This summer, painters have cleaned, repaired, painted and glazed the theater’s lavish ceiling as part of the last major restoration project before the venue’s 90th anniversary
For more than two decades, operators of Shea’s Performing Arts Center have steadily added luster to the lavish, ornate and palatial theater. They’ve brought in new seats, drapes and carpeting, returned the historic marquee and blade sign, repaired walls and updated mechanical systems, among many other improvements. Now, the last major restoration of the Rapp & Rapp-designed 1926 movie palace, which boasts one of four theater interiors by Louis Comfort Tiffany, is on target to be completed this month.
“This is it. This is the last major restoration project at Shea’s,” said Anthony C. Conte, Shea’s president and chief executive officer. “To be here when we can actually say we completed the restoration is beyond anything I ever dreamed of, for sure.”
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Doris Collins, the theater’s restoration consultant for the past 18 years. The $1 million project is being paid for with state and federal funds. In all, the theater has spent more than $30 million to improve the theater, including $17 million for a new stage house that was completed in 1999.
For the past seven weeks, a small army of painters has removed dirt, repaired molded plaster and applied paints and glazes to Shea’s ceiling, helping to return the theater to its full glory one brush stroke at a time. To get there requires climbing ladders from the upper level onto a veritable village of scaffolding that covers the entire auditorium and that took 2½ weeks to set up. Getting to the top reveals a sight to behold – a startlingly close encounter with colorful floral, fruit and other architectural patterns and details, and the sheer scope of the circular dome itself.
“This is an absolute thrill, because we are re-creating history,” said William Mayer of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Council 4, out of Cheektowaga, as he applied amber glaze over gold paint that had already gone over a cream-colored base. Later, it will get a final coat of gold paint.
Chris Eckrote, an apprentice painter, also was excited about painting Shea’s ceiling. “It’s something where you can take pride and bring the kids,” he said. The painters follow a color palette created by Collins of 28 colors and variations for the ceiling, another for eight inside the dome. Shea’s had it in the contract that it would supply all of the oil-based paint and finishes. “The reason for that is we are very particular about making sure that the exact same paints are used throughout the building,” Conte said.
Collins even mixes her own gold paint, a dominant ceiling color, in the building. She stirs a metallic powder into an amber shellac to create an old-fashioned look she couldn’t find anywhere else. Two colors – a deep scarlet and gray – were found in the dome that aren’t used anywhere else in the building. “I remember because I’m a Buckeye, and scarlet and gray are Buckeye colors,” Conte said, referring to Ohio State University. “I had nothing to do with it, either,” he added. Michael Carpenter, the job’s restoration superintendent, said it is unusual to be painting something that has never been repainted before. “This may be the only repaint where I’ve gone over the original,” he said.
Dragons have also been discovered on four panels on the back of the projection booth that no one at theater knew existed. Several dozen holes in the plaster have needed to be filled, and two long cracks were found on each side wall, but that was less than expected, considering the expansive area hadn’t been cleaned and painted since Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House.
The needed repairs were identified with the help of a 3-D-generated model, giving EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York City, the contractor, an understanding of problems before the job began. “You could count paint flakes,” Collins said of the computer graphics’ precision. Some problems were discovered later. The electrical work was rewired in the dome, and all 360 floodlights were replaced with LED lighting after Conte saw how corroded the wiring was.
The ending is starting to draw closer, with the west side of the ceiling expected to be finished by the end of next week. The decorative painters are due to complete the finishing touches on the other side by Aug. 28. That gives the theater time to clean up before a private tribute to honor the late Ralph C. Wilson Jr. is held Sept. 12. Curtain Up, the annual event that kicks off Buffalo’s theater season, follows a week later. There are still some smaller jobs to finish before the Jan. 16, 2016, deadline Conte has set, when the theater turns 90. They range from work on side walls to enhancing sound equipment. The theater also will be getting a new grand drape, which could cost $100,00 of the $500,000 to $750,000 needed to finish everything. Money, Conte said, shouldn’t be an impediment.
When the banker, entrepreneur and longtime Shea’s volunteer took the helm in March 2001, the 3,019-seat theater was $5.2 million in debt after having just built the new stage house, and it had a subscriber base of 5,248. Today, Shea’s is one of the most successful traveling Broadway tour stops in the country, with a high of 13,154 subscribers for the 2012-2013 season. And now the last major restoration project is nearing the finish line. “Even as recently as four or five years ago, I never really thought I would be here to see the completion of the restoration, because it’s all about getting the funding to be able to do these things,” Conte said.
This article first appeared in The Buffalo News, by Mark Sommer, on August 2, 2014. Link ⇒