Sheas Performing Arts Center
Shea’s Performing Arts Center is a theater for touring Broadway musicals and special events in Buffalo, New York. Originally called Shea’s Buffalo, it was opened in 1926 to show silent movies. It took one year to build the entire theatre. Shea’s boasts one of the few theater organs in the US that is still in operation in the theater it was designed for.
Shea’s Buffalo, flagship of the theater chain, was designed by the noted firm of Rapp and Rapp of Chicago. Modeled in a combination of Spanish and French Baroque and Rococo styles, the theatre was designed to resemble opera houses and palaces of Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally the seating accommodated nearly 4,000 people, but several hundred seats were removed in the 1930s to make more comfortable accommodations in the orchestra area. The interior was designed by world renowned designer/artist Louis Comfort Tiffany with most of the elements still in place today. Many of the furnishings and fixtures were supplied by Marshall Field in Chicago, and included immense Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers of the finest quality. The interior contained over 1-acre (4,000 m2) of seating. The cost of construction and outfitting of the theater in 1926 was just over $1,900,000. This was at a time when a new house could be purchased for $3,000 and a new Model A Ford was $1,000. The theater opened January 16, 1926 with the film King of Main Street, starring Adolph Menjou. When Michael Shea retired in 1930, Shea’s interests were headed by V. R. McFaul, who owned and managed several dozen Shea’s Theaters in the metro Buffalo area until his death in 1955. Loew’s Corp took over the chain’s interests in 1948, upon the Deregulation of the Movie and Theater Industry adjudicated by the Supreme Court.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
The theatre had a not-so-unusual history of falling into some disrepair in the 1960s and 1970’s when downtown Buffalo was in decline. It was operated at that time by Loew’s Corporation as primarily a showcase for "Blacksploitation" films such as the "Super Fly" series. The theatre was owned at that time by Leon Lawrence Sidell, who was failing to pay his taxes.
A small group of folks, led by Curt Mangel, and including Ben Hiltz, Steve LaManna, Dan Harter and 9 others known as the original "Friends of the Buffalo" theatre began doing work on the organ, and Mr. Mangel became the engineer of the building. Mr. Mangel actually lived in the building, in the upper floors of the dressing rooms for almost a year, while working on various engineering needs of theatre, and for Loew’s Corporation.
When it became apparent that the theatre would default to the city on back taxes owed by Leon Lawrence Sidell, Loew’s was preparing to leave and strip the theatre of its contents. The Friends went through the theatre and inventoried every item. In landmark court decision, a judge blocked Loew’s from removing the contents, including chandeliers, furniture, organ and projection equipment. The claim was that Loew’s owned these items, and legal counter argument stated that the items were an integral part of the theatre. The judge actually toured the theatre, including the organ chambers, and ruled for the Friends and the City of Buffalo.
The building, which could be considered a very high profile political football, came under the watchful eye of then Comptroller George O’Connell, for whom the theatre was later surnamed. Under his watch, and the Friends, the theatre was able to keep its utilities running, and repair began.The Friends of the Buffalo were then given operating privileges of the building and undertook massive restoration through government grants and developed a performance series in the late 70’s.
A Grand Re-Opening was mounted to a sold-out audience in the late 1970s with Cab Calloway and George Burns. Calloway had performed at the theatre at its original opening week in 1926 and Burns had performed there in the late 1940s.
The volunteer Friends of the Buffalo group was replaced by a professional management team. The Friends continued to enlarge its volunteer base, which worked on various restoration projects, including the Wurlitzer Organ.
Later, political appointees were ushered into running the theatre which continues to the present day.
The theatre is a hugely successful performance center, having undergone a large expansion of its stage facilities to accommodate larger touring productions.