(WIVB) – Ray Barker’s love affair with the Shea’s North Park Theatre began 27 years ago, when he was still in high school. He started out selling popcorn. Barker moved on in life, became a college professor, but in a sense he never left. The theater on Hertel Avenue had gotten into his head, into his blood.
So when the North Park reopened in 2014, after new owners Tom Eoannou and Mike Christiano brought the theater back to life with a nine-month restoration project, Parker took a job as the program director, the man in charge of lining up the films.
Over the next five years, the North Park flourished, as the historic centerpiece of a neighborhood revival. Boosted by charitable contributions, they cleaned the paintings on the ceiling, installed new seats, bought a state-of-the art digital projector to bring them into the 21st century.
In June of 2019, the “Centennial Restoration” of Buffalo’s last neighborhood theater was complete. The windows above the marquee had been restored, and the entranceway lobby returned to its original vaulted magnificence from a century earlier.
Yes, this year marked the 100th anniversary of the North Park Theatre, which opened its doors on Nov. 21 of 1920, soon after Warren G. Harding was elected President. Then the coronavirus pandemic intervened, shutting down the city’s cultural treasure and dousing the gathering enthusiasm for the Centennial.
“Covid hit at the worst possible time for us,” Barker said by phone this week.
On March 18, the North Park was set to show a free early screening of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” starring Buffalo native Sidney Flanigan. The rising 21-year-old actress was scheduled to conduct a question-and-answer with fans in the theater after the show.
The screening was canceled. So was “Quiet Place Part II,” the John Krasinski-directed film that was shot in Buffalo and various other locations in Western New York.
That was a tough blow, but a shared lament at a time when live entertainment was shuttered and people out of work around the country. But at least North Park fans could look forward to Phase 4 in New York, when theaters were finally allowed to reopen.
Then, a week ago, Gov. Cuomo announced that theaters, malls and gyms would not be included in Phase 4. And now that New York has again halted indoor dining with the virus spiking around the nation, there’s no telling when the theater will open again.
“It is a disappointment,” said Barker, who teaches history at Erie Community College. “We’re trying to be very patient, because we understand that the governor is trying to protect people from a terrible illness. But we were told from the beginning that Phase 4 would include cinemas.
“We almost get to Phase 4, and then to be told in a press conference that this is going to have sub-phases and we don’t know when our sub-phase is going to come, it is a bit frustrating, because we can’t plan.”
Running a theater requires a lot of planning, as Barker well knows as program director They were hoping to reopen a week from Friday, on July 10. Now he’s hoping it could be sometime in August. At any rate, any celebrations will likely be put off until 2021.
You don’t want to come across as bitter. We’re all in this together. More than 128,000 people have died in the country. Workers and businesses are suffering and going under. Barker said he knows of at least two on Hertel Avenue who aren’t expected to make it, a bakery and a book shop.
“There’s a real toll taken on a lot of small businesses,” Barker said. “We have bills that continue whether we’re open or not. So yeah, you don’t want to be seen as negative in any way. We want to keep a positive frame of mind, but it’s still tough.”
It’s hard not to grit your teeth when you see on-line photos of a crowded Hertel bar, with young people not wearing masks or social distancing. How is that safer than a movie theater with movie lovers following the rules?
One of the justifications for nudging theaters and gyms out of Phase 4 was the concern about air conditioning systems spreading the virus.
“The thing is, we have one of the tallest ceilings in the state, so we have a lot more square footage and you know, air,” Barker said with a laugh. “But when you’re in this crisis, it’s not like you can pick up the phone and tell somebody, ‘Our individual circumstances are like this.’ They make blanket rules and we have to follow those rules.
“Our customers don’t move around during the show for the most part. Some may go to the bathroom. But we can absolutely socially distance people with a lot of square footage in-between — high ceiling, masks, the whole nine yards. And yet that bar is open and we’re closed.”
The pandemic has been a test of survival for American business. But the North Park is a testament to survival, a jewel from a city’s storied past. There was a time when people felt it might suffer the fate of so many Buffalo theaters over the years. But Eoannou, a defense attorney, and Christiano, who owns Left Bank and Mes Que, collaborated to save it in a civic labor of love.
Hertel has been enjoying a renaissance in the new century. It figures to withstand the pandemic and continue surging in the years ahead. The theater should be a source of community pride into its second century.
“We’re so happy that the city has seen a resurgence,” Barker said. “The big things is so many families with children living in the neighborhood. We can tell when we show a family film. We’re getting people walking from their homes to the movie, and that’s great. That’s back to the old neighborhood theater concept when it opened.”
Barker says the North Park caters to considerate folks who wouldn’t want to pose a risk to others. He said the theater would be willing to run at one-third capacity. Of course, it will be a long time — maybe 2021 — before things are back to normal.
“Even hard-core movie people have told me that when cinemas reopen, they’re not necessarily going to come,” Barker said. “It’s not like when we open our doors, all our problems are going to be solved. I expect it’s going to take some time for people to re-acclimate in this environment.”
But they’ll be back. One thing the North Park discovered after its reopening in 2014 was that people still love going to a movie, especially a historic gem sitting in the middle of a neighborhood.
“When people like what they see, it makes me feel good,” Barker said. “I enjoy the job. I enjoy the competition of it. It’s a fiercely competitive business. It’s been an honor. It’s been great fun.
“I’d rather think about movies than hand sanitizer and masks, but at the moment, that’s kind of what we’re thinking about.”