On the gorgeous triangular marquee, they actually still use red plastic letters on tracks! — and they have enough of them to spell out, on one side, all the things about to be on-screen while still featuring BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY OPENS HERE NOVEMBER 1 on the other side. They may have done this because they'd exhausted their reserve of plastic lower case letters. I know that strategy. At the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace which, by now, you probably know I helped to run in Staten Island in 1976, we barely had enough letters, upper or lower case, to spell out even a single feature longer than a few words on both sides. While we were going broke trying to save the St. George as a single-screen house, the North Park in Buffalo was surviving quite handily, thanks to luck, a really handy projectionist/manager named Norm, who could fix anything, a loyal crew, and a programming strategy involving Disney movies offered at atypical hours. It didn’t hurt either that the surrounding neighborhood apparently never went through the kind of serious decline many neighborhoods went through, when multiplexes were the new thing. Then, too, this 600-seat gem had a really dedicated booking agent named Ike; booking agents can make or break a theater.
The North Park can claim the distinction of being continuously open and showing flicks, from its beginnings in 1920 all the way through to 2013, with a brief hiatus for restoration and to install digital equipment. Unbelievably, the equipment taken out in that year included a Mark II platter system for single-reel take-up—state-of-the-art in the mid-seventies, but old school by 2013. Norm kept the old equipment up and running, finding parts when necessary. For a fascinating treatment of how a projectionist often demonstrates brinksmanship with aged equipment, check out this link, a digression, but worth it. Then think how valuable Norm really was.
Bill, one of the managers, who was on shift Sunday, recommended I try to get the ear of Ray Barker, the Program Director; a brief email to the info function of the theater’s website led to a conversation that filled in all my blanks. Without Ray, a professor of history who has transformed his original part-time job at the theater into a serious avocation, I would never have known about Norm or Ike or why the theater has lasted so long as a dedicated single-screen movie house. Loyal friends of the North Park, with Norm at the helm, saw the theater through the lean seventies with a brilliant policy of booking Disney product at night — while the new multiplexes only booked family fare for weekend matinees. Because the surrounding neighborhood has probably always been somewhat upscale (full of beautiful older arts and crafts bungalows), with a strong main street (Hertel Avenue), families with children kept coming for the all-Disney day and night fare, Fantasia, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound. In a solid middle-class neighborhood, this programming was just enough to get the theater through a decade that destroyed many single-screen houses in more urban areas. Case in point is Shea’s Buffalo, a sister theater downtown. A full-out Rapp and Rapp palace, decorated in the 1920’s by none other than Tiffany’s, Shea’s Buffalo went through a difficult period in which its owners failed to pay their taxes, causing the City of Buffalo to seize the property. Downtown had suffered the usual urban blight; you know the story.
By the eighties at the North Park, it was time for a programming adjustment. Management switched from all-Disney to discount second-run, settling in finally for a combination of the usual family fare and art films: Cinema Paradiso, My Life As a Dog.
“The customer who goes to a movie every week is rare,” Ray points out. Instead of expecting the same patron to come back frequently, it’s smart to program to a variety of audiences, which is the policy of the theater to this day, wise in an era of streaming and multiple distractions.
Remember that name, Shea? Once the owner of a chain of some thirteen theaters, including the North Side and Shea’s downtown, Michael Shea, born, some say, in Ontario but raised in Buffalo, sold out to Paramount in the twenties. So the North Park passed from Paramount to Loew’s to Dipson, a regional chain. From 1966 to 2013, Norm was always there as projectionist, eventually at the helm as manager, in a double role. The North Park seems to have been blessed.
What could possibly go wrong? The answer is digitalization, a crisis that closed theater doors all over the U.S. quite recently. The crunch of technology, as the mechanisms of film production and distribution made traditional projection more or less impossible, required a huge outlay of cash to convert to digital presentation. Dipson, the owner, wasn’t interested, while Ike, the movie booker, had died, and Norm needed to retire, a triple challenge.
All good theater stories feature a savior or group of them, and this story, as you know, has an upbeat ending. In the case of the North Park, it was local defense attorney, Tom Eoannou, and his friend, Mike Christiano, a restauranteur, who closed the deal, more or less on a handshake. Restoration took eight months, the only period the North Park has ever not shown movies. I asked Ray how bad it really was inside. While nothing structural was about to collapse, the dome, he told me, “was obscured by filth.” I didn’t understand at first, but as he described what art restorers had had to do, it became apparent he was talking about decade after decade of cigarette smoke and tar. It had been a brown ceiling for a very long time. These days, the small dome of this Henry Spann theater gleams, an ornate series of murals painted by Raphael Beck depicting classical themes.
Although he’d been going to the theater since he was a young child, Ray had actually never seen the dome in pristine shape until recently! The mural above the proscenium, featuring a dancing woman flanked by ballerinas, came out from behind its shroud of a curtain. A new lobby-side concession stand, an exquisite stained-glass window boarded up for decades behind the marquee, repaired and presented to the public: the North Park is a showplace these days.
Ray remembers a couple of moments that reminded me of my time at the St. George. Buffalo is known for its forbidding winters and, during some or another blizzard in the nineties, while Ray worked for the intrepid Norm, the call came to “get over here.” The general public had been ordered off the roads, but Norm insisted. Fortunately, a neighbor who worked for the police was on his way to work, so Ray caught a ride, then, safely arrived, found himself changing the marquee in a blizzard. I know what that means, having watched the tracking of new letters to spell out an upcoming feature, in wind, in rain, yes probably in ice too, the ladder shifting on the sidewalk. But that's not all. According to Ray, Norm and his wife slept in the theater during the famously terrible Blizzard of ‘77.
Now those are show people! And the spirit continues. Thanks, Ray.
Read about The Perils of Marquee Letters in a Vanished Age.
Stay tuned for a treatment of Shea’s Buffalo, worthy of its own blog post.