Anthony Conte can always pick out the first-time visitors to Shea’s Performing Arts Center by gauging their reaction when they enter the theater.
“Even though there are crowds of people, they walk in and literally stop and stare,” said Conte, president emeritus of Shea’s. “They’re in wonder of what they’re seeing.”
Designed to resemble a European opera house, Shea’s is the crown jewel of Buffalo’s theater district and has been leaving crowds in wonder for nearly a century. The downtown Buffalo institution just celebrated its 90th anniversary and the completion of over 15 years and $17.5 million in restoration work.
Shea’s is one of the most successful theaters in the United States that host week-long touring Broadway productions, selling over 13,000 season tickets in the 2015-2016 season and bringing in over 250,000 visitors annually. But that wasn’t always the case. After an initially successful run as a movie house and vaudeville stage, the theater fell on hard times by the 1970s and nearly met the wrecking ball.
Buffalonians summoned their collective will to save the landmark and begin the process of restoring it to its original grandeur. That process accelerated in the mid 1990s when Shea’s hired restoration consultant Doris Collins, a former art teacher who attempted something that had never been done before in American theater restoration: training an army of 1,500 volunteers to do the lion’s share of the work.
The team of volunteers, ranging in age from college students to octogenarians, worked around the theater’s Broadway schedule so that Shea’s never had to close for restoration. The volunteer work has saved the formerly cash-strapped theater between $4 and $5 million in labor costs over the years.
“It’s been pretty amazing to see the devotion and the work ethic of these volunteers, doing what many felt was professional work that would take years of training,” Conte said. “When we have had professional restoration companies here, they have all admitted that their professional companies could not have done a better job than our volunteers have done.”
The volunteers take away a lot from the experience too, Collins said.
“It becomes a passion,” she said. “They’re committed now; they’ve become owners.”