A former movie theater has a lead role in helping revive a struggling stretch of Bailey Avenue on the East Side.
On Friday, State Sen. Timothy Kennedy announced the Uptown Theater, 3165 Bailey Ave., is being awarded a $150,000 state grant that could allow it to reopen in early 2015. Theater productions, occasional movies and concerts, and other community and educational events are planned.
“There is no venue like this here in the area – period – no place for families or kids to go without having to go outside the area,” said owner Ibrahim Cisse, an immigrant who came from the Ivory Coast to the United States about 20 years ago and lives in the neighborhood.
“I see a good economic opportunity, and at the same time the potential of what this theater, if it is done right, can bring to this community.”
Cisse purchased the theater in February 2010 for $135,000, and has spent more than $85,000 to put on a new roof and make other repairs. He will provide the remaining $35,000 to cover the work’s estimated cost.
The grant will go toward installing new heating and cooling systems, insulation, energy-efficient doors and upgraded plumbing.
It also will be used for interior painting, repairing and refinishing the stage floor, floor coverings, stage curtains, refurbishing the marble lobby, ornate plaster repairs and fire and safety updates.
Cisse plans to remove half of the theater’s 630 seats in order to open the back half of the auditorium for non-sitdown events, setting up movable seats when necessary.
Dressing rooms and a bathroom are planned behind the stage, Cisse said, and eventually the seats will be reupholstered. The screen, projectors, sound equipment and stage lighting are in working order, he said.
Some of the interior work was done by University at Buffalo students, working with the University Heights Tool Library.
The theater, which is next door to Buffalo Promise Children’s Academy, began in 1926 as the Varsity Theatre. Cisse said he may return the theater to its original name, and plans to have a mural painted on the north wall celebrating the Varsity’s early years.
Cisse said he thought Westminster Charter School, Highgate Heights School 80, Bennett High School, UB and Gloria J. Parks Community Center all could potentially use the theater.
Kennedy lobbied state officials to provide the funding awarded through the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. He said a historic theater will now be preserved while giving a boost to the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood and Bailey Avenue business district.
“Buffalo’s Uptown Theater is an important and historic landmark on Bailey Avenue, and this funding from New York State will bring new life to this remarkable theater. Investing in the theater’s rehabilitation will open new opportunities to improve the lives of children and youth in the community, and help preserve this theater for generations to come,” Kennedy said.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes praised Cisse’s vision in bringing the theater back to life, and his willingness to invest in a risky project with the potential for great public benefit.
“Every great idea starts with one person, and I can’t tell you how honored I am to know this guy. It’s an awesome thing ... Someone has to be the pioneer,” Peoples-Stokes said. The successful grant application was written by the University District Community Development Association.
“The theater is really an anchor on Bailey Avenue. It’s a great cultural resource that needs to be brought back,” Roseann Scibilia, the group’s executive director, said.
The theater building now has five offices rented out in spaces Cisse renovated, plus an IT business he operates. He expects to open a Subway franchise in the building later this summer.
The theater’s revival, Cisse said, will provide the perfect ending.
“Slowly and surely, we’re going to get there,” he said.