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20 Years of the Artie Awards

Vincent O'Neill will receive a Career Achievement Award at the June 7 Arties.

Twenty years ago, when the first Artie Awards recognizing excellence in Buffalo theater were presented at Garvey’s Restaurant on Pearl Street, it was instantly apparent that Artvoice had hit a reverberating chord with the theater community. By 7:30pm, people were already spilling out onto the street, and not just to smoke—actually, you could smoke in a bar in those days. Those who had not dressed up regretted it; there was an obvious Tony/Oscar standard set by most of the crowd from the very beginning. Mary Kate O’Connell co-hosted with me, with Randy Kramer at the piano. There was no texting and there were no cell-phone interruptions.

By the time Eileen Dugan and Stephen McKinley Henderson presented the very first Artie to Bruce Moore for his performance as a supporting actor in the Kavinoky production of Death of a Salesman, we already knew that we had a successful event—and that we needed a larger venue! Moore’s acceptance speech was more a “Wow!” about the Arties than about his accomplishment. He apologized for his informal attire and confessed, “I didn’t expect this to be such a big thing!”

A number of people had expected the Arties to be like an especially busy night at Ray Flynn’s, the now demolished theater hangout on Main Street. Instead, with the red carpet, the sensational musical performances, and with elegant glass trophies, the event immediately became an opportunity for the theater community to showcase itself to itself. It is the one night of the year when theater folk see the enormity of the local industry. Curtain Up! is for the audience; the Artie Awards are for the artists. It is impressive to see.

To paraphrase Bruce Moore, the Arties have become a very big thing. Indeed they have become a Buffalo theater institution and have raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS charities.

While Garvey’s Restaurant is gone, and Flynn’s is gone, it is interesting to consider how many of the theater folk who were at that first Artie celebration are still active in the community today. Mary Kate, Eileen, and Randy, of course—Mary Kate and Randy also won Arties that first night. Steve Henderson is currently appearing in Fences on Broadway and has garnered a Tony Award nomination for his work (At the Second Annual Artie Awards, he won for playing the lead in Fences at Studio Arena, let’s hope that’s a good omen).

Vincent O’Neill, who won the very first Artie as Outstanding Actor in a Play for his performance in Joyicity, will be honored at the 20th Annual Artie Awards on June 7 with a Career Achievement Award.

While the BET, which produced the first Artie-winning play, The Dresser, is no longer, the fledgling new theater company that picked up honors for the Outstanding Musical is—it was MusicalFare, and they also celebrate their 20th anniversary next weekend. Their winning show was Nunsense.

The first Artie-winning director, Fortunato Pezzimenti, who directed Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is still in the game. Barbara Link LaRue, who won an Artie for the Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of the Merry Wives of Windsor, is still working in town too.

Meg Pantera, the first Artie-winning director of a musical, is now a theatrical agent in New York City. Her Artie-winning co-director, David Jay, won two awards that night—the first for his work on the musical Suds, the second for his costumes for Present Laughter at the Kavinoky. Sadly, David would die of complications from AIDS. The event became a benefit for AIDS charities after the first year.

The litany of Artie winners past provides insight in the history and evolution of Buffalo’s theater community. Certain names from the early years are still powerhouses among us: Lorna Hill, David Lamb, Neal Radice, Javier Bustillos, Matthew Clark, Kelli Bocock-Natale, Richard Lambert, June Duel, Lisa Ludwig, Mary Craig, Loraine O’Donnell.

Others have moved on: Jack Hunter, Lynn Kurdziel-Formato, Jeanmarie Lally, Sean Greenan, Brian Harkins, Carroll Simon (who won the first Artie for set design, but now owns Betty’s restaurant). Others are gone entirely.

In recent years, the nominations have demonstrated the arrival of a new generation, with companies like ALT, ART, Road Less Traveled, and Torn Space racking up substantial nominations. In other instances, familiar names are associated with newer ventures.

The 20th Anniversary Artie Awards are shaping up to be a very special event. The point has never been winners and losers; this is an opportunity to celebrate. There will be a special 20th anniversary program; take-aways for past winners and nominees; Jimmy Janowski on the red carpet; enhanced photo memories; special awards and tributes to those who passed away this year—and of course, musical numbers from nominated shows, and the inevitable surprises that come from presenters and winners at the microphone.

The doors at the Town Ballroom will open at 7pm and attendees are encouraged to arrive by 7:15pm to ensure a timely start-time—the program itself always clicks along like clockwork, but getting a hyper-social crowd of exuberant show-folk to take their seats, to remain quiet, and then to retake their seats after intermission is a joyful if chaotic challenge.

My co-hosts this year will be Lisa Ludwig, Norm Sham, and Doug Weyand; Michael Hake is the musical director. For the 20th time, Peggy Farrell will perform before the show and during the intermission. The donation at the door is still $10. Theaters will also bring the contributions from their red-ribbon campaigns.

The nominations can be seen here, on; past nominees and winners can be seen at

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