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It's a place where 80,000 people settled into plush seats last year to get lost in silver screen stories, crack up at comedy and let the songs of old-school crooners take them back to happier times. It's a place where country music singer Loretta Lynn felt so at home that she told friends Engelbert Humperdinck and George Jones to come try it. It's a place where one man found redemption. And, so perhaps, has this city. It is the Riviera Theatre.

The North Tonawanda movie palace – a once shabby leftover from Hollywood's Golden Age – has become, some say, a catalyst for the resurrection of its community.

This story has three acts. Act One is about its new director, a man who resigned as an elementary school principal in disgrace for using drugs.

Act Two is a tale of volunteers who adopted a building that came to represent hope and opportunity in this small Niagara County city of about 30,000.

The third act is unfolding. With a new $5 million expansion plan, foreshadowed by this spring's restoration of the neon marquee, the Riviera may be bound for bigger things.

Here's how it happened.

...

Dec. 16, 2004. A date Frank Cannata can't forget. It was the day after his misdemeanor arrest in a police sting in the living room of his Buffalo apartment. It was the day the 20-year education career he loved ended.

Cannata was put on administrative leave from his job as principal of Charlotte Sidway Elementary School on Grand Island.

The police arrived after his dealers had secretly recorded him talking about his crystal meth habit. For about two years, the two men had been selling him an “upper” drug that gave him the juice to keep going, in spite of depression over family problems he doesn't want to talk about.

“I never missed a day of work. Never missed church,” Cannata said. “I would do it when I needed the energy, which was not every day.”

Officers took away enough of the white powder to cover his thumbnail and charged him with a misdemeanor. He was 40.

As the news of his disgrace broke, reporters called every Cannata in the phone book as they scraped together their stories. This single father, with a son, who had played the organ and led the choir for 21 years at Grand Island's St. Stephen's Catholic Church felt persecuted. News accounts didn't seem to focus on the other 33 who were arrested in the same sting, for more serious felony charges.

“I just think some of the stories were not fair,” Cannata said. “They were just hounding my family ... It was crazy.”

Cannata, a compact man of 5-foot-5 with the verve and confident presentation of a salesman, began quietly serving a year's probation. He hated to leave the house, lived off his savings and his severance package when he resigned a year later.

“I really laid kind of low,” he said. “I felt horrible about what I did.”

A friend suggested he volunteer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, playing piano in the lobby for patients and their families.

Three days a week, he arrived at 9 a.m. to play upbeat songs that might make people feel good. He mixed show tunes like “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” with the “59th Street Bridge” song – “Slow down, you move too fast ... ” by Simon and Garfunkel.

“It really did save me,” he said.

His musicianship also had led him to community theater productions, which once included the lead in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at the Riviera.

His theater friends told him about an opening at the Riviera.

By late 2005, almost a year since Cannata's arrest, the board was looking for a new executive director to turn things around.

So began the second career journey that has, he said, “transformed the color of my hair.”

Volunteers step up

It had been about 16 years since the members of the nonprofit Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society, who'd been tending the theater's Mighty Wurlitzer movie organ, decided to buy the theater from the owners who were losing money on the place.

Yet even as a nonprofit organization run mostly by volunteers, it was always on the edge. Before Cannata took over, shows weren't coming in, and the Riviera was losing money again.

Cannata, who figured his school administrator skills of organizing people could work just as well inside a theater, was the most appealing candidate out of the 14 who wanted the job.

In January of 2006, he replaced the previous director as the only paid employee. His starting salary of $26,000 was a fraction of what he made as Sidway's principal.

“His vision and his work went right along with what we were aiming for,” said Neil Lange, a board member.

When Lange was growing up in a family of seven in the 1970s, his parents used take him and his siblings to the Riviera for organ concerts and silent movies.

In 1980, he started volunteering to help with the upkeep of the old movie organ, built in the North Tonawanda Wurlitzer factory and installed in 1926, the year the theater opened.

When the Organ Society became the owner in 1989, the Riviera's walls were painted a “Pepto-Bismol” pink that was sheer enough to let the old decorative stencils show through. The seats were so worn and broken that they sometimes fell apart when people sat down. The sticky floor grabbed at the soles of shoes.

A crew of devoted volunteers restored the old design, cleaned up and reupholstered 1,150 seats.

The Riviera, with its crystal chandeliers and stage curtain painted with a sailing ship, has a magical quality that takes hold of people, said Lange.

It has come through, he said, in Cannata's success, which included him being named Citizen of the Year in 2011 by the Chamber of Commerce.

“Frank was in need of a job. He came to us, and we took a chance and, boy,” said Lange, who likes to volunteer popping popcorn at the concession stand. “The next step is the expansion.”

Spurring development

The expansion sketched out by architects a few years ago follows a steady rise in ticket sales with a program Cannata masterminded.

He mixes silent movies and the music of the theater's organ and “heart” – recently refurbished for $80,000 – with shows that feature the Strawberry Shortcake children's character, comedians Cheech and Chong, Three Stooges movie parties, country and pop singers like Helen Reddy, and even opera.

It's working. The key, Cannata said, is diversity.

“You can't keep going back to the same people and expect them to patronize your venue 10 or 12 times a year,” he said. “If I can, I get everyone to come here for three or four shows a year.”

Ticket sales jumped. In 2006, 15,000 attended 54 events, which raised $144,000 with help from 150 volunteers.

Last year, 84,000 tickets were sold for 176 events, generating $1.4 million with help from 357 volunteers.

The theater hosted 40 of those events, such as school band and choir concerts, for free as part of its community contribution. Four part-timers and five full-time workers are on the payroll.

Cannata has since gotten a raise and benefits on par with what he earned as principal.

The theater has inspired developers to invest nearby. In a move that has seemed to Cannata like applause, snazzy restaurants have been opening in the blocks around the Riviera's location on Webster Street, which is the city's main street: from Yummy Thai and Crazy Jakes to the Remington Tavern and the soon-to-open Webster's Bistro & Bar.

Webster, which had a small collection of grungy biker bars, used to seem like a dying street to Lange. Now it's classier. “My dream of dreams is for it to become like Hertel Avenue and Elmwood,” he said of Buffalo's walking and shopping districts.

The proposed 21,000-square-foot theater addition, intended to be built sometime in the next few years on the site of a defunct car repair shop behind the theater, should attract good things, Cannata said from his office, partitioned out of the old ladies lounge.

The expansion plans even call for its ladies lounge restoration, perhaps with its former velvet-curtain archway entrance. “It'll get me out of the ladies room,” Cannata chuckled.

For now, the poster board with the drawings that show a rooftop terrace that would have a view of the Erie Canal leans against the filing cabinets.

Expansion plans

“I don't look at this too much because I know we don't have the money yet,” Cannata said. “I know we're going to be able to do it,” he said. “It's just going to take time.”

Last week, Gary Rouleau came on board as full-time development director to raise the necessary millions.

“I would love to see a capital campaign in the works by next year,” Lange said.

Big donors are considering contributions.

“I am going to give a substantial amount … in the next 12 months,” said Tony Kissling of Kissling Interests, developer of nearby Remington Lofts. “They need to get benefactors and people to give money.”

As the owner of apartment buildings in Western New York and New York City, he had been eyeing the old Sweeney Street factory last occupied by Remington Rand, a maker of office filing systems.

In 2007, he bought it and began a $28 million renovation into what are now loft apartments, a yoga studio, a hair salon and school, and the upscale Remington Tavern restaurant.

The theater, just four blocks away, was one of the deciding factors.

“I think North Tonawanda is like Ellicottville was 25 years ago,” Kissling said of the prosperous ski town to the south.

While this city doesn't have a ski resort, it does have its own appealing mix of ingredients: the waterfront of the Erie Canal and Niagara River, a 20-minute drive to Buffalo and an intact old-fashioned downtown.

“Almost everybody said to me, 'Kissling, you're crazy if you go into this thing.' The Riviera Theatre was one of the great reasons I did this,” he said.

Now all 81 of the loft apartments have tenants, paying $1,400 to $2,900 a month.

“Without the Riviera Theatre,” he said, “the potential wouldn't be there to do what I wanted to do.”

The good vibe has caught on with performers, too.

After Loretta Lynn came for the first time a year ago, she told Engelbert Humperdinck and George Jones. Their agents called Cannata and asked to perform at the Riviera. Last year, their shows sold out. This year Jones and Lynn are coming back.

The theater is just the right size, Cannata said. It's big but not too big. And it's small enough to allow an inviting, intimate connection with the audience during performances.

“It's like a grand living room,” he said of the theater, still absorbing its beauty and history. “It just kind of sucks you in.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com