BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — It’s one of the 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 first opened its doors in 1926 as a silent movie house, named after its founder Michael Shea.
“He was a young Canadian lad who came from St. Catharines with his family. They settled into the first ward,” said Shea’s Restoration Consultant Doris Collins. “He got jobs in both the loading docks and in the steel mill, and he saved his money and opened a little bar – a little saloon. His first venture into entertainment was singing waiters.”
As Shea’s entertainment business grew, so did his success. He and his partner, Pliny McNaughton, opened up 12 movie houses. 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 glamour for the Paramount Pictures designated “Wonder Theatre.”
“It came into hard times in the ’50s, when there was a big surge to go into the suburbs, and by early 1962 the theatre was in pretty bad shape. The original cost was almost two million dollars in 1925-26, and it was put on the auction block for 400,000 [dollars],” Collins said.
At that time, the City of Buffalo took the property over, and made the decision to tear the theatre down 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, let’s not let it become a parking lot, let’s find a way to restore it and make it this treasure for the future of Buffalo,” said Shea’s President Michael G. Murphy.
These days, the theatre is home to all kinds of performances, including the popular Broadway series. Murphy said planning each season is a delicate balance.
“Most importantly though, it’s about bringing the best to Buffalo,” he said. “Buffalo is a great theatre audience, it’s a great theatre town. The producers and performers love coming to Buffalo because they know they get a smart, appreciative audience.”
There could soon be an expansion in the upcoming future. The performing arts center is looking into a $26.6 million project which would add five stories, two high-speed elevators and a new lobby to the historic theatre.
Murphy said with the 100th anniversary of Shea’s coming up in 2026, he wants to make sure it’s around for another 100 years and more generations to come.
“Everyone had a different relationship and a different story to Shea’s, but everyone of them is meaningful, wonderful, impactful and powerful that you’re hearing what people have gained from those experiences coming to Shea’s, coming to a performance and how that, perhaps, has changed their lives and taken their lives forward,” Murphy said.
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Marlee Tuskes is a reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.