Dec. 07--The North Park Theatre's marquee erupted in a whirl of reds and yellows, vertical blues, and greens and oranges Friday, as the relighting of the refurbished attraction signaled the 1920 moviehouse's rebirth.
Bigger surprises are coming in late January, when Buffalo's last neighborhood theater -- boasting the city's largest screen -- reopens in its former glory with independent art and foreign films.
"This is a treasure, and I think that as movie fans, it would have been a shame to let this go," said Ray Barker, the programming director. "I think the theater will be vibrant for decades to come."
The changes to the neoclassical North Park under owners Tom Eoannu and Michael Christiano are extensive, and will reveal parts of the theater long covered up, run down or poorly lit.
A concrete wall above the neon-lit marquee will be removed to reveal back-lit, leaded-glass windows that once read "Shea's North Park," hidden after the theater changed hands in the 1950s. Michael Shea was one of Buffalo's great movie theater impresarios and Shea's Performing Arts Center namesake.
A large auditorium dome and the proscenium are being revealed, restored and properly lit. The ceiling has been replastered and painted, and plaster friezework of dancing Grecian girls in ivory and Wedgwood will be exposed after years of obscurity. Eight vintage chandeliers are being hung.
The North Park, closed since Dipson Theatre's lease ended in June, will be more comfortable, with new theater seats being phased into rows that provide more foot room. A new carpet is also being installed.
The eating experience should also be improved with an enhanced refreshment stand repositioned from the back of the auditorium to the original lobby location.
The entryway, with Italian vein marble wainscoting, is being restored and the bathrooms renovated, with a smaller men's room added on the ground floor. The wood beneath the marquee is being returned to glass to allow more light.
Also, there will be a new digital projector -- now required as movie studios are rapidly moving away from celluloid -- and a new sound system. Movies will continue to be shown on the vast silver screen (note: it really is a silver screen) that measures 48 feet wide and 24 feet tall.
A later phase of renovation calls for lifting a dropped ceiling above the box office to reveal even more hidden decorative elements.
Christiano, who lives in North Buffalo, owns Left Bank restaurant and is part-owner of Mes Que, on the same block as the theater. He said the cost of the restorations and renovations has yet to be totaled, but minimally, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Several foundations that will be identified at a later date are also providing support.
More than anything, keeping the North Park Theatre open has been a labor of love, he said.
"The theater couldn't close. It's been a part of my life for 30 years, and I couldn't imagine the marquee not lit," Christiano said.
"It's amazing how the community wants this place," he added.
The changes underway are a far cry from the worn seats, corroded, water-damaged wall and antiquated upstairs bathrooms -- the men's room was a neon yellow -- that were part of the stately theater's offbeat charm. Even with its shortfalls, the North Park was much preferred by its fans to the sterile, mall feel of a cookie-cutter multiplex experience.
Barker, a 20-year North Park Theatre veteran and movie aficionado, saw his first movie in the North Park, and has never lost his affection for the theater. He said the time is right for its revival as a destination where movies are shown the way they were meant to be.
"The programming concept is to be Buffalo's premier art house. We're going to show independent foreign films, art films just as the North Park did in its glory years. But we think that we can also tweak the formula around the edges so that we bring new groups into the theater," said Barker, adding that there are films that straddle the line between mainstream and art films that could also be a good fit.
Saturday and Sunday matinees will feature family and children's programming, responding to community demand, he said. Series with older films -- such as a weeklong tie-in with the Italian Festival -- and live performances also are under consideration.
But for now, the focus is on movies that continue to expand a blue-collar city's cultural horizons.
"The North Park was considered the place for historical dramas and period picks -- all those Victorian-style movies played here -- but we also at times can be edgy," Barker said.
He believes the theater can be competitive even as a lone, single-screen operation.
"We have smart business people who are with this operation, and we will compete on the basis that this is the premier place to see films. Do you want your film screened in a place where you can sit 600 or 700 people with the biggest screen in Western New York, and the best film presentation around? These film companies know what plays well in certain markets, and we will compete," he said.
The marquee -- long the iconic image on the Hertel business strip -- was fittingly rewired and repainted, with LED lights added, by Flexlume, the same Buffalo company that did the installation in 1941.
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