Buffalo Behind the Scenes: Shea’s Performing Arts Center

BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) – This is one of Queen City’s crown jewels; For nearly a century, Shea’s Performing Arts Center has raised the curtains for Western New Yorkers.

In the heart of downtown Buffalo sits one of the area’s top attractions. Shea’s opened in 1926 as a silent movie theater, named after its founder Michael Shea.

“He was a young Canadian from St. Catharines with his family. They settled in the first room,” said Shea’s restoration consultant, Doris Collins. “He got jobs in the loading docks and in the steel mill, and he saved his money and started a little bar – a little saloon. His first venture into entertainment was singing waiters.

As Shea’s entertainment business grew, so did her success. He and his partner, Pliny McNaughton, have opened 12 movie theaters. The one on Main Street was the last.

“And obviously the most opulent, based on European opera houses or palaces,” Collins said.

But it wasn’t always glitz and glamor for Paramount Pictures’ designated “Wonder Theater.”

“He got into tough times in the 1950s, when there was a big wave of influx into the suburbs, and by early 1962 the theater was in pretty bad shape. The original cost was nearly two million dollars in 1925-26, and it was auctioned for 400,000 [dollars]“, said Collins.

At that time, the City of Buffalo took over the property and made the decision to demolish the theater and replace it with a parking lot. A group called “The Friends of Shea’s Buffalo Theatre” stepped in and made sure that didn’t happen.

“There were some incredibly smart people who said ‘let’s keep this place, don’t let it become a parking lot, find a way to restore it and make it this treasure trove for Buffalo’s future,'” the president of Buffalo said. Shea, Michael G. Murphy.

These days, the theater hosts all kinds of shows, including the popular Broadway series. Murphy said planning each season is a delicate balance.

“But the most important thing is to bring the best to Buffalo,” he said. “Buffalo is a big theater audience, it’s a big theater town. Producers and performers love coming to Buffalo because they know they have a smart, appreciative audience.

There may soon be an expansion in the near future. The performing arts center is studying a $26.6 million project that would add five floors, two high-speed elevators and a new lobby to the historic theater.

Murphy said that with Shea’s 100th birthday coming up in 2026, he wants to make sure it lasts for another 100 years and more generations to come.

“Everyone had a different relationship and a different story than Shea, but each of them is meaningful, wonderful, impactful and powerful that you hear what people took away from those experiences coming to Shea, coming to a performance and how that, maybe, changed their lives and moved their lives forward,” Murphy said.

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Marlee Tuskes is a journalist who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.