WNY THEATER: A TIMELINE
1814: This cryptic public announcement in the April 18 Buffalo Gazette seems to be the earliest existing mention of a theatrical production in the city: “The members of the Thalian Society, having understood that they have been the subject of censure … in consequence of the imperfection of their last evening’s performance, they take the liberty of offering to the public an explanatory apology. … Under the influence of the same malignant planet, Mr. Biven was seized with a violent spasmodic affection, and we were under the necessity of going through the whole entertainment under the constant fear of making a full stop. Let a generous audience judge feelingly.”
1815: The first amateur performance in Buffalo apparently occurs on March 17 when the five-act melodrama The Tragedy of Douglas is presented at Sandytown (near the current site of the Erie Basin Marina) in celebration of the end of the War of 1812, during which the Village of Buffalo had been burned to the ground.
1821-22: The first building devoted to theater in the city (and the first illuminated by gas) is built on Main Street across from the Eagle Tavern. In the mid-1830s, performer T. D. Rice will perform his “Jim Crow” routine here, considered the first blackface song on the American stage.
1829: The Buffalo Museum—the city’s first “amusement palace,” combining a saloon, theater, and exhibition hall—opens on the northeast corner of Washington and Exchange Streets.
1833: Edwin Dean and David McKinney, former employees of the Museum (see 1829), open the Seneca Street Playhouse above a store on Seneca between Main and Washington. In 1835 they move into what will become the Old Eagle Street Theatre at the southwest corner of Eagle and Washington St. The venue, which attracts as many as 60 travelling actors a summer, features state-of-the-art scenery, props, trap doors, and “mysteries used by conjurers,” according to Samuel Welch’s 1891 history, Recollections of Buffalo.
1835: The city’s second major performance venue, the Buffalo Theater, opens at the corner of Washington and South Division featuring a stock company and promising “all the principal Stars now in the United States” as well as “an efficient Police … to ensure decorum.”
1842: Actor, playwright, and impresario Steele MacKaye (a.k.a. James Morrison) is born in Buffalo. Over the course of his career, he will write 30 plays (many of them major hits in New York), establish the first acting school in the nation, invent flameproof theater curtains and folding seats, and help to introduce European naturalism to the U.S.
The same year, according to some sources, Buffalo-based performers Christy’s Minstrels stage the world’s first minstrel show in a Canal District music hall.
1852: The Eagle Theater burns down the night after a complaint-ridden performance by notorious diva Lola Montez (mistress of Liszt, Dumas, and Mad King Ludwig), beginning a longstanding legend that she was responsible for a fire. The same year, the Metropolitan Theater opens on Main between Swan and Seneca. It burns in 1900 and reopens as the New Academy a year later, eventually becoming the second oldest continuously operating theater in the country by the time it closes for good in 1956.
1861: E. A. Sothern stars in Our American Cousin (a.k.a. The Last Play Lincoln Ever Saw) at the Metropolitan. Certain sources suggest John Wilkes Booth performs in the same venue as Macbeth in 1863, though there is some dispute about whether Booth ever played Buffalo; clearly the rest of his family did. (After J. W. Booth assassinates Lincoln, the term “theater” falls out of favor and the Metropolitan is renamed the Academy of Music.)
1875: The Unity Club, an amateur theater company, stages plays under the auspices of the Unitarian Church through 1930.
1881: The Buffalo-born comedy team of (Peter) Baker and (Thomas J.) Farron perform at the Academy of Music; their act “Chris and Lena” finds them playing to full houses around the world, including an appearance for British royalty.
1882: St. Catherines, Ontario-born showman (and former sailor, ironworker, and stevedore) Mike Shea opens his first theater, Shea’s Music Hall (previously the Arcade, now the Brisbane Building, at Main and Clinton St.), a saloon-style vaudeville hall. It burns down, along with M. S. Robinson’s Musee, in December 1892, while he is sleeping upstairs. It becomes the first of over a dozen “Shea’s” theaters before his death in 1934.
1885: An accident involving the gas jet border lights during a performance by the McCaull Opera Company in the German Young Men’s Association concert hall (Main at Edward) sparks one of the worst fires in Buffalo history. In 1887 a new venue called the Music Hall takes its place and serves as a venue for Jan Paderewski (1892) and John Philip Sousa (1897). In 1900 the site is sold to Joseph R. Schoelkopf and renamed the Teck; in 1908 the venue is leased to Syracuse-based Broadway tycoons the Shubert brothers, who host the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (1922), Bela Lugosi (1925), and George Jessel (1927), eventually making it the flagship of their road fleet and developing the first revolving stage for their Winter Garden shows on its giant stage as well as developing their most ambitious touring productions there.
1887: Two more theaters are built: the Star (later the Criterion movie theater, on the future site of the Convention Center loading dock at Pearl, Mohawk, and Genesee St.) and the Grand Opera House on Washington Street north of Broadway. The latter changes names and hands many times, operating as the Lafayette Theater and the (Corrine) Lyceum before it is demolished in 1920 to make room for the Lafayette Movie Theater, itself now a parking lot.
The same year, the mayor of Buffalo, backed with a petition signed by 1,2000 citizens, invites native Steele MacKaye (see 1842) to return to his hometown to stage the world premiere of his newest play, Anarchy. Opening night is attended by an entire trainload of Manhattan theater critics and artists.
1889: William Gillette stages the world premiere of his Sherlock Holmes at the Star on Oct. 23; he continues to play the role around the world for the next three decades. Gillette returns to Buffalo to present his farewell performance as Holmes at the Erlanger on Feb. 18, 1930.
Meanwhile, acts playing the Wonderland include Pennic the Balloon Man, Bovine Midgets from Samoa, “Half Man, Half Horse” James Barnes, and the Fiji Cannibals.
1894: The Academy of Music becomes the first local theater to close.
1895: The Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, now the oldest surviving theater in Buffalo, opens at 612 Fillmore Ave. After an early incarnation as a venue for Polish-language drama, the venue enjoys a resurrection in the 1950s when immigrant performers adopt it; in 2000 it becomes the home of Torn Space.
1896: Buffalonian Mitchell H. Mark opens Vitascope Hall, believed to be the first site devoted to exhibiting motion pictures in the nation, in the basement of the Ellicott Square Building (and, in 1913, the 1,200-seat Strand, on the site of the present M&T Plaza), inadvertently paving the way for the near-demise of live theater.
1897: The Lancaster Opera House is built inside Lancaster Town Hall. After decades of neglect, a restoration effort begins in 1975, and it reopens on September 20, 1981.
1899: Soldier, hunter, and entrepreneur William “Buffalo Bill” Cody brings his “Wild West Show” to the Buffalo Driving Park.
1901: Academy Theatre audiences enjoy the play A Trip to Buffalo, the last act of which is set at the Pan-American Exposition of the same year. At the Expo itself, visitors can tour dramatic recreations of a gypsy camp, a Japanese village, “native plays by native actors” in the Hawaiian Theater, “McGarvie’s Streets of Mexico,” and even “A Trip to the Moon,” as well as a penny arcade of motion pictures.
1902: Dr. Peter Cornell gives up his practice to buy into and manage the Star Theater as part of the Klaw-Erlanger circuit. Inspired by Maude Adams’s performance as Peter Pan, Cornell’s daughter Katharine will go on to become the First Lady of American Theater. The Star also becomes home to the Jessie Bonstelle Stock Company, an early organization of local players.
1903: The Academy Theatre stages a new play, “Over the Quarry Brink,” based on the unsolved Burdick murder case of the same year. (See Spree’s “Scandals” issue, December 2008.)
1905: Chaim Arluck, later known as Harold Arlen, is born in Buffalo. Over the course of his lengthy career for stage and screen, he will compose some of the best-known and most-loved songs of the twentieth century.
1908: D’Youville College opens, and with it a theater originally known as “the Auditorium,” which closes in 1972. In 1981 it becomes home to the Kavinoky Theatre under the direction of professor David Lamb. (Lamb and co-founder Ronalde Brandow have started the company in 1973 in the College Center across Porter Avenue from its eventual permanent headquarters.)
1913: Emanuel Fried is born in Brooklyn; his family moves to Buffalo five years later. Over the course of the next nine decades he will become a playwright, actor, labor activist, novelist, and educator, influencing and inspiring generations of WNY theater practitioners.
1920: In keeping with the Little Theater movement sweeping the nation, Frederick Kitson Cowley founds the Buffalo Players. Their first production, A Curious Mishap, opens in 1923 at the Allendale Theater.
1924: A wave of theaters closes, reflecting the public’s shift in interest to motion pictures.
1926: Shea’s Buffalo opens as a movie palace and vaudeville hall, replacing the Court Street Theater. The same year, the African American vaudeville house McClain’s Theater opens on Christmas Day with a double bill of S. H. Dudley’s Darktown Frolics and Gibson’s Famous Midgets.
1927: The Erlanger Theater opens on Labor Day, an occasion marked by engraved gold tickets and attended by George M. Cohan, David Belasco, and Flo Ziegfeld. One of the largest stages in the country, flanked by 300 dressing rooms, it continues booking tours through 1956.
The same year, Jane Keeler assumes leadership of the Buffalo Players. She and artistic director Sheldon V. Kiele change the group’s name to the Studio School of the Theatre and move it into a second-floor lodge on Elmwood at Anderson. The organization spends time at the former Gayety Theatre (Huron and Pearl), then a concert hall in the former Teck Theatre, and finally in the mid1930s moves into the former Universalist Church at Lafayette and Hoyt St.
1929: Construction begins on Rockwell Hall on the campus of Buffalo State College. It opens in 1931 as a chapel and arts venue. It begins renovations in 1984 and celebrates its rebirth as a state-of-the-art facility in 1987 with a performance piece by Buff State alum and Hallwalls co-founder Robert Longo with choreography by Bill T. Jones.
1933: Katharine Cornell debuts her production of Romeo and Juliet at the Erlanger. The show stars Cornell as Juliet, Basil Rathbone as Romeo, and Orson Welles as Mercutio, with choreography by Martha Graham. The tour runs 29 weeks and covers 17,000 miles.
1947: A survey indicates there are 63 active theaters in the Buffalo area.
1956: The Erlanger presents its final production, The Pajama Game; after it closes, Buffalo is without a professional theater for the first time in its modern history.
1962: Niagara-area lawyer/playwright Brian Doherty begins the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
1965: Under the new directorship of Neil DuBrock, Studio Theatre becomes the Equity house Studio Arena Theatre and moves from its former home on Lafayette to the former Town Casino at 681 Main. On opening night, October 7, Colleen Dewhurst stars in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.
1968: Legendary Studio Arena publicist Blossom Cohan draws critics from every major New York newspaper, every major national news magazine, and several European publications for the 1968 world premiere of Edward Albee’s Box/Mao/Box. The same year, UB student Maury Chaykin founds Swampfox Theater, and the Paul Robeson Theatre, part of the African-American Cultural Center, becomes the first African American theater in modern-day Buffalo.
1970: Buff State grad Tom Fontana stages his first play, Johnny Appleseed: A Noh Play, at Studio Arena, before leaving town for a career in television.
1972: Rosalind Cramer and Toni Smith Wilson open Theatre of Youth at Daemen College; in coming years TOY relocates to the Center Theatre, to the Franklin Street Theatre, and finally to the Allendale Theatre in Allentown.
1974: Playwright and Brecht scholar Eric Bentley is hired to fill the Katharine Cornell Chair in Theater at UB; he remains at the university through 1982.
The same year, a grassroots “Friends of Shea’s Buffalo” group forms to save the building at 646 Main from demolition after the city forecloses on the property for back taxes.
1975: A Chorus Line, brainchild of Buffalo native Michael Bennett, opens on Broadway on September 25, giving the world the line “to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.” The play earns multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, then sets a longstanding record for its run. Bennett’s 1981 musical Dreamgirls caps a distinguished career as one of the preeminent choreographers and directors of his day.
1976: George Burns and Cab Calloway rededicate Shea’s on its 50th anniversary before an audience of 3,000. Meanwhile, Saul Elkin launches Shakespeare in Delaware Park with a production of The Winter’s Tale and UB opens the Katharine Cornell Theatre in the Ellicott Complex; the venue ultimately becomes best known as the home of comedian Mark Russell’s long running PBS broadcasts.
1978: Studio Arena moves into 710 Main St, the former Palace Burlesque house converted into a 637-seat thrust-stage theater. The opening production is George and Ira Gershwin’s Funny Face. The same year, Lorna C. Hill founds Ujima Theatre and Gary Fisher Dawson founds Buffalo Entertainment Theatre, which becomes Buffalo Ensemble Theatre (BET).
1979: Buffalo native Elizabeth Swados’s Runaways opens on Broadway. The African American Cultural Center later performs the Buffalo premiere of the show at the Center Theatre (681 Main) in 1982.
1980: Neal Radice founds the Buffalo Ensemble Collective, better known as Alleyway Theatre. In December 1985 the company presents its first production in what will become its longtime home in a former bus terminal turned police station on Main Street: the debut of its now-annual production of A Christmas Carol.
1981: The newly reinvigorated Theater District launches Curtain Up! as an annual street party to celebrate the beginning of the new season.
1983: Erica Wohl opens Cabaret 650 at 650 Main. In 1985 she moves to New York City, then returns in 1988 to open a new version of the Cabaret on Franklin Street.
1985: Actor Chris O’Neill appears in a touring production of Waiting for Godot in the basement of the Airways Motel in Cheektowaga, paving the way for a long association with Buffalo until his death in 1997.
1988: Buffalo plays host to the First International Women Playwrights’ Conference, bringing together theater professionals from around the world to stage and discuss their work.
1989: Actress Nancy Marchand wins an Obie for her performance Off Broadway in fellow Buffalo native A. R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour, one of his many plays set in their hometown.
1990: Artvoice sponsors the first “Arties” awards ceremony at Garvey’s Restaurant.
1991: UB professor of American Studies (1985-1993) Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s autobiographical play From the Mississippi Delta opens Off Broadway in a production partly financed by Oprah Winfrey that runs for 218 performances.
1993: Vincent O’Neill and James Warde establish the Irish Classical Theatre Company in the Calumet Arts Building on Chippewa Street.
1994: UB opens its Center for the Arts on the Amherst campus with multiple performance spaces of varying sizes and configurations.
1999: Irish Classical Theatre opens its new home at Andrews Theatre on Main. Buffalo News critic Terry Doran proclaims “It is difficult to think otherwise than that this new theater space will change how theater is done in this town, and how it is received, how it is experienced.” Shea’s Performing Arts Center completes major renovations that allow it to offer larger touring productions.
2000: Rep. Jack Quinn sends a letter of complaint to playwright Terrence McNally for setting his musical adaptation of The Full Monty in Buffalo.
2004: Sixteen local professional theater companies form the Buffalo Theatre Alliance (later renamed the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo and currently consisting of 20 member companies; see www.theatreallianceofbuffalo.com).
2005: The first annual Buffalo Infringement Festival takes place July 28—August 7, bringing theater, dance, performance art, puppetry, burlesque, and other genres of live performance to Allentown during the off-season.
2008: After extensive financial troubles, Studio Arena closes its doors.
2010: Counting presenting organizations (like Shea’s) as well as producing ones, there are 31 theaters currently operating in WNY, the highest number in decades.
This timeline draws on the research, reporting, and insights of Dale Anderson, Jim Bisco, Anthony Chase, David Lawrence & Debra Ludwig, Ranjit Sandhu, Ardis & Kathryn Smith, and Herman Trotter, with additional thanks to David Butler, Jeannine Huber, Darleen Pickering Hummert, Margaret Smith, Stuart Ira Soloway, Jim Walkowiak, and the staff of the Grosvenor Room of the Central Library, which houses a voluminous collection of archival materials on theater in WNY.