February 11, 2014
On May 23rd of last year, the Buffalo arthouse chain Dipson Theatres announced they would cease operations at the North Park Theatre. The single-screen North Park opened in November of 1920, part of Michael Shea’s chain of Northeast movie palaces. It had been in disrepair for decades, with its vaulted ceiling murals barnacled in layers of soot and grime. Rundown though it was, it still retained an aura of grandeur, where movies were honored instead of consumed. I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, closer to mall multiplexes where greater attention was paid to upsizing popcorn than projecting images. So trips to the North Park felt like transmissions from another, more civilized world. It was there I saw Rear Window for the first time. The theatre’s demise would take part of my childhood with it, and inflict another indignity on that beleaguered, beautiful city. But then, on May 24th, The Buffalo News reported that the North Park wouldn’t close after all. The building’s owner, Buffalo attorney Thomas J. Eoannou, would be partnering with restaurateur Michael G. Christiano to keep it running, and to “restore the North Park to its grande dame status.” They have stood by their word, restoring the North Park to something approaching its original glory. The dark catacomb of my youth is now a sparkling palace, due to reopen this spring [UPDATE: the theatre will officially reopen on March 7th]. I visited the theater and spoke with Christiano and program director Ray Barker, to find out how this preservationist miracle came about.
The North Park Theatre was built in 1920 and designed by Henry Spann in the Neoclassical style. Originally called “Shea’s North Park”, it was one of many theaters Michael Shea opened in Buffalo. Shea was an iron worker turned entrepreneur who had a knack for entertaining the locals, operating a series of music halls and vaudeville theaters before expanding into moving pictures. He opened Shea’s Hippodrome movie house in 1914, and the North Park six years later. Here is the announcement of its construction in a 1920 issue of Motion Picture News:
The marquee was replaced in 1940 (restored this year by Flexlume), and its Tiffany chandeliers were sold off some decades ago, but otherwise the theater as described still exists, the “glass and marble” ticket office included. While an important spoke in Shea’s expansion, his crowning achievement was Shea’s Buffalo, now known as Shea’s Performing Arts Center, a $2 million cathedral to entertainment modeled after European opera houses, with interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1985 the theater was almost dismantled because of failure to pay back taxes, but the community rose up, and a group called “Friends of Buffalo” successfully campaigned to register it as a National Historical Site, preventing departing owner Loews from pilfering its riches. It now thrives as a performing arts space, mainly for touring Broadway shows, but it also has a weekend family film series, a nod to its cinematic roots.
The North Park, then, is the last fully operative Michael Shea movie theatre in the city, his attempt to bring razzle-dazzle to the working man. The centerpiece of the theater is Raphael Beck’s ceiling dome mural, which for decades was hidden under encrustations of cigarette smoke and dirt. Beck was a prolific Buffalo artist who painted President McKinley’s final portrait before his assassination, and created the logo for the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo. Eoannou and Christiano hired local art restoration company Swiatek Studios to restore Beck’s work, and as the photo above displays, it’s a kinetic stunner. Originally this was the only work Swiatek was contracted to do, but when the owners saw their results, they expanded their vision of the restoration – convinced that every nut and bolt could be polished up to its original sheen. It’s safe to assume Shea would approve of Eoannou and Christiano’s devotion to showmanship.
There is a second Beck mural above the screen which was completely covered by massive black masking under the previous tenants, depicting the Greek figures of comedy and tragedy. Swiatek is now hard at work on restoring this as well, along with the plaster busts that edge the theater walls. The screen will be re-painted, the dusty red curtains removed (there used be rock shows here), and the dingy carpets torn out to reveal the original lobby marble. While the whereabouts of the Tiffany chandeliers are unknown, they owners purchased period-appropriate lights from a shuttered Cleveland theater to fill the gap. The breadth and detail of the restoration work thought down to every detail.
Their one compromise with modernity is that the projections will be all-digital. Program director Ray Barker said it’s possible they may be able to re-introduce 35mm down the line, but that digital is the only cost-effective route these days. They will continue the theater’s history of presenting arthouse hits, but they are open to showing repertory and experimenting with different ideas. They are keen on involving the community in programming choices – since they have been overwhelmingly vocal in their support.
Barker has been going to the North Park since he was 5 years old, and he got emotional when describing how the town has rallied behind their efforts. Eoannou and Christiano can’t walk down Hertel Avenue without being approached by throngs of well-wishers, wanting to shake their hands for keeping a piece of Buffalo’s history alive. They held a fundraising gala at the end of 2013, and while they expected 400 to show, more than 700 arrived, packing the space shoulder-to-shoulder with well-wishers, neighbors and cinema-lovers. For the North Park to sustain success following the initial burst of grand re-opening interest, it will have to maintain this sense of community spirit, benefitting from the once again “rapidly growing Hertel Avenue district” (Motion Picture News). From the evident passion and commitment of the owners and program director, I have no doubt they will. This is the happiest story of the year, and I had a big dumb smile on my face in my tour of the premises. When I was inside, I felt like a kid again.
For updates on their opening and albums more of restoration photos, like their Facebook page.