marble lobby floor greeted its visitors. Twenty years after it went up, the theater’s trademark marquee would light up the intersection of Hertel and North Park avenues.

[What It Looked Like Wednesday: Shea’s Seneca Theatre in South Buffalo]

In time, however, the theater’s domed ceiling would be stained by tobacco and dirt, the elaborate proscenium hidden by an expansive movie screen, the marble floor paved over with carpeting, and the marquee weathered from 70 years of harsh Buffalo winters.

Part II: The restoration

Current owners Eoannou and Christiano closed the movie theater in June 2013 and embarked on a nine-month renovation.

Swiatek Studios, which restored much of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, was hired to remove the stains from the crumbling ceiling, in addition to resealing and repainting it. They also painstakingly repainted all six of Beck’s murals. The carpets were pulled up from the lobby floor, once again revealing the marble entryway. The battered marquee likewise received a makeover from Flexlume Signs, the same company tasked with installing it some 70 years earlier.

Perhaps most importantly, a new state-of-the-art digital projector, estimated to cost nearly $100,000, was installed.

The North Park Theatre reopened its doors on March 7, 2014, following an expansive nine-month renovation. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Part III: The present

Today, theater patrons are treated to classic, independent, family and, occasionally, first-run films. As the North Park Theatre approaches its centennial, there is discussion about restoring the lobby to its original grandeur, including knocking down the ceiling  and restoring the higher, original ceiling replete with elaborate crown moldings. That would also offer visitors a glimpse of the stained glass window partially obscured by the marquee outside. The window, bearing the name “Shea’s North Park” and bookended by the traditional theater masks of comedy and tragedy, had been hidden behind a cement wall for nearly 60 years until recently.

With all these renovations – both finished and planned – new ownership has proven to be the hero of this silver screen, setting it up to entertain future generations of theatergoers.

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