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.

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.

Torn-Down Tuesday: South Buffalo’s Twin Fair, 1979

By Steve Cichon

While many of the former Twin Fair locations live on as Tops, Big Lots and other retail outlets, the former Twin Fair location probably remembered best by South Buffalonians was torn down only within the last couple of years.

The checkout area of the Seneca Street Twin Fair, 1979. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The sign from the Elmwood Avenue Twin Fair, now home to a plaza which includes Tops and PetSmart..

The sign from the Elmwood Avenue Twin Fair, now home to a plaza which includes Tops and PetSmart.

Cutting the ribbon on Twin Fairs tenth store, on Maple Road in Amherst. The site is now home to Tops. In the photo are Harold Egan, Twin Fair President; Edith McArdle, Twin Fair employee since 1958; Al Dekdebrun, Amherst Supervisor, sporting goods retailer, and 1946 Buffalo Bisons quarterback; and Andy Heferle, store manager.

Cutting the ribbon on Twin Fair’s 10th store, on Maple Road in Amherst. The site is now home to Tops. In the photo are Harold Egan, Twin Fair president; Edith McArdle, Twin Fair employee since 1958; Al Dekdebrun, Amherst Supervisor, sporting goods retailer and 1946 Buffalo Bisons quarterback; and Andy Heferle, store manager.

After serving as the home of Gold Circle, Hills and Ames, that South Buffalo/city line location had been eyed by different developers after years of vacancy. Plans for a Walmart on the site never materialized, but in 2014, the old Twin Fair was torn down, and a 100-unit building for those living with mental illness was built on the spot.

What it looked like Wednesday: Seneca & Indian Church, 1940s

By Steve Cichon

The buildings in this photo have been modified but are still standing. The look of the Seneca & Indian Church intersection has changed through the years.

Buffalo Stories archives
Buffalo Stories archives

What was the Dunlop Tire store was soon to become Babe Boyce’s. It’s been Hong Kong Kitchen now for decades. Babe Boyce eventually took up several storefronts with bikes and exercise equipment on display in the windows, but when this photo was snapped, David Samuels’ cleaners, William Brennan’s variety store, William Ulmcke’s grocery and Phil Magano’s barber served the needs of South Buffalonians a few blocks north of the city line.

The Buffalo You Should Know: Big names of Buffalo’s tumultuous banking past

By Steve Cichon

“It doesn’t take very long for a newcomer to become acquainted with Buffalo’s banks,” wrote News Reporter Robert J. Summers in 1980. “Stand at a corner like Main and Court, and you can see most of the big buildings where they are headquartered.”

Of the five bank headquarters Summers listed as visible from that intersection, only one remains in business 36 years later.

As the names involved in Buffalo’s banking scene are changing once again, BN Chronicles looks back at the names that might have been stamped on the front of your first savings account passbook or at the top of your first paycheck.

1979 ad. Buffalo Stories archives

Manufacturers and Traders Trust Company was founded in Buffalo in 1856. M&T was and is headquartered in the 318-foot, 21-floor building at One M&T Plaza that opened in 1966. That block has seen plenty of history.

M&T branch on Abbott Road at Stevenson, South Buffalo. (Buffalo News archives)

In 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s body laid in state at the St. James Hotel on the site. The Hotel Iroquois, and then the Bond Men’s store, occupied the north part of the site until 1964. M&T’s headquarters was first built on the southern half of the block now occupied by the headquarters building in 1916.

1964, just before the demolition of the circa-1916 M&T headquarters and Bond Menswear. AM&A’s is in the background. The block with H. Seeberg and the Palace Burlesk was torn down and is now green space. (Buffalo News archives)

In 1980, Marine Midland Bank was Buffalo’s oldest bank and headquartered in Buffalo’s tallest building.

Marine Trust’s Main & Seneca office, 1951 (Buffalo News archives)

Founded in 1850, Marine Midland was the nation’s 12th largest bank with $12 billion in assets in 1980. It was acquired by HSBC Bank in 1999. HSBC sold off its Buffalo-area branches to First Niagara in 2011. By the end of the summer, it’s expected that First Niagara will be acquired by KeyBank. The former Marine Midland Center is now known as One Seneca Tower.

Marine Midland ad for a “groovy Bills bank,” 1969. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Western Savings Bank’s headquarters was right on the corner that Summers chose as his 1980 vantage point for financial institutions. It’s the building with CVS Pharmacy currently occupying the ground floor space that was once Western’s main office.

Western Savings Bank ad, 1979. (Buffalo Stories archives)

While Western joined other area banks in demolishing decades-old Roman-inspired headquarters buildings for flashy new high-rise towers in the 1960s, by the early 1980s, deposits were falling and Western was losing money. In 1981, Western merged with longtime rival Buffalo Savings Bank.

Buffalo Savings Bank opened a temporary branch serving skiers at Kissing Bridge in 1980. Buffalo News archives

Buffalo Savings Bank’s famous gold-domed headquarters, designed by E.B. Green, is the rare survivor of our city’s magnificent bank buildings. As it expanded and acquired outside of Buffalo, Buffalo Savings Bank changed its name to Goldome — as a nod to its great headquarters with a name a bit less parochial sounding.

The Buffalo Savings Bank building with its famous gold dome, photographed in 2009. (Buffalo News file photo)

Like many banking institutions around the country, Goldome grew too quickly and went under during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. In 1991, Goldome’s assets were split between KeyBank — which entered the Buffalo market after Empire of America succumbed to the S&L crisis — and another bank in 1989.

Buffalo Stories archives, 1960

For the same reasons Buffalo Savings Bank became Goldome, “The Big E” changed its name from Erie County Savings Bank to Empire of America in 1981. After nearly a decade of borrowing to acquire other banks around the country, in 1989 Empire told regulators it was insolvent and posted a $158 million loss in the third quarter.

Big E celebrated 125 years in business in 1979. Ten years later, the federal government assumed control of the bank. (Buffalo Stories archives)

As longtime Buffalo banks Buffalo Savings and Big E were busy buying up other deposit bases, longtime Buffalo institution Liberty Bank instead was bought up.

Liberty Bank’s branch at Bailey & Kensington, 1930s. (Buffalo News Archives)

While the twin Lady Liberties atop the bank’s headquarters still stand proudly on Buffalo’s skyline, in 1985 Liberty Bank became Liberty Norstar. Boston’s Fleet Bank bought Norstar in 1987, and in 2004, all Fleet branches became Bank of America branches after those two institutions had merged.

Buffalo Trust, previously known as Buffalo German Bank, was headquartered in a Victorian Italianate structure that was torn down in 1957 to make way for the Tishman building, the longtime headquarters of National Fuel. Today the site is home to a Hilton Garden Inn.  (1924 ad, Buffalo Stories archives.)