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Shea's Performing Arts Center

Shea's Performing Arts Center
Front of Theatre
Address 646 Main St.
Buffalo, New York
United States
Owner Shea's O'Connell Preservation Guild Ltd.
Type movie theater
Current use performing arts center
Opened 1926


Shea's Buffalo Theater
Shea's Performing Arts Center is located in New York
Architect Rapp, C.W.; Rapp, George (Rapp & Rapp)
Architectural style No Style Listed
Governing body Local
NRHP Reference #


Added to NRHP May 06, 1975

Shea's Performing Arts Center (originally Shea's Buffalo) is a theater for touring theater organs in the US that is still in operation in the theater for which it was designed.


  • History 1
  • Organ 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


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 17th and 18th 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; there are now 3,700 seats at Shea's. 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 Adolphe 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 Theatres took over the chain's interests in 1948.

The theatre had a not-so-unusual history of falling into some disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s 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.

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 70s.

Broadway Theatre manager and producer Robert B. D'Angelo was brought in as CEO in the late 1970s. In his short span at the helm he booked multi-week engagements of several major broadway national tours including Annie and Les Miserables, helping to reestablish Buffalo as an important stop on the Broadway tour circuit.

A Grand Re-Opening was mounted to a sold-out audience in the late 1970s with 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.


The theater's "Mighty Wurlitzer" was a custom design built by the Wurlitzer Company and was one of only 5 in the world that had tonal finishing, provided directly from the Wurlitzer factory, after it had been installed in the theater. The organ was used as a demonstrator by the Wurlitzer Factory, in nearby North Tonawanda, whenever a visiting customer wanted to hear an example of a 4 manual (keyboard) organ installed in a theater. {The demonstrator for a 3 manual (keyboard) organ was the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, NY.}

Built originally to provide silent film accompaniment, like many of the thousands of instruments like it, fell into disrepair, rarely being heard in the 1940s, and 1950's. It was made operational by the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts, (now the American Theatre Organ Society or ATOS) for a series of memorable concerts. On or around that time, a valuable set of Brass Trumpets, special pipework of a theatre organ, was stolen.

It then sat virtually silent again until the late 1970s, when it was made playable again by the Friends of the Buffalo for the Grand Re-opening of the theatre.

In late 1970s the Wurlitzer underwent a huge restoration, provided by monetary grants from various arts organizations, including complete replacement of the relay (switching) system that controlled the organ, as well as restoration of windchests, missing pipe replacements, wiring and organ console work.

The revitalized organ was premiered to the public with a sold-out concert by noted theatre organist Lyn Larsen. Since that time it has been used for solo concerts, silent films and background music prior to and after events in the theatre.

In 2006, to commemorate the theater's 80th birthday, the The Phantom of the Opera, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Louis Vierne's Carillon de Westminster.

See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places.  

External links

  • Official website
  • A history
  • Unofficial Shea's Wurlitzer Organ website
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