(Not quite) Torn-Down Tuesday: The remnants of the Shea’s Empire

       By Steve Cichon

When Michael Shea decided to build a movie house in a neighborhood, it generally meant that the great theater owner saw some promise and some means to make some money there. Many followed him to invest in those areas.

Fast forward a century later, and the story is the same for neighborhoods where the once-opulent Shea theaters have been renovated.

Main looking north from Chippewa, with the Shea’s Buffalo marquee looming, from a postcard from about 1957.

In 1975, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre was a signature away from the wrecking ball. After the Loews movie chain left the once beautiful grand old theater empty, demolition orders were written to tear down the landmark. Buffalo Comptroller George O’Connell, however, wouldn’t sign. He instead intensified efforts to find people willing to help save the place.

The movement to save Shea’s blossomed into the 1980s efforts to rebuild and revitalize Buffalo’s Theatre District. Renovation and reconstruction of Shea’s continues to this day – but one major milestone was the replacement of the 65-foot-tall Buffalo sign on the building’s Main Street façade in 2004, making the theater one of downtown’s most photographed landmarks.

The complete renovation of the Shea’s theater on Hertel Avenue also helped usher in a new era on that North Buffalo strip.

The 2014 multimillion dollar, eight-month restoration of the 1920-built theater underscored Hertel’s rebirth as a trendy spot filled with boutique shops, and plenty of taverns and restaurants with outdoor seating.

The reopening of the Shea’s Seneca theater as a banquet facility earlier this month is the latest instance of a retrofitting of Michael Shea’s notion that a movie house should help create the sense of wonder and amazement reflected in the films being shown there.

Shea’s Seneca, Seneca at Cazenovia

The Shea’s Seneca was built in 1929, and after the theater portion of the building was torn down in the 1970s, what was left of it – the still glorious and opulent lobby – had spent most of the last four decades as a storage facility.

It’s all a part of a larger renovation to the attached building that was once home to the Skyroom, Woolworth’s and D & K through the years.

Like so many other great places, any of these three Shea’s landmarks could have been torn down in a past era of Buffalo’s history with a sense of forlorn but also a sense of helplessness. Today, it’s clear, that the buildings that have survived are helping to usher in an era where Buffalo’s future is built on its great past.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Elmwood & Utica

By Steve Cichon

For decades, the northeast corner of Elmwood Avenue and West Utica Street, with its mid-century brick bank building and large parking lot, looks like it would fit in almost any post-war-built suburb in America.

But it was quite the city neighborhood centered at Elmwood and Utica for many decades. The area was one of several in the city that held mock elections for neighborhood mayor in the 1930s and 1940s. When he was “elected” “Mayor of Elmwood” in 1939, William Feger had been selling magazines and the Courier-Express from a newsstand on the corner for more than twenty years.

Up until the mid-1960s two great buildings stood at the corner where that modern bank now stands. The photo shows the Auditorium Building in 1910. In the ’50s and ’60s, that building was home to a Marine Trust bank branch and the Elmwood Billiard Academy.

And in what is now the bank’s parking lot stood the Elmwood Theatre.

Built in 1916, it was renovated and reopened by Michael Shea and company in 1930.

The seating area was completely replaced with new mohair-covered chairs — which experts said were the best for the new trend of sound pictures, reducing reverberation and echoing.

The proscenium arch, side walls the stage entirely refitted with new draperies and curtains. A Magnascope screen is being installed which will enable this theater to bring scenes from talking pictures up to the entire size of the stage opening.

A new marquise is being placed in front and new electric signs installed around the top of it, including a complete new program announcement system.

Michael Shea came to Buffalo from New York to personally oversee the project, which included balconies that movie patrons remember as among Buffalo’s steepest — even giving the Aud’s Oranges a run for the money.

The theater was torn down in 1965.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Shea’s Seneca Theatre in South Buffalo

By Steve Cichon

It’s been almost 50 years since the last movie played at the Shea’s Seneca Theatre at Seneca and Cazenovia streets in the heart of South Buffalo. The theater was torn down in 1969.

But it was the dream of showman Michael Shea to put not just a movie house– but a movie palace– in each of Buffalo’s distinct residential communities and neighborhoods. For many in South Buffalo, the building of the beautifully designed and constructed theater was the final piece in making South Buffalo a community on par with any other in the city.

The perception that many elsewhere in the city clung to was that between the Hydraulics (the neighborhood now usually known as “Larkinville”) and East Aurora, Seneca Street was little more than a ride in the country, with sheep grazing in open meadows, roads made mostly of mud and a lot of flooding.

The Shea’s Seneca was a catalyst in permanently changing that notion.

Once Buffalo’s most opulent, well-appointed and largest community movie house, for the last half century, it’s been better known as the home of the Skyroom and Gintzy’s Warehouse.

Baphomet plays the Skyroom, 1989

Baphomet plays the Skyroom in 1989.

Michael Shea thought bringing one of his theaters to a neighborhood gave people a place to go and a sense of community.

The building has always played a very practical use in my life. It was the halfway point between my two grandmas’ houses, each of whom live just off Seneca Street, and each of whom bought their slippers in the D&K store that was in the storefront once filled by the W.T. Grant Co., right next to the abandoned theater through the ’80s and ’90s.

While the theater was closed before I came along, stories of the place always made it seem like one of the greatest places on Earth. My dad, who was one of 10, would talk about the occasional Saturday mornings when he’d get a quarter from his grandma, who lived a block away from the Seneca on the corner of Kingston.


I don’t know if my old man ever had more fun in his life than spending the day watching Popeye, Superman and the Three Stooges – plus eating four or five big candy bars. There was still sheer jubilation in the retelling of the stories 50 years later. The love of his grandmother, cartoons, chocolate bars and the Shea’s Seneca.

The original ushers at the Sheas Seneca were military trained, and courtesy was their watch word. "We are not merely employing ushers," a theatre manager said, "we insist that every young man accepted for an usher's job shall possess some degree of executive ability. We insist that when a young man accepts a position, he shall take upon himself the same responsibilities as though he were a partner in the business.

The original ushers at the Shea’s Seneca were “military trained,” and “courtesy” was their watchword. “We are not merely employing ushers,” a theater manager said. “We insist that every young man accepted for an usher’s job shall possess some degree of executive ability. We insist that when a young man accepts a position, he shall take upon himself the same responsibilities as though he were a partner in the business.”

The Shea’s Seneca Theatre was home to one of the first theaters built in Buffalo with modern acoustics for “talking pictures” in mind.

“The seats just installed in Shea’s Seneca will give every occupant exactly the same seat pitch, throughout the entire auditorium, regardless of the relative position. The seat height will be exactly the same, it being based on figures scientifically compiled, as the most comfortable height for the patrons,” wrote the Courier-Express in 1930.

Inside the Sheas Seneca just before opening night, 1930. Buffalo News archives

Inside the Shea’s Seneca just before opening night, 1930. (Buffalo News archives)

In discussing the current rehabilitation of the building, developer Jake Schneider told The News, “We’re very excited about the neighborhood. It’s a well-established and proud community with great assets to build upon,” he said. “It is our hope that this project will serve as a catalyst for the revitalization of the Seneca Street commercial corridor.”

When the theater first opened 86 years ago, Shea-Publix Theaters General Manager Vincent R. McFaul took it a few steps further.

“A properly conducted theater is of the same importance to a community as a school or church, such a theater contributes to the general welfare of the community, because wholesome recreation is essential to its well-being,” said McFaul.

“It is the idealism that is put into theater operation that changes a business into an institution … It is up to the men who are entrusted with the operation of the theaters throughout the country to prove worthy of their stewardship by keeping up this pace so as to warrant the continued support of the people … The man who is content to plod along in his own little rut stands a chance of becoming a he-was.”

Mike Shea built theatres all over downtown Buffalo and through the citys neighborhoods, and in Niagara Falls and Toronto.

Michael Shea built theaters all over downtown Buffalo and through the city’s neighborhoods, as well as in Niagara Falls and Toronto.

The decades-long revitalization of this opulent building has been a source of community hope and pride for generations now. And almost a century removed from its opening, the rejuvenation of Shea’s North Park Theatre has brought back that level of excitement for North Buffalo’s Hertel Avenue.

Bringing back Shea’s essence to Seneca Street just might be what the neighborhood needs. Again.

The now gone Sheas Seneca marquee was 61 feet high, was make of 6,000 bulbs, and used enough electricity to light 75 homes.

The now-gone Shea’s Seneca marquee was 61 feet high, contained 6,000 bulbs and used enough electricity to light 75 homes.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Shea’s North Park in 1933

By Steve Cichon

Since the gloom-filled announcement of the closing of Hertel Avenue’s North Park Theatre in 2013, new owners have been pumping tens of thousands of dollars into a full restoration of one of Buffalo’s few intact 1920s movie houses.

Buffalo News archives

Opened by Buffalo movie magnate Michael Shea in 1920, Shea’s North Park has been thrilling and entertaining moviegoers in North Buffalo for more than 95 years.

The image above, with a marquee promoting Lilian Harvey and Lew Ayres in “My Weakness,” probably dates from the year that film was produced: 1933.

North Buffalonians will note the much less imposing signage on the front of the theater. The now-iconic neon glow of the current North Park sign didn’t debut until 1941. At the same time the new sign was erected, a new Carrier air conditioning system was installed, providing “the latest developments in the science of healthful cooling.”