Could Rochester Make Buffalo’s “Broadway Gold?”

The New York Times reports “Broadway Hits Gold in Buffalo.”

“The Addams Family” musical packed the house at Shea’s, a 3,000-seat downtown theater, and raked in $1 million a week.


Like theaters in Cleveland and Sacramento, Shea’s in Buffalo has become important because of its reliable subscribers — 13,100 for each of its six one-week Broadway tours this year. An impressive 85 percent renew annually; the subscriber base insures that 55 percent of seats are bought even before tickets go on general sale.

“The industry has noticed how good it is to play Buffalo,” said Stuart Oken, a lead producer of “The Addams Family,” who pointed out that the show made more money per performance here than in Toronto, Miami or any other city since the tour began in September.

If it’s happening in Buffalo, couldn’t it happen in Rochester?

Rochester clearly supports shows at the Auditorium, but it doesn’t seem to compare to what’s happening at Shea’s. At 2,400 seats, the Auditorium is not as big. The facility’s location and parking are difficult. There aren’t any places to walk to have dinner before or get a drink after a show.

Of course, this is why the Rochester Broadway Theatre League desperately wants a new performing arts center. The league selected Midtown Plaza after the collapse of Renaissance Square. But at $70 million, with half of the funds coming from the public, the mayor is decidedly lukewarm. The city’s attitude will never get a new theater in downtown Rochester; getting that kind of cash requires an elected official as champion.

Reading about Buffalo’s Broadway success is a little frustrating because Rochester tore down its stately theaters. The former RKO Palace is now a parking lot. The decision to preserve and restore Shea’s ended up being a huge for downtown Buffalo.

RBTL insists a new theater would be an economic engine.

A million dollars a week…


2 responses to “Could Rochester Make Buffalo’s “Broadway Gold?”

  1. Also check out this great video released this year about the significance of Buffalo’s theater scene:

    You’re so right about the preservation of Shea’s. It was a huge struggle — I’ve heard the stories as some of my Buffalo preservation friends were involved with that, back in the day. Although not all theater in Buffalo is downtown, the city is fortunate that a combination of foresight and “organic” growth brought about an identifiable theater district. Much of it had to do with preserving and adapting buildings which were otherwise vacant or underutilized after the national wave of business/retail abandonment of downtowns hit Buffalo. Theater space turned out to be a great reuse for the ground floors of many of them.

    I think Rochester’s East End also has great entertainment assets, with the Downstairs Cabaret, the Eastman Theater, and the Little. A Broadway roadhouse would really add critical mass. But unlike in Buffalo, where much of the development of the theater district happened at a time when urban renewal, block grant, and member item funding was much more plentiful, that spigot has slowed to a comparative trickle at the same time as big-company philanthropy has also taken a hit from the downsizings at Kodak, Xerox, etc.

    But having had the privilege of working a bit with Arnie Rothschild on the Rochester special mayoral election, I’d say no one is more up to the challenge of raising the money and making it happen. But sorry, Arnie — you’ll never make it as grand as Shea’s 🙂

  2. With the unique perspective as a native of Rochester but now a Buffalo-area resident, and having an admitted personal bias regarding Shea’s, I see the success for Buffalo-Broadway as not just about the magnificent Shea’s Performing Arts Center, saving a building from the wrecking ball and painstakingly restoring it and expending it over the past decade or so. That restoration of performance space goes hand-in-hand, and was perhaps spurred on by the successful leadership of building a subscription base through quality offerings from season-to-season by one person, Tony Conte. He brought a business background, not only as a banker but a small-business owner and a theater-goer, into his service first as leader of the Shea’s Board, then, in a most unusual move, migrating from board leadership to leadership of the day-to-day operations. A businessman is Tony, but a theater businessman he became with a sense of what succeeds in Buffalo. The restoration of Shea’s came first, followed by the expansion of the stage area allowing the ‘big shows’ to tour through Buffalo. But an undersold venue like Shea’s cannot remain open without loyal subscribers and strong leadership. The magnificent ‘house’ is important to the Shea’s success story, but without Tony Conte’s business leadership with has built up a subscription base to 13,000 plus and 85 percent renewal, the building’s future would be in jeopardy if there were not community support for the program as much as the building. My unique perspective is my friendship with Tony Conte for 25 years. The NY Times article just highlighted what many of us have known about the Shea’s success story has been about him, his visionary leadership and emphasis on customer service as much as about the building.

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