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Buffalo Loves Shea's

The old dame begins its celebration of 85 years with a terrific production of Mary Poppins

Buffalo loves Shea’s!

We love it so much that the Western New York audience has made the venerable 85-year-old venue the top-grossing single-week for Broadway tours in the American market. With its spacious backstage areas and modern dressing rooms, actors enjoy playing Shea’s as much as audiences love going there.

And what’s not to love? Built as a silent movie palace in 1926 by the Paramount studio, Shea’s Performing Arts Center is over-the-top gorgeous. The lobby is a city block wide. And luckily for Buffalo, while all of Buffalo’s true vaudeville houses are gone, Shea’s Buffalo has an invaluable asset—3,000 seats. This makes Buffalo the envy of many a city on the touring circuit.

In the American theater, the ability to pack 3,000 people into every performance brings bargaining power. Even Michael Shea himself knew that. In the days of vaudeville, when he operated several theaters in our city, Buffalo was the only town in the nation where the presenter could tell the tyrannical Keith-Orpheum kingpins to go to hell. Why? With huge, devoted audiences, Mr. Shea could offer to pay the great stars of vaudeville more than their going rate, ensuring that Buffalo never got skipped on the tour.

Buffalo can’t have Elsie Janis for Christmas week? Two thousand bucks says we can!

That was Michael Shea. And while Buffalo may not be the town it once was, Shea’s theater can still promise the producers of the big Broadway musicals a good return on their investment. And that’s what it’s all about.

Caroline Sheen as Mary Poppins.
Nicolas Dromard as Bert, performing "Step in Time."

A case in point? The Disney-Cameron Mackintosh mega musical, Mary Poppins, sets up shop at Shea’s this week for a three-week stay.

Based on P.L. Travers’ stories and the classic 1964 Walt Disney film, Mary Poppins opened in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006, where it is still playing. In addition to the Academy Award winning music and lyrics of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, additional songs have been written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The show features sumptuous set and costume design by Tony Award winner Bob Crowley.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Shea’s could pass 12,000 season subscribers,” says Albert Nocciolino, Shea’s Broadway partner and producer. “And now we’re creeping up on 13,000!”

Shea’s is going into the 2010-2011 season with about 12,800 season subscribers.

“Shea’s has some assets that put it in an excellent position,” says Nocciolino who also books shows into other cities across Upstate New York, and who, in recent years, has also become a Broadway producer. “We’ve been blessed with extraordinary subscription growth, and a loyal subscription base. This minimizes our risk, and jump starts our ticket sales. Shea’s can now boast that it has the single best one-week engagement in America. In addition, with the renovation and expansion, Shea’s became a venue capable of housing any show on the road. There is not a show touring this country that won’t fit into Shea’s.”

“And,” he continues, “big fat grosses like the ones touring shows can pull in at Shea’s attract attention in show business.”

With Broadway shows capitalized at around $10 million each, the whole concept is how to bring in “overages”—or dollars above cost to bring money back to the original investors. And say what you like about this old-fashioned art form, Broadway producers are clever. If you’d invested $1,000 in Oklahoma, you’d have two and a half million dollars today. Cameron Mackintosh’s shows, which, in addition to Mary Poppins, include Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon have reportedly made more money than Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Titanic put together. (Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, when a show flops, the investors lose every last dime.)

The idea is to fill as many seats as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Shea’s large capacity allows for overages and helps keep ticket prices lower than in many other markets.

More popular shows, like Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys, or Wicked, can stay longer than the single week that is usual for a city the size of Buffalo. Typically, Shea’s has been able to get the major tours while the original productions are still on Broadway. In the Heights, Legally Blond—popular shows that were not mega-hits—came to Buffalo while they still had some wattage. Other cities our size had to wait.

“And Shea’s is a spectacular venue,” adds Nocciolino. “Yes, 3,000 seats is big, but it is a beautiful 3000 seats. When we first started to build the audience, I used to urge everyone to look back away from the stage, just to see how beautiful the theater is. I don’t have to do that anymore. Buffalo knows!”

Indeed, Buffalo seems to know what it’s got in Shea’s. On top of everything else, when there is a show at Shea’s, every restaurant downtown is packed.

Part of the game for a presenting house is the ability to book the first-rate shows as early in their runs as possible. This is largely a matter of population. Buffalo can’t hope to compete with Toronto, Philadelphia, or Minneapolis. But what we lack in population, we make up for in audience enthusiasm. Broadway legend Chita Rivera marveled at the energy and enthusiasm of the audiences that cheered her curtain calls at Shea’s and opined that she wished she’d booked Buffalo as the final stop of her tour, just to end it with a real high.

Shea’s President,Tony Conte, confirms that the theater is financially very stable. He reveals, however, that it’s not a slam dunk. Sure, Shea’s has invaluable assets, but locally, the major efforts involve the maintenance and restoration of the building. Many people mistakenly believe that Shea’s keeps the profits from the box office; they don’t.

“We are the presenter,” explains Conte. “The producers of the tours are out of town and they own the tickets. We are their ticket agent and their advertising agent—but it’s not our show. In effect, they spend the money to rent the theater.”

Shows like Wicked, The Lion King, Mamma Mia, or Jersey Boys will easily bring in more than a million dollars for a week at Shea’s. Of that amount, Shea’s actually keeps $8,000-$10,000 a week as profit. There is also a $2.50 restoration fee, per ticket, which Shea’s also keeps—so doing the arithmetic, those fees are an important part of the equation, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars.

Far from rolling in cash, when you take restoration and maintenance out of the picture, Shea’s just breaks even. In fact, Shea’s still has to raise $750,000 a year.

“And each year, raising the money gets more and more difficult,” Conte says.

“When the economy is in a slump, culture is typically pushed aside in favor of health and human services,” Conte continues, adding the warning, “We forget our cultural institutions at our own peril. Many funders do not see art as a human need, or don’t recognize that healthy cultural institutions can stabilize entire neighborhoods, or even cities. Neglecting the arts will catch up to you. Without cultural institutions like Shea’s, downtown would die.”

While the audience is thinking about a season that includes Mary Poppins, Dreamgirls, Shrek the Musical, Young Frankenstein, and West Side Story, Tony Conte is thinking about boilers.

“I expect to replace the boilers soon,” he says. “They’re safe, but they are unreliable and inefficient. They are 30 or 40 years old and they leak. We have two boilers that we keep going with repairs here and there, but one of them was down for three quarters of last winter. If the second one had died, we would have been without heat. We have reason to expect that the city will help us with this project, but we can’t really put it off much longer.

“We’ve already spent one and a half million on air-conditioning and ventilation,” Conte explains. “This is invisible to the public, but the reality is, if we hadn’t done that, we could not have had Wicked last July. It would have been 110 degrees in here!”

Shea’s did have Wicked last summer, and it did very well with the exception of the the Fourth of July weekend.

Sounding a lot like Michael Shea, Conte explains, “We knew we would not do well over the holiday weekend—New York wouldn’t believe us. They said, ‘Hey, we’re Wicked.’ We said, ‘Yeah? We know Buffalo.’”

Conte and his staff are always thinking about ways to capitalize on Shea’s assets. They have explored ways for the theater to be more “green” with energy efficient lighting and so forth—but in a large, 85-year-old facility, such measures can only bring limited savings.

Shea’s recently made the compromise to sell roasted nuts at the theater. Some patrons were appalled. Others worried that the steam from the nuts would damage the building and soil the draperies. Conte swears that this is not so.

“We entered into this very cautiously,” he says. “We decided on nuts because we thought they would be popular and quieter than many other options—hot roasted nuts are soft, not crunchy. We tested the apparatus, roasting nuts for a full week to see if we were soiling the draperies. There was no problem. We also looked at the packaging to determine the best way to serve them, and settled on the paper cone. Those nuts bring in thousands of dollars—and we need thousands of dollars to keep this theater running.”

While some might think that Shea’s is successful because it draws people from outside the region, Conte says that their ZIP code analysis indicates that Shea’s primarily serves Erie County, especially the towns immediately surrounding Buffalo.

Conte also reveals that Buffalo is hospitable to touring companies. After time on the road, tour managers say that casts are eager to get to Buffalo. The city has a good reputation for being friendly, and from the Niagara Falls and historic architecture, to attentive and helpful hotel staffs, time in our city is considered well-spent. Company members from Jersey Boys interacted with local theater people and forged life-long friendships here. Patti LuPone asked for a desk clerk at her downtown hotel by name. Moreover, the local college scene ensures that there is often a Buffalonian or two in a touring company who will talk up the city.

The current season at Shea’s is particularly family friendly. Even beyond Mary Poppins—which also has nostalgia appeal for Baby Boomers—just about every show can be seen by children. (The adult jokes in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein will go over most children’s heads.) And audiences can be assured that the facilities at Shea’s ensure that they are getting a true Broadway experience—often at a fraction of the Broadway price. The cast for Mary Poppins is characteristically first rate: Caroline Sheen, who played Mary Poppins in England, makes her US stage debut in the tour. Nicolas Dromard, from the original Broadway company, plays Bert.

Reached by telephone at his home in England, Bob Crowley, the 10-time Tony Award nominee who won a Tony for his set for Mary Poppins, reveals that, in his opinion, the touring production is better than Broadway.

“When they’re spending ten million dollars there is a lot of pressure to overdo everything,” admits Crowley. “Many a blockbuster musical is over-directed, over-choreographed, over-designed. When I had the chance to revisit Mary Poppins for the tour, I think I was able to bring it closer in line to my original original original concept, from years ago when we first started this project, which was a storybook coming to life. Your first impression may be that it looks exactly the same as Broadway, but really, it is less naturalistic, and I think, far more magical. My goal is to give audiences the impression that they are seeing the same show that they might have seen in London or on Broadway, but I am able to make adjustments—and always, I am thinking of that child whose imagination will be inspired by what he or she sees, and who, while sitting in a theater in Buffalo, New York, will begin a lifelong love affair with the theater.”

Indeed, when I took my nephew and niece to see Mary Poppins on Broadway in 2006, it was my niece’s first Broadway show—my worldly nephew had already seen The Lion King in its final performance at the same theater, he archly reported. They both sat in rapt attention, transported over the pavements and rooftops to Edwardian London. I worried that my niece was a little young, but a little pre-show education about not talking, standing, fidgeting, singing along, or getting up to go to the bathroom once the show had started did the trick. It is a cherished memory for our entire family—as is the family dinner at a restaurant afterwards, where everyone was impeccably behaved, and only one person accidentally spilled his water glass all over the table. The entire experience was practically perfect in every way.

Shea’s is undoubtedly about to provide that same experience for thousands of other families during the next three weeks.