Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Shea's Buffalo Theater, 646 Main Street, Buffalo, NY

There was a Shea's Concert Hall that burned down from a natural gas explosion in 1893, one year after it was built. It was located at Clinton and Main Streets. Proprietor Shea made his way out through blistering smoke, the intense heat almost blistering his flesh.
M.C. Shea, proprietor of the concert hall, estimates his loss at $80,000, with only $10,000. insurance. (1)
Milwaukee Journal, December 14, 1893


Thirty two years later after the gas explosion: Shea's Buffalo Theater
 Seating 3183

The palatial Shea's Buffalo Theater in the heart of Buffalo's theater district was the crowning achievement of showman and theater entrepreneur Michael Shea when it opened on January 16, 1926. The theater is, in fact, awe-inspiring -- a baroque masterpiece designed by the men now regarded as the masters of movie palace architecture - C.W. and George Rapp.

The eight story building is constructed of steel and concrete and trimmed with terra cotta. It is L-shaped in plan. The short (43' wide) end fronts on Main Street and the bulk of "The Buffalo" with its "acre of seats" extends north behind other Main Street store fronts.

The only exterior facade elaborately designed for public view is the Main Street (east) side where the principal theater entrance is located under a mammoth marquis [Ed. note: the present marquis is the third marquis in the theater's history]. Newspaper reports boasted that 7,000 electric lights were used to illuminate the front entrance on the opening night (Buffalo Evening News, January 16, 1926).

Above the marquis the Main Street facade is finished in terra cotta unlike the other facades of the building which are tucked out of public view and finished in unornamented buff-colored brick.

The decorative terra cotta on the front (Main Street) facade surrounds a monumental plate glass and iron window. A crowning terra cotta parapet with lavish Volutes and a bulbous finial was removed in 1932, six years after the opening of the theater. The only other major alteration to the Main Street facade was the removal of the huge vertical sign which read "Shea's Buffalo" and was attached to the building on the south (downtown) side of the large arched window. Without the vertical sign this single undecorated bay gives the front facade a somewhat unbalanced appearance.

On the rear (Pearl Street) side there is another less elaborate entrance than the Main Street one. It reflects a similar arrangement of doors, an overhanging marquis and a large, decorative arched window.(4)
Entering through the bronze doors one leaves Buffalo's Main Street and steps into one of the most sensational movie palace interiors still preserved in its original, overwhelming splendor.

An account in the December 25, 1926, issue of "Motion Picture News" describes the major features of the interior.
Entering a vestibule, 22 by 30 feet, from Main Street, through five double bronze doors one comes to a ticket office placed in the center, which is of marble, six feet by five feet and seven feet high.

Five more bronze and leaded glass
doors lead from the vestibule into the lobby [Ed.note: now referred to as the grand lobby] which is 80 feet long and 30 feet wide. Here one comes upon a spectacular scene of marble walls and pillars, including immense mirrors of paneled glass which reflect the graceful arches opposite them. These mirrors are hung with red and gold curtains [Ed. note: no longer in place]. On the walls are beautiful candelabra, while from the ceiling hang four crystal chandeliers, costing many thousands of dollars. Large arches extend up each side of the lobby.

A grand
marble staircase leads from the right end of the lobby to the mezzanine promenade which runs around the rear and along the south and front sides of the [grand] lobby. This promenade is artistically furnished, laid with rich rugs, and has a lounge at the front over the space occupied on the ground floor by the ticket vestibule. Here is placed a grand piano, divans and large easy chairs. From this promenade the patron looks down into the lobby. From the front lounge one looks through the large front arched window into Main Street.

From the lobby, one enters the
foyer [Ed.note: now referred to as the petite lobby] which extends along the entire length of the auditorium to Pearl Street, where there is another entrance. This foyer is 22 feet wide and 90 feet long. It is separated from the auditorium by glass doors and, like the rest of the house, is strikingly and elaborately furnished.
The "Motion Picture News" article continues to describe the theater auditorium, which has a seating capacity of approximately 4,000 [Ed. note: Now about 3200 because about 800 seats were removed from the orchestra section seating] .
The first impression is that of a harmonious mass of gold, pink and blue. The eye notes the elaborately decorated proscenium arch which has a height of 50 feet. The stage has an opening 66 feet wide. It is 32 feet deep. The balcony seats 1,600.

There are eleven rows of loge seats in the front of the balcony. There are three mammoth arches at each side of the balcony, each of which has a large mirror at the top and a fire exit at the bottom. A large crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling in front of each arch mirror.

At the center of the top of the auditorium is an immense
dome, indirectly lighted. This dome is 56 feet north and south by 70 feet east and west. The total distance from the top of the dome to the orchestra floor is 89 feet, a distance equal to the height of the average seven-story office building.
In front of this door is a smaller, rectangular-shaped dome, in which are concealed ten floodlights for the stage.

The whole interior decoration of the theatre is French Renaissance in character [Ed. note: perhaps more accurately described as Spanish Baroque Revival], approaching most nearly to the Louis XIV styles, but with a modern and American adaption. The
ceiling is covered with an infinite variety of interlacing woodwork designs on curving panels, painted in the dominant golds, pinks and blues, with many variations of these shades.

Ten great hanging lamps in variegated glass provide light at the sides, together with a number of lights of similar glass set in plaques on the walls. At the front the proscenium arch is set off by indirect lights all around.

The orchestra is arranged on a special platform which can be lowered to the basement, and raised to the stage level at the time of the overture. The organ console, similarly arranged, is on a separate elevating unit.

Opportunities for originality in stage fittings are somewhat limited, but the stage of the Shea Buffalo offers something quite different. The fire curtain in the 66-foot wide proscenium, is raised at the opening of the house in the morning, and only the drop of red silk is visible. When this is parted, the real novelty of this stage is visible in the form of enormous gilded gates weighing 1,600 pounds, which slowly fold back. [The original curtain is still in use but the gilded gates have been removed]. The opening of the portal is 42 by 26 feet, and forms the stage proper. The sounding board is attached to this and extends 42 feet into the air, making the acoustics practically faultless ("Ultra Modern Theatres," "Motion Picture News," December 25, 1926, n.p.).
Some original furnishings and decoration also survive in the Men's and Ladies' Smoking Rooms on the ground floors.

An extensive scenery flying system, backstage, and the original 1925 air conditioning system are among the significant mechanical systems which are still in the building. The theater organ is a Wurlitzer Appolo Reproducing Grand Piano. It was said to be the largest theater organ in the eastern states at the time of its construction, and it is regarded today as one of the finest Wurlitzer theater pipe organs in working condition in the United States and Canada. In addition to the full range of pipes this mammoth organ is equipped with an entire octave of tympani, xylophones, Parsifal bells, marimbas, cathedral chimes and harp.(4) The organ cost $44,525. in 1926. (5)

The interior dazzled the beholder with its grand staircase lined with marble and mirrors, exquisite crystal chandeliers, and a myriad of trappings designed by Tiffany Studios of New York City. Of the four movie house interiors that Tiffany Studios designed, only Shea's is functioning in 2009.

Shea's Buffalo Theater was one of the first theaters in the country to be air conditioned, the invention of an enterprising engineer at Buffalo Forge Company, Willis Carrier. (6)

The original plans for the theater as proposed in 1923 included an escalator in the grand lobby. It was later eliminated for either aesthetic or financial considerations.(7)

The Victor Pearlman Company designed, fabricated and installed the 342 decorative light fixtures used in the interior of the theater. They require 1500 light bulbs. The bulbs weren't included in the $39,780. cost of the fixtures. (7)

Among the projects to be done on the building’s exterior include the creation of a 26 foot-long sign reading “Wonder Theatre” for the front of the theater (which Shea’s was called when it opened).

The molded plasterwork of the walls and vaulted ceiling were patterned after the great opera houses in Europe. Antique furnishings were designed by Marshall Field (Chicago) and Tiffany Studios (NYC). A giant Wurlitzer organ was also installed. Traveling vaudeville shows would often debut in New York City and subsequently stop and perform in Buffalo before continuing to Chicago.
Rochester Evening Journal, October 23, 1934, page 121

Loew's operated the structure as a movie house between the late-1940s and the mid-1970s.

It had a semi-symphony orchestra conducted by one Herb Straub and sometimes Ted Mack, who later was the TV host on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1948-1970. On radio it was Major Edward Bowes and on cable it was Willard Scott. Almost 50 major stars of movies, records, stage, screen and television got their start on this series. This is the show that made the "gong" famous as well as "the wheel of fortune" and the phrase: "round' and 'round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows." At the age of seven in 1952, Gladys Knight won Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour television show contest.

The theater orchestra was discontinued in September, 1940.

In 1942, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees set a house record at the theater, grossing $42,000. in one week.

It's ushers were trained by an Annapolis graduate.(2)

In its heyday, Shea's played host to a lengthy list of show business legends - the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, among others - along with a regular slate of first-run movies, highlighted by an overture played by the house orchestra, solo performances on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, newsreels and a live stage show.(3)
A flamboyant product of the first motion picture boom in the "Roaring Twenties," Shea's Buffalo Theater is a prime example of the big city movie palace complete with opulent marble and mirrored interiors, gilt furniture, mammoth chandeliers and a grand old Wurlitzer theater organ.
Henry B. Murtagh presided at the mighty Wurlitzer.
A local enterprise of international fame, the Rudolf Wurlitzer Co. was responsible for the mammoth theater organ which was built at the time of the building's construction with pipes ranging from the size of a straw to 32 feet in length.

"The Buffalo" reflects a new type of theater under construction throughout the United States in response to the lucrative motion picture industry of the 1920's. Wayne Andrews writes about the architectural innovations allowed by the new medium, of the movie:
In these theaters for the first time the eye and ear of the observer were freed from the limitations set by actors' voices and their size on stage. The house audience could be immense. But the most significant new aspect of movie theaters was the appearance chosen, the impression to be made. They were often designated as treasure palaces, their interiors heaped high with exotic plaster riches (Andrews, Wayne, "Lost New York." New York: Schocken Books, 1971,pp. 81-82).

At the time of its completion in 1926, "The Buffalo" was regarded as the pinnacle of Michael Shea's career. This magnate of the early 20th century entertainment world was born in 1859 in Buffalo of humble origins. Seventy-six years later with the construction of "The Buffalo," Shea had built for his own hometown a two-million dollar "wonder theater" for everyone to enjoy. All Buffalo was invited in to ogle at the theater's splendor. Advance publicity of the opening boasted:

                                                         THERE'S ROOM FOR ALL



Everyone could afford the price of admission. There were no reserved seats and little cultural pretension at Shea's Buffalo; the emphasis was on dazzling trappings and popular programs.

The man behind the theater, Michael Shea, grew up in Buffalo's first ward the son of Irish immigrants Daniel and Mary Griffen Shea. He first worked as a dock laborer and later as a structural iron worker and embarked on building his theater empire at the age of 23.

His first venture was the Shea Music Hall in the Old Arcade Building on Clinton Street in Buffalo which was gutted by fire a year later. In the following years Shea established two more theaters and in 1905 opened the Shea Court Street Vaudeville Theatre which led to the growth of his reputation in entertainment circles beyond Buffalo. The Hippodrome was Shea's first movie house in Buffalo, and by the second decade of the twentieth century Shea's investments began to spread beyond his chain of Buffalo theaters to Toronto.

The year-long construction of "The Buffalo" was carefully chronicled in the city's newspapers throughout 1925.
In January Michael Shea was photographed ankle deep in snow on the site trying to break ground with the traditional spade. In April the first steel column of the new Buffalo theater made news, and by June the steel skeleton was nearly completed.

With a Chicago architectural firm and a Buffalo contractor, John Gill and Sons, the finished theater was the combined product of technical expertise and materials from both cities. The terra cotta for the Main Street facade came from an architectural terra cotta firm located at 203 South Dearborn Street in Chicago.
The interior decorations were done primarily by William Hengerer Co. of Buffalo [Ed. note: the design of the interior was by the Louis Tiffany Co., as is evidenced by the drawing on display in the grand lobby.

C.W. and George L. Rapp's movie theaters were widely acclaimed in their day as "outstanding architectural creations" of the motion picture industry. Likening these splendid theaters to Roman amphitheaters and "Temples of old," P.G. Carlson wrote in 1928 in "Theatre Management" about the sumptuous interiors of Rapp theaters, "other theatres of course may have all these colors, but once a theatre built by the Rapp family is seen, there can never by any doubt as to the style they affect" (Carlson, P.G., "In the Motif of the Ancients: A Firm of Chicago Architects Lean upon the Splendors of Old to Build the Motion Picture Theatre of Today," "Theatre Management," January, 1928).

Fifty years later, these sensational movie theaters have become rare monuments in urban downtowns. They have disappeared at an alarming rate or have suffered drastic interior renovations to simplify maintenance. "The Buffalo" has been spared this fate despite the presence of the same economic forces. The building was sold by Shea's Publix Theater chain to Loew's Theaters who more recently sold the building and continued to rent it.

In December, 1974, the theater fell into the city's hands through foreclosure when the former owner failed to pay back taxes. A non-profit group known as "Friends of the Buffalo" is seeking an arrangement with the city to handle the maintenance of the building while Loew's continues to rent it.

One of the best preserved big city movie theaters of its vintage, "The Buffalo" still contains an overwhelming amount of its original decor. It is representative of the most lavish of Rapp and Rapp's commissions and is a priceless record of an exuberant period of American history.

By the mid-1970s, however, the building had fallen into a state of disrepair, and the City of Buffalo foreclosed on the property to prevent Loew's from selling the antique furniture and fixtures. Friends of Buffalo Theatre, successful in obtaining National Register status for the structure, re-opened the theatre as a performing arts center.

On June 30, 1975, the theater closed.

However, mounting debts forced the closure of the theater again in 1979.

Shea's Preservation Guild took over management in 1981 and the theatre remained open with aid from the City of Buffalo. It has served as a performing arts center since then.

No, not THAT Jerry!
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel December 9, 1996

In 1999, a $30 million stagehouse expansion and theatre renovation began, with the final work to be completed within the next few years. The expansion allows the theatre to accommodate large Broadway productions while serving as the anchor to the emerging Theatre District in downtown Buffalo.

The grand re-opening included performances by George Burns and Cab Calloway. 
Sheas Buffalo is the sole survivor of six opulent movie palaces once located in Downtown.
Photo by Karl Josker

Photo by Karl Josker

Photo by Karl Josker

Shea Stadium is not named after Michael Shea. It is named in honor of the man (popular attorney William A. Shea) who was the driving force in bringing a National League team back to the Big Apple.

Jerry performed here on
1/20/79 Grateful Dead.
5/25/83 JGB

1.)^New York Times, 1893-12-15
2.)^O'Brien,Jack, Herald-Journal,1978-02-26,pg3
3.)^Shea'sPerformingArtsCenter:Buffalo's Wonder Theater (http://www.visitbuffaloniagara.com/articles/index.cfm?action=view&articleID=45&menuID=151)
4.)^Buffalo As An Architectural Museum, (http://buffaloah.com/a/main/646/sheanom.html)
5.)^Peters,Arlan,The Wonder Of It All:Michael Shea's Buffalo Theater (http://buffaloah.com/a/main /646/peters/peters.html)
6.)^Rote,David M., (http://www.ci.buffalo.ny.us/Home/OurCity/Buffalo_My_City/Buffalo_My_City_Watercolors/17A_Sheas_Buffalo_1991)
7.)^Peters,Arlan,Buffalo Theater Facts and Figures


  1. Have you been inside?

    This is simply wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your learning about what sounds like an unbelievable room.

  2. This theatre is wonderful. I used to go to the show there about 53 yrs. ago. I cannot wait to see it again.

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  4. Too bad that in this long article you fail to mention the important role Vincent McFaul played as Mike Shea's protege. And he shepherded the chain through expansion after Mr Shea retired in 1930 until deregulation and Loews involvement through until his death in 1955. He was the brains behind Mike Shea's showmanship... without McFaul, Shea wouldn't have been the successful impresario he was. But, I guess that is what happens when you are the brains wind not the front man.

  5. I've added that info to the book, The Encyclopedia Of Jerry Garcia Music Venues, Summer 2018. Thank you!

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