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Fried chicken, a growing gallery and bumper cars: WNY culture in 2018

It's not your normal chicken sandwich (at least not judging by the lines). They're definitely not your normal bumper cars, either. But if you like Chick-fil-A, or if the idea of driving crazily on ice is appealing to you, then 2018 was a good year to be a Buffalonian.

The last 12 months have seen popular television personalities leave the Buffalo airwaves and local legendary musicians make a triumphant and open-hearted homecoming. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery settled an ongoing debate over its expansion plans with a design that includes input from many sectors, including preservationists.

Thousands of locals got a shot at fame and the chance to catch the hottest Broadway show. We have many new places to clink beer glasses and one less spot to grab a much-loved Italian meal.

Here's a look back at some of our most popular and well-read stories of 2018:

'Hamilton' propels Shea's box office to new heights

Theater producer Albert Nocciolino, who has long been responsible for helping bring Broadway shows to Shea’s Performing Arts Center, put it simply: “This is the ‘Hamilton’ era.”

The numbers prove it. The hit show opened Nov. 20 at Shea’s, but its impact was felt much earlier. The theater sold 18,474 subscriptions for its series of Broadway shows, an all-time high that is more than 3,000 seats above the previous record.

That interest was fueled by “Hamilton.” The musical, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, is the hottest Broadway show in generations and one of the toughest tickets to get anywhere.

So when Western New York theater fans learned the “Hamilton” tour would stop here for three weeks, they clamored for tickets.

'Hamilton's' hip-hop history spectacularly holds up on tour

That included tickets for single shows and subscriptions for the entire Broadway series. Nocciolino told News Reporter Mark Sommer that Shea’s likely could have sold more than 23,000 subscriptions, which would have effectively sold out the six-show series, but wanted to ensure that seats were available for individual shows.

“No one ever, ever imagined, anticipated or dreamed that we would be capping subscription series here or around the country, and doing the kind of business we're doing,” Nocciolino said. “It's a glorious, wonderful time not only on Broadway, but for shows on the road as well.”

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Artistic rendering depicts expansion plans for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Albright-Knox revises expansion plans

The furor over expansion plans released one year earlier calmed considerably in June, when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery unveiled a new design that included a historic and much-beloved 1962 building by the Buffalo-born architect Gordon Bunshaft.

Shohei Shigematsu of the international architecture firm OMA designed the plan, which includes a new building on the northwest side of the Albright-Knox campus along Iroquois Drive. That building will have what Shigematsu called a “translucent skin” that allows pedestrians to see inside.

At the urging of preservationists, the existing Bunshaft building will be preserved.

"We have the support – support's probably the right word – of preservation, both state and local," said Buffalo developer Michael Joseph, chairman of the AK360 project committee, to The News’ Colin Dabkowski.

The expansion is expected to cost $155 million. One-third comes from Los Angeles philanthropist and Buffalo native Jeffrey Gundlach. When the building opens in 2021, it will be known as the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum.

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Chick-fil-A comes to Buffalo

It’s not that everyone loves Chick-fil-A. It just seemed that way in late November, when the fast-food chicken chain finally opened a location in the Buffalo area.

More than 100 people were lined up outside the door Nov. 29, when the Cheektowaga location opened for business. That came after years of speculation over when the chain would open in Western New York.

The excitement wasn’t universal. Chick-fil-A has been criticized – including here, mostly on social media – for giving financial support to organizations that endorse gay-conversion therapy and lobby against gay marriage.

That didn’t stop hundreds of people from showing up. Why the Chick-fil-A craze? When News Reporter Keith McShea visited the Walden Avenue location, fans lauded the chain’s food quality and customer service. And the sauce. “Kids could sell it in the schools up here on the black market,” one man said.

Good thing they don’t have to. Chick-fil-A is here now, and a second location at Transit and Losson roads is in the works.

[Related: 5 things to know before going to Chick-fil-A]

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Craft brewery movement booms in Buffalo

This one is good news for the coming year.

Good news if you like beer, that is.

In 2018, plans were announced for at least a dozen new Buffalo-area taprooms and breweries. Some, such as the Labatt Brew House in Buffalo’s Cobblestone District, have already opened. Others, such as Wilson-based Woodcock Brothers’ plan to add a taproom in North Tonawanda’s Wurlitzer Building, will happen in 2019.

The effect: Buffalo’s already-strong craft beer movement continues to grow.

"People aren't concerned about saturation yet,” said Jason Havens, co-owner of Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca, told The News’ Scott Scanlon.

Rusty Nickel will open a taproom soon in downtown Buffalo.

“We are all concerned about customer experience,” Havens continued. “The best thing we can all do is support each other – which ties together the local market.”

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TV personalities Nalina Shapiro, Jonah Javad head to Dallas

In a midsize market like Buffalo, TV personalities are a big deal. So when two of them start dating, people notice. When that young TV power couple get new jobs that take them out of town, that becomes a story. And so it went for Jonah Javad and Nalina Shapiro.

Javad, a sportscaster for WGRZ, Buffalo’s NBC affiliate, and Shapiro, an anchor on WIVB, the CBS affiliate, had been dating for 2 1/2 years when in February they left their jobs in Buffalo for Dallas. Javad had gotten a TV job there, and Shapiro moved with him to the nation’s No. 5 media market, where she took a job outside of television.

In an interview with News television critic Alan Pergament, they reflected on their time in Buffalo.

“I think anybody who is from here, or not from here and still lives here, knows that this place becomes part of you,” Javad said. “It is infectious. I never lived in a place that has such a strong sense of community as Buffalo.”

“Buffalo has taught me a lot about myself,” Shapiro said. “It has made my skin thicker. It has definitely stolen a piece of my heart.”

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DiTondo's owner Rosemary Rohloff prepares signature pasta dishes on the final day the restaurant was opened on Oct. 26. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Legendary restaurant DiTondo’s closes its doors

DiTondo’s Tavern on Seneca Street opened its doors in 1904. After that, it became a go-to lunch and dinner spot for everyone from regular folks to detectives and elected officials. All of whom showed up in late October, when owners Al and Rosemary DiTondo Rohloff closed the legendary Italian joint.

Brian Higgins, the congressman from nearby South Buffalo, told The News’ Maki Becker that his children grew up having Friday dinner at DiTondo’s.

“That goes back 25 years,” said Higgins, who once brought Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to eat there. “Al and Rosemary, they’re like family to us. ... We just have very fond memories. You talk about a consummate family restaurant. It was and it always will be.”

"I have to say, this is a very sad day," said Diane Calderon, a waitress at DiTondo’s for two decades, who was teary-eyed on the final day. Then she turned back to her work, taking plates from a table and asking her customers, “You doing good?”

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The lobby of the new AMC Market Arcade 8 Movie Theatre on Main Street. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

New AMC Market Arcade 8 Theatre gains traction downtown

A former Dipson Theatre that closed five years earlier was reopened in mid-August as an AMC Theatre at Buffalo’s Market Arcade. The theater opened with much fanfare, wrote The News’ Jonathan Epstein, and customer traffic has been increasing gradually.

“We started off slowly, but it’s building each week,” said General Manager Tony Ruggiero.

As the theater’s management team worked out some building issues, they also looked forward to a unique feature that opened in November: A bar where theater-goers could grab a drink or two to go with their movie.

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John Rzeznik opens up as the Goo Goo Dolls play a trio of homecoming shows

The Goo Goo Dolls returned to their Buffalo roots in October with a trio of sold-out shows at Shea’s. The shows were part of a national tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Goos’ “Dizzy Up the Girl” album, which included some of the band’s biggest hits: “Iris,” “Broadway,” “Slide” and “Black Balloon,” among them.

Lead singer John Rzeznik, in a series of in-depth interviews with The News leading up to the Buffalo shows, opened up about his struggles with alcoholism, his passion for his hometown and the newfound love he’s experiencing as a first-time father of now 2-year-old Lili.

“I think about my daughter when I’m doing stuff, and I want to see it through her eyes,” Rzeznik said, “and I want her to be proud of me, for what I do.”

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Kevin O’Connell departs Channel 2 after 25 years

After a quarter-century at WGRZ and four decades in the business, weatherman Kevin O’Connell left the station. The move was announced in July in an email from WGRZ General Manager Jim Toellner.

“His broadcasting talents and body of work are among the best Buffalo has seen," Toellner said. "Kevin has also helped raise money for countless charities over the years and donated much of his time to help make WNY a better place to live, which is what ‘On Your Side’” – WGRZ’s newscast motto – “is all about.”

Though O’Connell was on the cusp of turning 70 and had previously spoken about extending his contract, his departure may have been precipitated by an endorsement he provided on the website of a Buffalo-area law firm.

The endorsement, which was later removed, only included O’Connell’s name and not his workplace, but WGRZ has a policy against newsroom employees endorsing commercial businesses.

In announcing the departure, however, Toellner didn’t make reference to that situation, but rather reinforced O’Connell’s impact on the station.

He “has been a big part of our long and consistent ascent from last place to the top-rated station for the last several years,” Toellner said.

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Ice bumper cars a big hit at Canalside

Shark Girl. Water bikes. Concerts.

Canalside isn’t short on attractions, and this November, the downtown Buffalo recreation area added another: Ice bumper cars.

The circular vehicles, which operate using a set of joysticks, are rented in seven-minute increments for $7 and give you the chance to spin around, rear back and slam forward into friends and family (and, if you please, strangers).

“Awesome,” 8-year-old Ethan Marranca told The News’ Keith McShea. “I bumped into my cousins like more than five times. My cousin Emma was going pretty crazy.”

Erin Marra, director of sales and marketing for Rich Products subsidiary BR Guest, which oversees the operation of Canalside, said the idea came from outdoor rinks in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.

“This was something that just kept coming back up,” she said. “People are chatting a lot about it and we're really hoping that this is the next big thing we're known for at the ice.”

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Over a thousand people auditioned for “American Idol” at Canalside. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Thousands line up for a shot at ‘Idol’ fame

Could the next "American Idol" be from Buffalo? More than 2,000 people hoped so in early September, when they auditioned at Canalside for the hit reality talent show.

The Buffalo turnout, at the time, was the largest on the show’s 25-city audition tour.

“We had a monster turnout today,” said Patrick Lynn, an “Idol” producer for 16 years and supervising producer for the last seven. “We couldn't be happier.”

“Idol” doesn’t release the number of singers who advanced to the next rounds, nor do they unveil who makes it onto television until the show airs. Lynn told The News’ Keith McShea that Buffalo “had some really good talent.”

One of those talented singers was Dominic Hannon, a 23-year-old who was holding a yellow “golden ticket” sheet that seemed to indicate good news.

“It’s awesome. Real awesome,” said Hannon, guitar in hand. “It’s always been one of those things on my bucket list. Every time they were just a little too far, or I had something going on, so when I found out they were coming here, I was like this is the chance; it’s a now-or-never kind of thing. To do it in my hometown is absolutely awesome. I was speechless.”

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Borderland festival turns Knox Farm into mini-Woodstock

The two-day Borderland music festival in September transformed Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora into what News music critic Jeff Miers called “an almost magical confluence of good ideas, great music, and a perfect setting.”

Among the headliners were Dr. Dog, the Sam Roberts Band and the Revivalists on Day One, and the Infamous Stringdusters, Margo Price, John Oates & the Good Road Band, and Oteil Burbridge & Friends on Day Two.

Attendance numbers were difficult to eyeball, given the spacious setting, but the crowd was vibrant and plentiful, and as Miers put it, “There was ample space to dance and get your groove on in whatever manner felt appropriate.”

[Related: Smiles, performers at Borderland | Review of Borderland | Style Watch at Borderland]

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Buffalo grabs national media's attention

It's not that the Buffalo area has been off the national radar. The Bills, the Sabres, Niagara Falls, snow — they've long been instantly recognizable symbols of our region. But in 2018, Buffalo grabbed headlines as a cool travel destination in several national and international publications, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

That's a relatively new phenomenon. Positive media coverage of Western New York's arts, culture, food, history and architecture has been noticeable for the last few years, but it exploded in 2018. As The News' Caitlin Dewey reported, Visit Buffalo Niagara hosted 50 journalists, bloggers and social media influencers in 2018. That's an all-time high.

Brian Hayden, the communications manager for Visit Buffalo Niagara, tours those visitors around the region and also travels a few times a year to Manhattan to meet with travel writers and editors.

"We're talking to these people in a way we weren't even a few years ago," Hayden said. "Eventually the buzz and the mentions and the coverage reached a point where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal couldn’t ignore us."

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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