The Rebirth of the North Park Theatre

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.NP2_012

12 Responses The Rebirth of the North Park Theatre
Posted By Doug : February 11, 2014 3:47 pm

Gorgeous! Thank you for sharing this wonderful news-it looks like a treasure house of memories.
My only memory of Buffalo is my ship pulling in during a blizzard.
That picture of Shea-he looks ‘working class’ which is a compliment-like a regular guy who had a grand dream that he made come true. That some 94 years later his theater has been restored is a dream beyond the original. May it have many more good years to shine in Buffalo.

Posted By Craig Fischer : February 11, 2014 7:43 pm

Lovely to read this. Thank you for your research! I grew up in North Buffalo on Norwalk Avenue, about a 10-minute walk from the North Park, and I went to grammar school at St. Margaret’s, which is a block over from the theater. Potent memories…

I learned to love movies at the North Park. I also saw REAR WINDOW for the first time there, when five Hitchcock films were re-released in the mid-80s. I’m relieved and overjoyed that another generation will experience its splendor.

Posted By Allan Harris – WBEN : February 11, 2014 8:36 pm

I also grew up at the North Park and remember vividly watching 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and being scared by the giant squid!! I haven’t had a chance yet to see the theater..but it looks beautiful in the pictures. By the way, back in the 50′s, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s father had a delicatessen just a few doors away that I would also stop into on a regular basis. I believe Wolf also worked there as an usher at one time. We would leave our bikes, unlocked, out in front and watch a double feature and cartoons on a Saturday morning!

Posted By Joshua Anderson : February 11, 2014 11:42 pm

I believe, as it stands, To The Wonder was the final film to be shown there. I was lucky enough to see There Will Be Blood and Samsara in its charming but rugged pre renovation form. I’m excited to see the progress they are making in rescuing this beautiful building. Thanks Moviemorlocks and thedissolve.com for sharing this article.

Posted By Richard Brandt : February 12, 2014 4:47 am

This is a feel-good success story to match the community in Mobile, Alabama coming together to fund a digital projector so the Crescent Theater could keep showing the art-house hits. Stay classy, Buffalo!

Posted By swac44 : February 12, 2014 12:32 pm

I love the movie palaces of Upstate New York (now a live venue), like the Loew’s State in Syracuse and the Capitol in Rome (host of the annual August Capitolfest 35mm film weekend). Glad to hear one more of them has been spared an unseemly fate.

I wish we could have learned the same lesson here in Halifax. First the Capitol Theatre, a genuine movie palace (it even had a drawbridge and suits of armour in the lobby) torn down to build a skyscraper that looks like an egg carton standing on end, and then the Casino Theatre, a former opera house that’s the only theatre designed by one of Canada’s premiere architects at the turn of the last century, allowed to crumble into disrepair before being razed to make way for “Theatre Lofts” condos. We have one single screen cinema left, the 1940s Oxford Theatre, but seeing as it’s now changed hands for the third time, I suspect its days may be numbered. It’s a more humble neighbourhood movie house, but it’s where as a kid I saw my first “grown-up” film (The Sting way back in 19mumblemumble) and I’ll be crushed when it’s gone.

Posted By swac44 : February 12, 2014 12:34 pm

Oops, meant to say that it was the Lowe’s State that’s now primarily a live venue (now called the Landmark Theatre, it used to host 35mm screenings for Syracuse’s Cinefest, but they had to switch to a different a few years ago).

Posted By robbushblog : February 12, 2014 3:39 pm

This is great, and what a beautiful building that is, especially that dome mural. Wow! It is a shame we don’t have art like that in theaters these days. Here in Jacksonville, we have saved three theaters that originated in the 20′s, one to its original splendor and two with a mixture of old and new styles. I love the passion that these people have for restoration.

Posted By rebecca butler : February 12, 2014 9:56 pm

Wonderful Tom! Buffalo’s crown jewel gets polished and given back to those of us that love this theater. Your commitment to Hertel Avenue will always be appreciated by those of us that grew up around here. Many Thanks!

Posted By Tom H. : February 14, 2014 11:05 pm

Wow. The North Park Theater. When I was a boy, growing up right around the corner just off Hertel Ave, this was where I saw my first movie in a theater. They were showing Frankenstein and Dracula, and I don’t think I would go into a dark room for a month after that.

Glad to see these old movie palaces being brought back. I lived in Syracuse for ten years and saw many films such as Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, Shane, etc. in a theater that was just perfect for the film.

Posted By Dolores A Sweeney : February 21, 2014 10:35 pm

This is my neck of the woods since I was born and raised at 33 Norwalk Ave 62 years ago!!I loved walking to the Zoo,Van Slyke pharmacy for lunch and shopping at the Sample Shop.My St. Margaret’s friends and I spent many hours in the North Park seeing every new feature but there were many years of it being closed and in disrepair. so I am thrilled to finally see that smoke filled ceiling come back to LIFE!!!! I also had a favorite date withmy husband seeing “The Big Night” after we had the same meal at a local restaurant. It was a special dinner -theatre night that I hope the North Park could do again!!!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 24, 2014 9:27 pm

I’m happy to report the North Park Theatre will be re-opening on March 7th, screening GIRL ON A BICYCLE. Their Facebook page has all the details:

https://www.facebook.com/northparktheatre

Thank you for all the reminiscences and memories of the old North Park. If anyone goes to the grand reopening please report back in the comments!

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