Whenever I travel, I look up local theaters of interest, and two months back I had reason to be in Buffalo. While working on a post about the North Park, wonderful neighborhood house, I became aware of its more opulent sister downtown, Shea’s (these days titled Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which also includes several smaller theaters). The theater itself was created by Rapp & Rapp for local business titan Michael Shea, who had seen the Uptown Theatre on a visit to Chicago, and wanted nothing less grand for Buffalo. At a cost of $1.9 million, Shea’s took all of 1925 to build, opening in 1926, with Adolph Menjou in King of Main Street. A (“285 special”) organ, the twin of the Uptown’s Mighty Wurlitzer, played forth.
But the Depression would turn out not to be any easier on Buffalo than on the rest of the United States, and Michael Shea, that big-hearted theater mogul, refused to slice and dice his payroll. He also kept acquiring theaters when he probably shouldn’t have, and then he died. Not so long after, his family sold off their interests in the theater enterprises, and his flagship, Shea’s Buffalo, fell into the hands of entrepreneur V.F. McFaul, who, with some financial assistance from Paramount, managed it and other Shea properties until Loew’s took it over in 1948. The Wurlitzer wasn’t getting much of a workout, but the theater did well enough, until its slide into the difficult 1970’s.
The seventies; if you know just a little about single-screen movie houses, especially the palaces, you know what that decade did to theaters in downtowns everywhere. Shea’s owner at that time, Leon Sidell, wasn’t doing so well himself; he’d fallen behind in his taxes. The City of Buffalo took ownership of the palace, which might seem bad but, as it turned out, became the theater’s get-out-of-jail-free card. The comptroller of Buffalo at that point was a friendly interest, and then there was Curt Mangel – and the fifteen “Friends.” You’re going to hear a lot about Curt, now and in the future; he’s a sort-of Johnny Appleseed of movie palaces (and organs) — more on that sometime soon.
Meanwhile, it’s October and I’m lucky enough to talk my way into Shea’s on my last day in town. Jennifer Orr, PR Coordinator, happens to be putting on her coat, and agrees to let me take more than a peek. She also introduces me to Doris Collins, Historic Restoration Consultant, who walks me around, then makes me feel at home in her basement office/workshop, full of swags and trimmings.
“Curt Mangel slept in this theater!” she told me, a few minutes into our chat, and I realized that no matter how many cell pix I took or stray factoids I tracked down, the story of Curt and Friends of the Buffalo is the core story of Shea’s. Not only did Curt fix the elevator to the dressing room he was sleeping in, and a lot of other things, boilers and such, he put himself on a self-imposed night-shift, cataloguing all the furniture, chandeliers, paintings, carpets, you name it. To quote Showstopper, from the Comments column appended to the Shea’s Cinema Treasures entry, “To this day, many of the fixtures/furniture have a serial number that was put on them to inventory them, that was done in the middle of several nights without Loews knowledge, to prevent them from stripping the building.”
Cheekily, while on Loew’s payroll, Curt managed to create an inventory that would later be useful in the landmark court case Friends of the Buffalo employed to save the theater from being stripped of its decorative effects.The court case demonstrated that curtains and sconces and such were the essence of the theater itself, intrinsic to its operation, an argument that apparently has been replicated in other theater salvation lawsuits. Shea’s received its Landmark status, and Curt moved on. I was privileged to have dinner with him in Philadelphia recently, where he’s curator of the remarkable Wanamaker Organ, but that’s another story for another time.
Meanwhile, it’s enough simply to say thanks to Curt, and to the other original fourteen “friends;” not to slight a city comptroller with a heart, and the folks who have followed, the staff and management, including those who carry on the work of restoration. Case in point, 1998: Doris Collins and her crew discovered that rumors about the theater’s Tiffany design have a basis in fact. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a Tiffany design exhibition that year, and the catalogue that accompanied it featured an original Tiffany Studio painting of the interior of Shea’s, as it had been planned. The Met couldn’t lend Shea’s the painting, but was happy to make a full-scale negative, from which Doris and her team could extract minute details.
This brings us to the story of the three curtains. The original house curtain was a Rapp and Rapp Design (the architects). Despite the fact that Tiffany had proposed a different curtain altogether, the theater actually opened with the Rapp design, a scalloped valence, and a forty-five foot curtain that raised vertically. It lasted until the sixties, when it was replaced by a second curtain, about which little has been said, other than that 400 pounds of dust was removed in 1998. Thread-bare in places, that curtain was replaced by one woven by Backhausen & Son, in Vienna, Austria, exactly fulfilling the exquisite Tiffany design (see image above).
Medieval cathedrals took centuries to build, and movie palaces may take at least a half-century to restore. So it is with Shea’s PAC, where volunteers of all ages find ways to make the palace shine. In addition, Doris Collins employs local college and high school students through a unique internship program in restoration, helping them to emerge with valuable skills and knowledge.
Then there’s the business end of Shea’s: it’s a Broadway director’s dream if your show didn’t make back the money it spent getting mounted (70-80 percent don’t apparently). Thanks to a loyal Upstate New York following of season subscribers, certain marginally-profitable NYC productions can sell out at Shea’s if they go on the road, not to mention shows like The Lion King, Wicked, and Cats, which extend their profitability.
What makes it all work? Beyond a loyal subscribership and good management, it’s the theater, baby! Like the afore-mentioned medieval cathedrals, there’s so much to look at in this gorgeous Tiffany-designed hall.
Would it be a parking lot if Curt hadn’t slept there? If management hadn’t guided it skillfully into a successful live venue? Or if someone, perhaps a volunteer, hadn’t labored to restore those Tiffany-designed roses and kumquats that frame the proscenium?
1. The previously-mentioned New York Times article about Shea’s playbill successes mentions that “squatters” saved the theater in the seventies. Isn’t there a more dignified way to describe what the Friends did?
2. Ever wonder what the difference is between real marble and scagliola? Ever heard of scagliola? I hadn’t, until Doris Collins challenged me, in the lobby of Shea’s. For a glimpse at the nuts and bolts of theater restoration, which includes scagliola and a lot more, catch this video! Among other things, you’ll learn that scagliola doesn’t feel cold to the touch, like marble.
3. Stay tuned, as we used to say in analogue days, for more on Curt Mangel; he gets around.