“Buffalo’s Finest Movie Theater” Gets a Makeover
Looking down on the North Park Theatre's lobby with the lowered ceiling removed
Photo by Ray Barker
After almost a century, the North Park Theatre continues to be a place where people of all ages can enjoy films of all kinds. It’s this shared movie-going experience that separates a trip to the theater from merely bingeing something from Netflix on the couch. Perhaps what most notably distinguishes the experience is that this theater is richly ornate and, with respect, probably much more beautiful than your den at home—especially since the recent completion of the theater’s quarter-million-dollar restoration.
The original grandeur of the North Buffalo fixture was created intentionally by Michael Shea when he built it in 1920. He wanted his 607-seat movie theater to be a place for men, women, and children to escape the drudgery of the everyday and be transported by its opulence. The architecture embracing Art Deco and Art Nouveau designs, colorful artwork, decorative columns, and stained glass accomplished that mission.
This most recent facelift is part of a continuing effort to bring the North Park Theatre back to its original glory. The first phase of the effort was started in 2013 by the owners group that included attorney Tom Eoannou and restaurateur Mike Christiano.
“The process prioritized [state-of-the-art sound and] projection and our auditorium,” says Ray Barker, the North Park Theatre Program Director. “And there was a lot of plaster damage on the ceiling, water damage, and our artwork needed to be cleaned.”
Murals by artist Raphael Beck in the iconic auditorium dome were restored and gorgeous colors were revealed as decades of dinge and cigarette smoke were removed. Beck is the painter perhaps best known for his artwork depicting the 1901 Pan American Exposition.
Above the movie screen is another of Beck’s works, a beautiful display of dancers in a rose motif alongside the masks of comedy and tragedy.
“That painting had work done on it during 2013–2104, but it was still curing,” says Barker. “The closure for the outer lobby work allowed us to go back and complete that work, which had been waiting in the wings.”
Walk out of the auditorium and into the outer lobby and, aside from newly cleaned bright white Italian marble, you’ll notice the changes of the second restoration immediately. Above, the ceiling that had been in place for generations has been removed to reveal the theater’s original, much higher arched ceiling. It’s adorned with the gold and red plasterwork and the intricate woodwork with which Michael Shea would have been acquainted.
The ceiling’s removal also revealed three small Juliet balcony windows, which adorn the north side of the outer lobby.
From the south, the outer lobby is now bathed in sunlight shining through the original Art Nouveau stained glass windows. Before this most recent work, you couldn’t see them from the inside because of the lower ceiling. If you’d wanted to see the stained glass at all, you would have had to go outside and cross Hertel Avenue; even then, you’d have to know where to look.
The exterior decorative masonry work is also getting totally restored, replacing the rebar that can now be seen jutting out from the building. Even the film poster cases have been restored.
Barker has been part of the North Park Theatre family in one way or another for more than two decades. Like many in this area, he went to this theater to see movies as a kid, which ignited his lifelong love of cinema.
He says that having a theater like North Park contributes to the quality of life of Western New York. He’s proud of all that’s been accomplished, not only with the restoration but also programmatically. That success is evidenced by an increase in box office revenue every year since reopening after the first restoration phase.
“We are really fortunate here in Buffalo because this is a movie palace and we still preserve the legacy of Michael Shea,” says Barker. “When you’re in here and you’re in the grandeur of this theater, it really does take you back to the twenties. You’re going to want to come back; that’s the idea. You come here into this beautiful space and you can check your troubles at the door for a while.”
The North Park Theatre
1428 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo
Gabe DiMaio is a frequent contributor to Forever Young and Buffalo Spree.