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A sign of the times: How Town Ballroom's new marquee came to be

Even Buffalo's most casual music fans have a rough idea where to find Town Ballroom.

It's been downtown's biggest music club dedicated to live music since opening in 2005 at 681 Main St. in the Theatre District. In the age of navigation systems and map apps, finding a parking spot would always present a greater challenge than finding the venue.

This is why Town Ballroom, which hosts more than 80 shows annually, has survived without a legitimate marquee, instead sporting a small, humbly lit sign until mid-September.

With the luxurious Shea's marquee illuminating Main Street, the Town Ballroom's lack of signage needled its owners, Artie Kwitchoff and Donny Kutzbach, for several years. But renovations to the century-old building, such as redoing the roof, the dressing room and the Leopard Lounge, took priority.

"We're the only business that's been able to get away without having any signage on its front," Kwitchoff said. "People are coming for whoever is on the stage. We were able to break a rule. Most businesses start with a marquee and kind of work into the building, but we were able to work backward."

In the years of delay, the owners had exchanged ideas for the sign. One theme was eventually agreed upon: the late Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip were to be the stars. A pair of 2007 concerts by the Canadian rock act signaled the Town Ballroom's break out and lent legitimacy to an otherwise unheralded venue.

Although the white text of the marquee sticks out prominently, the dark backdrop is a print of the only surviving image of the Tragically Hip by local photographer Joe Cascio, from the band's visit. The other photographs were lost when Cascio's hard drive crashed years ago.

"That picture during their two-night stand is really special to me," Kutzbach said. "It's one of the only instances I would ever see fit to put on the front of our building. That band, their music, the fans, that moment: it encapsulates the soul of what we do for me. It's beautiful."

"[The Hip's visit] defined this could be a special place in downtown Buffalo for live music, and that it could add to the whole landscape of the Theatre District, with Shea's and the Tralf and Irish Classical," Kwitchoff said. "We wanted to be part of that."

Kwitchoff collaborated on the design with Justin Tartick, who runs the design business Everyday Ink and Feature Meals, a new meal-prep enterprise at 598 Main St. It was Tartick's idea to flank the Hip shot with the Buffalo skyline. Kwitchoff knew Cascio could supply those images, too.

Once Tartick's design was approved by the two owners - Kutzbach lauded how he "communicates through design" - the specs went to Rory Allen of Zoom, a graphic design and print company that executed the Downie tribute wall on Hertel Avenue. Allen, a St. Joe's graduate like Kwitchoff and Kutzbach, assured Tartick's design would fit as the marquee.

"When you look at it closely, you see the skyline - there's a lot to [the sign] - it's very Buffalo and very us," Kwitchoff said. "We're now in our 13th year, and I don't know if anybody would have thought that. When we took over the building, there was no traffic on Main Street. Now, it's super exciting and all of downtown has changed."

Though the Town Ballroom's owners rarely heard a peep from fans about the lack of the sign, the sharp creation has concertgoers wondering why they were deprived for so long.

"That's the funny thing," Kwitchoff said. "Nobody said anything [before]. It drove us crazy more than anything else. Now it's like, 'Well why didn't you do that before? '"

Another look at Town Ballroom's new sign. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)


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