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Where is 710 Main?
by Anthony Chase
Four Broadway Luminaires Find Their Way to Buffalo
The lobby walls of 710 Main Theatre are lined with the names of great stars who once played at Studio Arena, which used to occupy the building: Colleen Dewhurst, Olympia Dukakis, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, Kim Hunter, Bonnie Franklin, Celeste Holm, Kathy Bates, Betty Buckley, Christine Baranski, Swoozie Kurtz, Nancy Marchand, James Whitmore, and Jon Voight among them. Julianne Moore made her professional debut there.
On Wednesday, December 3rd, the roster of Broadway luminaries who have played the historic venue will increase by four when Andrea McArdle, Donna McKechnie, Maureen McGovern, and Faith Prince give a one-night performance on that stage.
It’s been a long time since so much Broadway wattage has illuminated 710 Main—if ever. Many of the stars named on its walls actually performed across the street at what is now the Town Ballroom, home to Studio Arena from 1965 until 1978. After that, the theater began a steady decline, with only an occasional flash of its former glory.
Studio Arena Theatre closed its doors permanently nearly seven years ago in February of 2008. After that, 710 Main lay dark for a few years. After extensive negotiation, the banks that held liens on the building signed the property over to “710 Main Theatre, Inc.,” a not-for-profit under the management of Shea’s Performing Arts Center with an official mission to: “stimulate, promote and develop an interest in and appreciation of the dramatic and performing arts within the greater Western New York, Niagara region, and northwestern Pennsylvania communities, by providing theater space for an annual program of live performances...”
That was the official mission. Their unstated mandate was far more modest: to save the building from demolition, to maintain the structure as a theater, and not to lose money.
In terms of saving the building and not losing money, that mandate has been a success. In terms of stimulating, promoting, and developing an interest in and appreciation for the dramatic and performing arts the outcome so far has been much less impressive.
There have been highlights. John Lithgow performed his one-man show there, but it was a difficult sell. Tovah Feldshuh faired better with her one-woman performance as Golda Meir. Road Less Traveled mounted a handsome production of Clybourne Park, and MusicalFare currently has a production of Lombardi in which Matt Witten is truly excellent as Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.
It’s been a mixed bag. Any of a number of gimmicks has been tried to get people through the doors. We’ve seen I Love Lucy Live. MusicalFare hosted their party game type project in which musicals are written, rehearsed, and performed, all in 24 hours, but have since transferred the idea to their own space in Snyder. Buffalo Laboratory Theatre did their meta-theatrical Cyrano there, and is returning in February with The Mystery of the Silver Chalice, in which the audience determines the direction of the plot by voting with clickers.
Neither of the two years of the attempted subscription at 710 Main has offered a coherent roster of offerings for the serious theater-goer. The subscription base doesn’t even add up to one sold out performance.
Shea’s President, Tony Conte, acknowledges the challenges.
“We knew this would be difficult, and it has been,” confirms Conte. “For one thing, there was a long period of time between the closing of Studio Arena and the opening of 710 Main. After five years, the Studio Arena audience was all but gone. Our mailings came back.
“In addition, Shea’s is a presenting organization, not a production company,” he continues. “It is a challenge to find product appropriate for the mid-size house, but I am looking all the time. The key in my mind is really to offer a variety of shows, and my major concern is consistency of product. We want people to be able to depend upon a certain level of quality. Our season is as short as it is because of the difficulty of finding product.”
He gets more specific.
“We are open to local companies and touring shows. I’ve got my eye on Off-Broadway type shows; this week I’m going down to New York to see The Brightness of Heaven by Laura Pedersen, about an Irish family in Buffalo in 1974. The goal is to try to develop sources that we can use, and we are open to talking to anyone at the regional or local level who wants a conversation about doing shows at 710 Main.”
For now, Conte finds that a major challenge is simply to get people comfortable with coming down to Main Street and into the theater.
“You don’t know how many times people call us to ask, ‘Where is 710 Main Street?’ Seriously, they do. We need to help people become familiar and comfortable with the venue. We hope that a percentage of the people who come for one of the shows in our season will be interested to come back again.”
Randall Kramer, artistic director of MusicalFare has produced at 710 Main twice, including the current production of Lombardi. (MusicalFare also did Batboy at the venue in the final year of Studio Arena). He echoes Conte’s observation that it is no longer possible to tap into good will and trust developed among audiences at Studio Arena over generations. Last year, people did not come to see Red, a play about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, in significant numbers. This year, the sports oriented Lombardi is faring much better.
“At this stage,” says Kramer, “I think it is necessary to be more commercial. Lombardi seems to be the way to go. It’s a good play but not an American classic in its scope. We have partnered with the Buffalo Bills and other groups to promote the show, and the experience of seeing a show in an audience of 300 is a much better experience than seeing a show in an empty house with just 100 people. It has been encouraging to hear people say what a nice intimate theater it is.”
Audre Bunis, a loyal Studio Arena subscriber for years and a devoted member of its last board of directors worked hard to rescue the institution. She still laments the loss of Studio Arena as a resident producing theater.
“I do miss [Studio Arena],” she confides. “I am very glad that Tony [Conte] was able to save the building and I am glad to see it in use.”
Asked what her wish for its future would be, she has a clear vision.
“I would like to see it offer theater of substance, whether it is a serious drama, a comedy, or a musical, and to produce those shows at the very highest level.”
Something else that Studio Arena was able to do, at least in its halcyon days, was connect Buffalo to the national theater scene in substantial ways. In this regard, the small tours that come are sometimes a move back in the right direction. Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir, or 4 Girls 4 provide examples.
4 Girls 4 boasts truly impressive, even historic talent. Andrea McArdle was the original Annie. Donna McKechnie was the original Cassie in A Chorus Line; Faith Prince is a Tony Award winner for Guys and Dolls, and has three other nominations for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Bells are Ringing and A Catered Affair; Maureen McGovern is best known as a recording star (“The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure and “We May Never Love Like This Again” from The Towering Inferno) but she also starred as Marmee in Little Women on Broadway.
McKechnie, who performed the Marvin Hamlisch tribute concert, Singular Sensation with the BPO at Kleinhan’s year, is pleased to return to Buffalo as part of an effort to lure people back into the venerable venue.
“I’m so glad that the community was unwilling to let the theater go,” says McKechnie. “It is so sad when a theater closes and becomes a parking lot or development project. Our show is very theatrically oriented and it plays best in a proper theater. I look forward to performing ‘The Music and the Mirror’ [from A Chorus Line] on that stage.”
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