Monday, April 18, 2016

Michael Shea and a South Buffalo Gem

April is going to be a great month. Now that the snow has finally gone away the city is coming back to life. Events are happening everywhere and it won't be long before we are all celebrating free summer concerts at Canalside. Before that however the North Park Theatre is screening Alien and Aliens on the 26th of April. The greatest space horror movie ever is coming to Buffalo and its got me thinking about movie theatres and the history of movies in Buffalo. With that in mind I decided to share some pictures from a recent project Preservation Studios undertook in an old theatre building in South Buffalo.

The early history of Buffalonians at the movie theatre was dominated by one figure, Michael Shea, a South Buffalo businessman and entertainer who was responsible for building many of the city’s grandest theatres, including gems like the North Park Theatre and Shea’s Buffalo on Main Street. 
Michael Shea
These two buildings demonstrate the pageantry and the beauty of 1920s theatre design with their gorgeous lobbies, hand painted murals, and intricate plastered ceilings that give both spaces a surreal dreamlike glow which patrons have been enjoying for almost a century. Prior to the 1970s, these were only two of the many theatres Michael Shea had built. Between 1920 and 1930 Michael Shea opened and operated Shea’s Roosevelt, Bailey, Buffalo, Hippodrome, Kensington, and Shea’s Seneca. Sadly these buildings have been largely destroyed leaving the North Park and Shea’s Buffalo as both beautiful reminders of what once was, and haunting reflections of what we’ve lost. However for one of these theatres a scrap of its beauty remains intact. Shea’s Seneca in South Buffalo lost its auditorium in 1970 but the rest of the building, including a massive commercial block and the theatre’s lobby are still intact. Though time has done its damage to Shea’s Seneca the community theatre’s lobby still bears the impressive hallmarks of Michael Shea’s other theatres and the magical atmosphere his patrons experienced each time they came to the cinema.

The current owner of the lobby uses it as storage space and piles of boxes mask the floor space and walls. Despite this, gorgeous details are still visible such as the massive barrel vaulted ceiling. This ceiling is covered in flowing lines and lionesses sitting at the ready, while the back wall, leading onto the street, is guarded by a pair of griffons. The walls still have fabric and intact leaded glass windows though the fabric has faded. 
The ceiling

Window and Wall View 
As you can see the details around these windows are phenomenal, highlighting how ornate theatres had become by 1930 when Shea’s Seneca was completed. Details like this aren't even visible in the North Park, built in 1920, ten years prior to Shea's Seneca. The Seneca was one of the last theatre projects Michael Shea completed before his death in 1934 and as such it synthesizes much of what he'd learned in over two decades of theatre building. 

The building features a large commercial block attached to the theatre space which was a common feature during the time. Commercial space was rented as businessmen and community members saw theatres as major local anchors that were guaranteed to attract a steady stream of consumers. In fact, Shea's theatres were considered major community boons and a sign that neighborhoods were on the rise. The community theatres were utilized as second run site following the first run theatres on Main Street and seated over 2,500 on average. Any businessman working in proximity to one of Shea's massive cinema's was guaranteed to see their business expand as people came and went to see nickel and dime pictures.

As a commercial rehab project the Seneca has massive potential and hopes are that its potential will be realized in a few years, bringing this commercial block and theatre lobby back to Buffalo, allowing us to make use of the last remaining piece of Michael Shea's entertainment empire, an empire that ruled the Buffalo cinema  scene and provided the city with some of its most beautiful and artistic buildings. Until that day comes, enjoy the restoration work that brought the North Park back to use, or catch a play at Shea's Buffalo, savoring the day when we can drive down Seneca Street and see the restoration of Michael Shea's beautiful community theatre.
Photo from the Seneca's Opening Day

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