Two days before the Riviera Theatre — then the Rivera Theatre — first opened its doors on Dec. 30, 1926, manager James Kelly received a telegram:
“Accept my congratulations on the opening of your beautiful new Rivera Theatre. The erection of such theaters is definite proof of the great progress being made by this industry of ours. As my pictures come to you, I will appreciate frank criticism from you and your patrons. Sincere best wishes. Cecil B. DeMille.”
It’s not known if anyone ever took Mr. DeMille up on his request for feedback after a screening of his next film, “King of Kings,” but what is clear is that the Riviera Theatre was a product not only of the booming pre-Depression era entertainment industry but also of development in North Tonawanda then and now.
“I think that the Riviera Theatre provides people in the community with a sense of identity and pride from their golden yester-years when there was a lot of wealth in this area,” said Frank Cannata, executive director of the theater. “At the same time I think it symbolizes the future development of the city and the community and the renaissance that’s taking place in and around the theater. I think the Riviera Theatre has really become an anchor project for development in the Tonawandas.”
It’s that sense of pride and nostalgia associated with the Riviera Theatre, located at 67 Webster St., that makes us take a closer look at the building’s history and structure for the current installment of our monthly architecture series.
Up until the early 1920s, the east side of Webster Street looked very different than it does now. According to Ned Schimminger of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, tracks for the New York Central Railroad ran right through that part of the street.
Those tracks were pulled up and it wasn’t long after that that proposals started to pop up for a new theater in North Tonawanda. The push for the theater was promoted heavily by the Webster Street Businessmen’s Association and by the beginning of 1925, plans were in place to build what would be billed as a state-of-the-art playhouse that could present live shows as well as movies, which were growing in popularity at the time.
“If you think about it, (the Riviera Theatre is) built sort of at the turning point of entertainment theater,” said Jennifer Walkowski, architectural historian at Clinton Brown Company. “(The industry was) really moving into this new era of motion picture, which is recorded and can be shown more than once … it’s a transitional theater. The opening night performance incorporated a silent motion picture accompanied by organ and also vaudeville.”
“It’s the type of building that’s increasingly rare. Sometimes cities like Buffalo had several, but these have sometimes been lost — it’s a rare treat that the Riviera is still around,” Walkowski said.
The 1,200-seat Rivera Theatre opened December 30, 1926, and along with it came the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. The organ was a showcase model that the nearby Wurlitzer factory used to demonstrate for prospective organ buyers.
That same organ sits in the Riviera today and has undergone numerous alterations and restorations over the years, with the most recent 2008 revoicing giving the instrument back its original sound.
Not long after its opening, the theater was struggling due to the Depression — in 1930, Shea’s Management rented the building and changed the name to Shea’s Riviera.
Throughout the next few decades, the name, ownership and use of the building were in flux. During the 1950s and early 1960s there was a period where the organ went completely silent. In 1970, the Riviera was part of the Dipson theater chains, but by 1971 it was closed for an entire year. And even though the theater was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the building was sold again in 1982 due to financial difficulties.
By 1988, the Riv was up for sale again and this time its current owners, the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society, which, at the time, was mostly concerned with maintaining the Wurlitzer organ, purchased the building. Board member Neal Lang says it wasn’t an easy decision for the society to purchase the theater, and in the end it took a lot of work getting it up to snuff.
“(We thought) if the theater’s going to be sold, the only way to keep the organ was the buy the theater. By Feb. 14, 1989, the organ society owned a theater and with that came lots of hours of work. It was dirty but it wasn’t destroyed, so clean we did. It was unbelievably dirty and for the first week every night we went in, I dumped a bottle of Clorox in the toilets, it stunk so bad,” Lang laughed.
Since then, the Riv has undergone extensive restoration, a project that is still ongoing. Much of that cleaning and restoration has been completed through a grassroots effort, with members of the RTOPS getting their hands dirty — Neal says he did much of the painting and stencil work himself.
“It’s always going to be a project,” Neal said. “I think that’s the wonderful part of it — it’s always going be a work in progress. We have a vision and we keep holding to that vision and more and more people join us with that vision.”
The Riviera Theatre was designed by Leon H. Lempert and Sons, the same architects behind the Rapids Theatre in Niagara Falls, the Palace Theatre in Lockport and several others throughout Western New York, southern Ontario and Pennsylvania.
Walkowski explains that the Riviera is an excellent example of what was called a movie palace, a term used to describe large, elaborately decorated movie theaters built during the first part of the 20th century.
“Going to the movies was an experience — a complete sensory experience. You’ve got music coming from the organ, you’re also surrounded in this envelope of really rich color and detail. It’s architecture that’s meant to transport you to another time, another place much like a movie. It sets the stage for an exotic destination,” Walkowski said.
“I think the architecture really captures that sort of sense this isn’t just going to the same generic mass-produce boxed movie theater that we go to today. Each theater was really crafted as a little jewel, little boxes of wonder and imagination just like the movies,” she said.
The interior decoration is patterned after the Italian Renaissance and was painted by Ferdinand T. Kebely of the Rochester-based studio of Willard M. Lusk. That artwork is all still in its original state, according to Schimminger.
Also in their original state — although temporarily removed — are the terracotta ladies that adorn the rooftop. The 2009 exterior restoration included roof replacement and masonry repairs that were funded by the New York State Environmental Protection Fund, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the New York Main Street program, all to ensure the Riv was kept historically intact.
Jill Nowicki, a historic preservation specialist with Clinton Brown Company, assisted in this restoration and said that so much deterioration over the years required them to pull down the iconic ladies.
“There was so much deterioration that the terracotta figurines were leaning forward. So we dismantled then reconstructed them back up,” Nowicki said. “Everybody was very glad to see the ladies returned to their posts atop the Riviera Theatre.”
“I think buildings oftentimes remind people of certain memories … maybe they went to a movie or a show and remember looking up at these ladies. They didn’t like the fact that they came down but we had to in order to save them. It helps to maintain a sense of place, a sense of community where you come from so that future generations can also enjoy this.”
Two restoration projects are currently on the table for The Riviera — one inside and one outside.
“We got a $300,000 grant from the Oshei Foundation,” Lang explained. ‘Right now our weight system that operates the curtains is run by sand bags and we’re going to put in an actual weighted pulley system. A fire curtain is required in the theater … (it’s) painted with a gorgeous ship scene. We’ll be able to lift it up and down (easier) so people can see this gorgeous work of art.”
This grant will also cover new curtains and fixing some of the lighting. The work is expected to begin this summer.
Further down the road, the marquee will also be undergoing some changes, according to Cannata. The Riviera received a $104,000 grant to completely restore the marquee from the Environmental Protection Fund. The theater must match those funds before work can be started, but Cannata hopes to get things rolling in the fall.
“Many of the lights don’t work and all of the neon has been broken off. They don’t make the letters anymore for the marquee so we’re hoping to upgrade the panels with LED,” Cannata said.
As Lang said, there’s always work to be done at the Riviera Theatre, but these days the sounds of hammers and saws are being echoed up and down Webster Street.
“I truly believe and am thankful that in 1989 we had a vision and I know that vision is coming true now,” Lang said. “The Riveria Theatre has held the street strong and with the canal, the lofts, Dwyer’s and Crazy Jakes, all of a sudden that whole downtown area is coming to life again. The theater kept that place going and made it possible for what’s taking place right now.”
This article by Danielle Haynes originally appeared as part of a series in The Tonawanda News on July 20, 2011. Link ⇒