Retracing Buffalo ’66, one location at a time
Photos of Buffalo ’66 locations include (above) the former Caffe Lococo (now a collection agency), and (below) Reckio’s Bowling Center, a former Denny’s (now El Palenque, a former Dickie’s Donuts (now Buck$ 4 Bottles), the former Armando’s (now Rust Belt Bar & Grill), and St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute.
Photos by Jordan M. Smith
Before the Marine Midland Arena was renamed the HSBC Arena and subsequently the First Niagara Center, and over a decade before I became a Buffalo resident, the Queen City’s own enfant terrible, Vincent Gallo, shot his grimy black dramedy Buffalo ’66 right here in his own hometown. A lot has changed, it seems, for better and for worse. To be frank, Gallo’s portrait of the city is less than flattering at best, having been filmed in the snow-dusted gloom of 1997 at unloved locations that have hence changed hands, changed names, or wholly boarded up and closed down. But nestled within this cinematic time capsule of a Buffalo since passed are glimmers of hope. Remember, Billy Brown doesn’t wind up offing Scott Norwood stand-in Scott Wood in the end—he hits up Dickie’s Donuts for a hot chocolate and a heart-shaped cookie for his newfound love. With this in mind, I’m retracing Billy’s daylong journey to enlightenment, one Western New York location at a time.
But let’s back up to the beginning. The opening frames of the film see Billy Brown exiting the Gowanda Correctional Facility with just his signature grey coat and red boots. He just served five years for taking a fall after losing a bet to a bookie over the events anyone in WNY would know by the infamous phrase “Wide Right.” Located just a forty-five-minute drive from Buffalo, the real-life medium security prison was once the Gowanda Psychiatric Center, the workplace of both of my grandparents. (My grandmother worked on the wards tending to patients, while my grandfather, a police officer, worked as part of the security department.) It remains cold, wrapped in razor wire, and buried in snow, yet it seems Billy might have fit right in before its penitentiary conversion. Let’s not forget his post-prison pursuit sees him immediately abducting a young woman and plotting to kill former Bills kicker Scott Wood, fictionally reimagined here as the owner of the Solid Gold strip club incongruously located on Route 5. (In the film, Billy says it’s on Hertel and Niagara.)
Once arriving in Buffalo via Greyhound, the first familiar location we see is the Division Street bus station, where passengers once could pass the time at an in-house Burger King or play a variety of arcade games. The sixteen-bit games are long gone, and BK has been replaced by yet another Tim Hortons. The suggestion of coffee reminded me that Billy’s next stop would have been the now defunct Caffe Lococo, just around the block from the station in the old AM&A’s building on Washington Street. The space is now home to a collection agency and neighbors with the beautifully restored Pan American Grill & Brewery in the Lafayette Hotel. Though a collections office is hardly the best use of downtown storefront space, the neighboring businesses are surely on the upswing.
Before coercing Layla (a blonde-haired Christina Ricci) to accompany him to dinner at the home of his neglectful, Buffalo Bills-obsessed parents’ off Eggert Road, Billy and his new companion make an emergency stop near St Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, where he desperately needs to relieve himself. It seems the unfortunately targeted tree has since been removed.
Skipping his parents’ house in favor of bowling, I make my way to Billy’s true home, Recckio’s Bowling Center in South Buffalo. Though Billy’s locker is no longer and the famed photobooth has been removed, Recckio’s is a hive of activity. Teeming with children of all ages, the lanes are bestrewn with bowling balls, tables covered in pizzas and beer, and, most appropriately for such a pilgrimage, a Buffalo Bills birthday cake. I attempted to bowl on Billy’s favorite lane, 13, but it was sadly occupied by others having what seemed to be the time of their lives. Despite having played on a weekend league in high school at the Central Lanes back in Salamanca, I hadn’t bowled in years and sorely lack the pristine form of Billy’s perfect pitch. I’m surprised I managed to break 100.
From here, Billy and Layla set out for a late-night spot to pass some time. They end up at Denny’s, which, in reality, was located near his parents’ house on Niagara Falls Boulevard and Sheridan Drive, but has since been converted into a decent Mexican establishment called El Palenque. The menu boasts copious varieties of burritos, fajitas, and especialidades, but I doubt Layla would have been happy, as they don’t serve her liquid love, hot chocolate. Though the menu looks appetizing, I was craving some Veggie Wet Shoes from Amy’s Place, so I cruised the few blocks east for dinner despite the fact that my next stop is over the Skyway and down to what used to be called Armando’s.
Before his attempt on Scott Wood’s life at what is now 24k Gold Strip Club, Billy takes Layla to a hole-in-the-wall motel down the street from the looming Ford plant to clean up and get more acquainted. The motel was once a second floor spread of rooms above Armando’s lakeside restaurant where Bethlehem Steel workers rented rooms and even Ronald Reagan once came to dine. Now Rust Belt Bar & Grill, the lavishly reimagined dinner establishment no longer rents rooms, but instead serves a wide array of cuisine, including a wild-sounding pulled pork and bacon mac ’n’ cheese. Despite my allergies to dairy, the friendly staff had me close to tempting fate.
After a beer and some encouragement, I was also tempted to see if some kind of fictional Scott Wood might still be lurking around the dimly lit interior of 24k Gold, but I also felt that Billy’s trip inside the establishment was probably enough for me. Like Billy observing the gritty scene and recognizing the folly of his murderous intent, I imagined myself entering the nudie bar only to realize my mistake.
Instead, I ventured back north in search of what was once the unfortunately located Dickie’s Donuts on Hertel and Elmwood, where Billy’s emotional epiphany comes to fruition in the form of hot chocolate and cookies. Long boarded-up and overrun with weeds, the structure has been repurposed and reopened as a bottle redemption facility hilariously called Buck$ 4 Bottles. Knowing this, I can only imagine Billy would have opted for Paula’s Donuts as a second choice, substituting heart shaped cookies for gloriously artery-clogging donuts and locally brewed coffee. Buffalove, indeed.
It’s been fifteen years since Gallo, with co-star Christina Ricci and his now ex-fiancee Asia Argento in tow, brought his film to the North Park Theatre, classical in its decay. I’d bet the filmmaker would be quite surprised at the transformation that’s taken place within those theater walls in the last two years. Though the medium of film—not unlike the city of Buffalo itself—has changed in the past decade and half, I’d bet Buffalo ’66 would look magnificent, restored and digitally projected on that massive silver screen, reborn in a flash of light, alive and vibrant once again.