Best of WNY: Historic Theaters
By Anna Geronimo Hausmann and Nicole Schuman

The story of Buffalo’s historic theaters is the story of our community. Our abundance of grand theaters and movie palaces speaks to the gilded era of Buffalo’s turn-of-the-last-century boom, when the growing ranks of the well-to-do demanding entertainment coincided with the rise of moving picture technology.

This combination of increasing disposable income with technological advances can in some sense be seen as a factor in the baroque exuberance of the grand movie palaces that graced Buffalo in the early twentieth century. The Riviera, the Allendale, and Shea’s Buffalo were all built as movie theaters. They also, in the case of the Riviera and Shea’s, housed Mighty Wurlitzer organs for accompaniment and recitals.

But like the grand opera houses that had also blossomed at the end of the nineteenth century, these elegant and ornate showcases served their communities by hosting public events. The opening night of the Riviera on December 30, 1926 saw the receipt of congratulatory messages from both New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and famed movie producer Cecil B. deMille.

In the soaring arched windows of Shea’s, in the intricate rows of plaster flowers on the ceiling of the Allendale, each concealing its own light fixture, in the magnificent undulations of the box fronts at the Fredonia Opera House, we can trace the heightened expectations of a new century, the heady sense of possibility of a boomtown. In Buffalo’s historic theaters, we can locate our own glorious past as well as the truly invaluable appreciation for historic preservation that makes Buffalo a city of such unique architectural treasures.

Shea's
Shea's Performing Arts Center.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Shea’s
At the center of the Western New York theater spotlight, Shea’s Center for the Performing Arts brings a rich history to the forefront with its grand architecture and ornate detailings. The theater is a center for performance and a historical artifact in its own right.

Shea’s has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s and stands as one of the most uniquely elegant theaters in the country.

Michael Shea brought the theater dream to reality. Born in Ontario but raised in Buffalo, he began in the entertainment business by helping build two theaters in Toronto as a structural iron worker. Starting in 1882, Shea opened several arenas for entertainment in Buffalo, including Shea’s Music Hall, Shea’s Garden Theatre, and Shea’s Court Street.

In 1904, Shea opened Shea’s North Park Theatre on Hertel (still showing independent films today), and in 1914 Shea’s Hippodrome on Main Street. Shea eventually sold his chain to Paramount, but at one time operated thirteen theaters.

The sale to Paramount helped Shea build the Shea’s Buffalo Theatre in 1925 for $2 million. Architects C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago designed the theater, which was modeled after a European opera house, while Tiffany Studios created the interior of neo-Spanish Baroque design. Tiffany gets the credit for the amazing ceiling detail and the massive chandeliers.

Shea’s is only one of four Tiffany theaters still thriving today. The theater opened to the public on January 16, 1926, showing movies and stage shows to the masses in a grand arena. Stars like the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Gracie Allen all appeared on the elegant stage.

The 1950s and sixties saw the decline of downtown Buffalo and the rise of suburban sprawl. Loews Corporation purchased Shea’s, but viewers were opting for the multiplex movie houses in the suburbs. Shea’s continued to show movies, but the beautiful movie palace, like fading screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, had become a shadow of its former glorious self. The City of Buffalo foreclosed on Shea’s for back taxes in December 1974, but a group of theater enthusiasts organized to save the historic gem. The not-for-profit Friends of Buffalo Theater organized in 1975 to save Shea’s from the wrecking ball.

The group worked to restore Shea’s, beginning with its Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which had been neglected for so long that mushrooms were growing in the organ’s chambers. The city maintained ownership of the theater, and the Friends stopped work in 1979. But the city soon found another not-for-profit waiting in the wings.

In 1980, the Shea’s O’Connell Preservation Guild began management of the building instead of the city and continues operation today. The Guild created the Shea’s theatergoers know and love today. Its restoration efforts finally concluded in April 1999. Recent renovations include the expansion of the original stage to fifty feet deep, increased wing space, three star suites, seven principal suites, and six chorus suites. A new loading dock was also built to help with the enhancement of the technical and visual aspects of the performances. The expansion has helped to bring some of the most elaborate and exciting traveling shows to Buffalo, such as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Phantom of the Opera.

Since 1999, Shea’s has continued its restoration through generous community donations and fundraisers. Work has been done to preserve the original box office, grand lobby, and marquee. In 2000, Shea’s rewired the auditorium and lobby areas and completed a number of other important updates of facilities. Hand work such as painting and chiseling—done largely by skilled volunteers—continues in the lobby and auditorium restoration.

According to Shea’s President Anthony Conte, even more spectacular renovations are in store as the theater begins work this fall on the restoration/rebuilding of its original exterior pediment.

Lancaster Opera House
Lancaster Opera House.
Photo by Jim Bush.
The Lancaster Opera House

The Lancaster Opera House was conceived as a music hall within the village’s municipal building. Designed by George J. Metzger and opened in 1897, the Opera House’s early years saw the presentation of dances, recitals, and commencement exercises as well as musicals and traveling shows. During the Depression, the hall became a center for distribution of food and clothing to the needy; during World War II, a sewing room was set up in the dressing rooms beneath the stage, and parachutes were packed on the auditorium floor. Following the war, the theater was the Civil Defense Headquarters for much of Erie County.

The Opera House’s restoration was begun as a Bicentennial project with funding from the Town of Lancaster, from New York State, and from numerous other public and private sources. After six years of work, the Opera House re-opened in September of 1981.

The Opera House has received a complete interior redecoration in the last two years, with Executive Director Tom Kazmierczak working with interior designer Diana Fera. After this redecoration the hall received the prestigious Pewter Plate Award from the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier for outstanding renovation and operation of a historic venue.

Kazmierczak stresses that the Opera House continues in its historic function as the center of the community. The recent ongoing street work around the Opera House has incorporated the Opera House into its redesigned streetscape. In addition, the Opera House has begun networking within the surrounding village community. “We produce works at Eddie Ryan’s across the street and we’ve been running a venue out of Macgruder’s since last August. In November we’ll be starting family programs and workshops upstairs at the nearby New York Store.”

Kazmierczak notes that the recent redecoration involved significant community participation. This community commitment is exemplified in the Opera House’s corporate sponsorships, which include M & T Bank’s sponsorship of the Broadway programs and Niagara Hobby’s sponsorship of the children’s programs.

Kazmierczak also says that the Opera House will begin mounting its own productions as well as presenting traveling shows. One production to look for in the future is the story of William and Priscilla, the friendly ghosts who haunt the Opera House. They were actors in the gaslight era who broke up and when William went to Virginia to find Priscilla again, he found her murdered. Sounds like just the right sort of production for a dramatic, historical venue like the Lancaster Opera House.

Allendale Theater
Allendale Theater.
Photo by Michael Miano.
Theatre of Youth’s Allendale Theater
In its historical heyday, Allentown was a prime spot for Buffalo’s elite. A quieter neighborhood protected from the bustle of downtown, Allentown was home to many upper class Buffalonians such as Millard Fillmore, Samuel Clemens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Katherine Cornell. These socialites benefitted from the proximity of the Allendale Theatre, built in 1913 as one of Buffalo’s first neighborhood theaters.

The neo-classical revival style theater was built for $45,000 dollars by clothing retailer Levin Michaels. The theater displays gold-trimmed walls, stunning leaded glass windows, and a domed ceiling of lighted rosettes.

The theater was first built as a movie house specializing in silent films and photoplays of Broadway productions. And, like Shea’s, it had a custom-built symphonic organ. In 1919, a larger stage and dressing rooms were added. The theater then hosted various dramatic groups such as the Buffalo Players, who included members of the Knox and Schoellkopf families. W.C. Fields and the Barrymore brothers also graced the stage.

In the 1940s, the Cohen Family, well-known for owning various movie houses and drive-ins in Western and Central New York, purchased the Allendale and remodeled it into the 1950s. But, like Shea’s, the years eventually caught up with the Allendale. It ceased operating as a movie house in 1982 and shortly thereafter the city requested demolition.

The Allentown Association jumped in and saved the building, and in 1986 the Theatre of Youth, a company producing dramatic and comedic works for children since 1972, entered into a partnership with the city to renovate the theater for a new home.

The $3.5 million renovation largely focused on historic preservation and interior design and took thirteen years to complete. Workers restored the theater’s decorative pilasters, plaster moldings, and domed ceiling, and refurbished the building’s neo-classical exterior. The expanded theater now seats 469 people.

Since the theater reopened in December 1999, TOY has welcomed 250,000 theatergoers through the Allendale doors and produced nineteen shows, truly contributing to an Allentown revival.

Fredonia Opera House
Fredonia Opera House.
Photo by Chris Ash.
The 1891 Fredonia Opera House

Like the Lancaster Opera House, the Fredonia Opera House was planned as a grand municipal building including an opera house. Conceived as a large and elegant community theater, the opera house opened in April of 1891. The architect was Enoch Curtis, well-known in Western New York for his “Queen Anne eclectic” style. For the interior, Curtis borrowed freely from major New York and European theaters, including such elements as the theater’s elegantly curved horseshoe balcony, wood-turned decorations on boxes, and the ornate pressed-metal proscenium.

The hall boasted excellent acoustics and functioned for nearly one hundred years as the center of the community, with diverse offerings ranging from minstrel shows, light opera, and dramas, to musical recitals, political speeches, graduations, religious services, and talent shows.

While there were renovations over the years, including the installation of a projection booth and motion picture equipment for showing films, eventually the opera house fell into such a state of disrepair that it was closed in 1981 and was slated for demolition in 1983. That plan brought public outcry and the establishment of the Fredonia Preservation Society, which lobbied to save the building.

The Society raised public and private funds to finance the renovations, but most of the labor was volunteer. The rehabilitation was completed in November of 1994.

Since its reopening, the 440 seat opera house has offered a wide range of musical and theatrical programs, as well as maintaining its historic function as a community center. Primarily a presenting organization, rather than producing, the Fredonia Opera House presents music, theater, and dance programs as well as a film series. And it hosts a wide variety of community events, including choral recitals, weddings, and League of Women Voters debates. There’s something going on 180 days each year.

One of the most interesting things about the Fredonia Opera House is that while it is an elegant and intimate concert and recital hall, it is housed in a working municipal building with the mayor’s office and the police department down the hall and the village court upstairs. “We truly are part of the fabric of the village,” Executive Director Elizabeth Booth says.

Riviera Theater
Riviera Theater.
Photo © Buffalo Convention Center
and Visitors Bureau and Angel Art.

The Riviera Theatre

The Riviera Theatre was built in North Tonawanda in 1926 by the Yellen family. Built as one of over forty movie palaces with organs in the Western New York area, today it is, along with Shea’s Buffalo, the last still standing. Throughout its long and dramatic history, the Riviera has dodged the wrecking ball numerous times and been sold and reincarnated even more times. Throughout, it has functioned as a center of the community.

The highlight of the Riviera is its “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ which was used to accompany films. The organ has not only been accompaniment for silent movies, it has taken center stage throughout the theater’s long life as the main attraction with organ recitals, including concerts by some of the most well-known organists of the late twentieth century, teen dance parties, and, ultimately, as the main factor in saving the theater from demolition.

Over the years, the Riviera changed ownership at least ten times, becoming a Shea’s theater and a Dipson theater, among others. The theater has fallen into disrepair repeatedly, and led a spotty and precarious existence until the involvement of the Niagara Frontier Organ Club slowly turned things around with their commitment to restore and maintain the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Instrumental in the organ’s protection and restoration was Carlton Finch, who obtained permission from the theater management to restore the organ in 1944 after a decade of only occasional use. Finch and his father continued to care for the Mighty Wurlitzer for decades. Finch also played the organ for the teen dances held in the 1950s, as well as at weekly practice sessions.

In the early 1960s the Niagara Frontier Theater Organ Club began their involvement with the Riviera by organizing Sunday morning organ concerts. Eventually, the Organ Club made an offer to buy the Mighty Wurlitzer so that they could at least secure its future. The Organ Club also made substantial improvements to the theater itself, with the purchase of a huge crystal chandelier that had been in the Genesee Theatre in Buffalo and a historic grand piano from a theater in Bradford, PA.

The theater’s fortunes continued to wax and wane throughout the 1970s and 1980s until it was finally acquired in 1989 by the Niagara Frontier Theater Organ Society, which seems to assure that it will continue to thrive, since the organization has taken such good care of the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The theater has undergone extensive renovation since 1991, with much of it carried out by volunteers. Once again, the Riviera can lay claim to the title “Showplace of the Tonawandas.”

New Phoenix
Photo courtesy of New Phoenix director
Richard Lambert
(shown above).
The New Phoenix Theatre
The New Phoenix Theatre stands as a living model of the ideal community theater. Situated at the apex of a triangle between Buffalo’s theater district, historic Johnson Park, and the West Side, the New Phoenix is unique in its attempt to serve such a diverse audience.

The theater is located in an historic building at 95 Johnson Park that dates from 1884 and sits on the site originally occupied by the cottage of Ebenezer Johnson, Buffalo’s first mayor, after whom the park is named. The building, a Tudor revival rooming house, was given to the Female Academy of Buffalo, the first exclusively female education academy in the U.S. Later it became a meeting house for the ladies of Buffalo Seminary, whose ghosts are said to continue to overlook its current activities. It became a soup kitchen, the American Rescue Worker’s Mission, and eventually fell into disrepair.

Executive Director Richard Lambert purchased the building on behalf of the New Phoenix Theatre Company in 1995. Restorations were fully completed in 2000 with the exterior painting of the building.

The restorations have preserved the building’s unique architectural charm. The theater now features an intimate and versatile performance space seating 122—the original auditorium of the Female Academy—an art gallery, rehearsal hall, and community workshop on the second floor, and offices and dressing rooms on the third floor. The building also serves as home to a sister theater group.

The New Phoenix has in its relatively brief life worked to present both classical and contemporary plays and, like any community theater worth the name, sees its mission to present works that speak to its community.

Kavinoky Theatre
Photo courtest of the Kavinoky Theatre.
The Kavinoky Theatre
at D’Youville College

The unique architectural treasure that is the home of the Kavinoky Theatre was originally built in 1908 when D’Youville College received its charter of incorporation. Called simply and affectionately, “the Auditorium,” its intimate charm and understated elegance made it a magnetic gathering place for recitals, concerts, convocations, lectures, and assemblies.

During the three decades following its opening, “the Auditorium” offered opulent productions of plays from the classical repertory. But a burgeoning enrollment at the college soon made it impractical for most purposes and there followed a long period of decline and disuse.

By 1972, its doors were closed, for what many feared would be forever. Several years later, while “the Auditorium” was being used as a storehouse for classroom furniture, the D’Youville College Board of Trustees resolved to restore the space to its former grand stature. A capital campaign raised the $400,000 needed to refurbish the theater, and renovations began in 1978.

In the spring of 1981, the fully restored auditorium was reopened. Later that year, it was officially renamed the Kavinoky in memory of Edward Kavinoky, a prominent Buffalo attorney who was the first layman chosen to chair the college’s Board of Trustees.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director David Lamb since its inception, the Kavinoky is now in its twenty-fourth season of operation.

Nicole Schuman is a former Buffalo Spree intern and a free-lance writer living in Buffalo. Anna Geronimo Hausmann is Associate Editor of Buffalo Spree.


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