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In 1972, when L. Curt Mangel III first laid eyes on Shea's Performing Arts Center, it was called the Buffalo Theater, and it was a tarnished antiquity headed toward oblivion.

The last time he visited the Main Street showplace was 1984, for the rededication of the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ -- in his opinion, the finest surviving instrument of its kind. At that point, Shea's own survival was still very much up in the air.

Imagine Mangel's astonishment when he dropped in Wednesday and discovered that the campaign he began three decades ago to preserve this grand dame of Buffalo theaters had finally borne fruit.

From the gilded lobbies to the main hall, where replacement of the nearly 3,000 seats will soon be completed, it was 1926 all over again. You half-expected to see Michael Shea's ghost come strolling by.

Words like "wonderful," "thrilling" and "incredible" flowed from Mangel as he walked around with Shea's President Anthony C. Conte.

"It's a joy to come back and see it in such great shape," the visitor said.

The place had precisely the right feel, added Mangel, a mechanical wizard who originally came to Shea's from his native Bradford, Pa., at age 22 to mend the Mighty Wurlitzer.

He soon formed Friends of the Buffalo Theater, a private support group that got the building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, applied for grants to begin restoration and operated the facility. Entertainment returned to the renamed Shea's Buffalo Theater, and a 50th anniversary celebration was held in January 1976. Mangel left in the early 1980s to become a consultant on theater restorations around the country.

Shea's and other vaudeville-era theater palaces "should never look brand new," he said. "They didn't look brand new when they opened. Glazes were created to give them an antique look."

Though they functioned much like today's theme parks -- working-class families could come for a few hours to sip ice water and watch stage acts in air-conditioned comfort, at affordable prices -- "you don't want them to look like Disney reproductions," he said.

Mangel was here to accept an award from the Buffalo Preservation Board for laying the groundwork for Shea's restoration. He was honored along with Friends of the Buffalo Theater and its successor, Shea's O'Connell Preservation Guild, at a ceremony in Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's office. Later, plaques dedicated to Mangel and Friends of the Buffalo Theater were hung in Shea's lobby.

One of Mangel's earliest memories was of being "scared to death," after hiring on as a stationary engineer and organ restorer, to learn the Loew's theater chain planned to shut down what was then a money-losing movie house. Shea's surely would have been stripped of its antique ornaments and demolished, he said.

To prevent that, Mangel and others in the Friends group met secretly at night to inventory "every antique in the building," all of which had been put there by the architects, Raab and Rabb of Chicago. They turned the dossier over to the city, which owned the structure.

"That's why Shea's is now considered the most intact theater palace in the country," said Mangel, currently a consultant to the Lord & Taylor department store chain on the restoration of the world's largest pipe organ, in the old Wanamakers flagship store in downtown Philadelphia.

Shea's first Friends group, which had about 40 members, "kept the wolves at bay," he said, but its successors "have put the icing on the cake." He said the $31 million restoration and expansion "is something the city can be very proud of."

Efforts to save the nation's ornate 1920s show houses don't always turn out as well as they did at Shea's, Mangel said.

"One of the best things I can do is teach people about going from a volunteer organization to a business organization," he said.

People develop a strong emotional attachment to such projects, "but you also have to run them as a business," he said. "Lots of times, those initial volunteers can't make the transition."


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