NORTH TONAWANDA – Frank Cannata was named Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas in 2011 and applauded for bringing the Riviera Theatre on Webster Street back to life.
Attendance soared from 15,000 to 100,000 a year under Cannata’s leadership as executive director. The struggling theater went from $125,000 in debt to revenues of $1.6 million per year.
The success of the theater mirrored Cannata’s personal comeback story: He had lost his job as a Grand Island elementary school principal a decade ago after a crystal meth arrest before reinventing his career and resurrecting the Riviera.
But now, Cannata is locked in a bitter legal fight with the theater’s board of directors
The board asked him to leave in February, and he has filed a lawsuit accusing the theater of not honoring a severance agreement, valued at more than $40,000.
Because of the lawsuit, Cannata would not discuss why he was asked to leave. But he said his departure has nothing to do with his past problems with drugs or any other criminal or health matter.
Board members also declined to say why they asked Cannata to leave, saying only that it is a personnel issue.
So what went wrong?
No one will put a finger on what caused the rift that led to Cannata’s removal. Board members appeared to have been divided, but several of those who supported Cannata ultimately resigned from the board.
“I don’t really know what started this,” said former board member Donna Burgio, who was a Cannata supporter.
She said she resigned because she didn’t like how the situation was handled.
“It’s very confusing and very disheartening,” she said.
Former board member Joelle Logue called the removal process “bizarre and distasteful.”
“I think part of the problem was Frank was used to working alone as the sole employee, so as we started adding staff because he grew the theater so much, there were just some things in communication that could have been more streamlined,” Logue said without being specific.
Joyce M. Santiago, president of the theater’s board, who is also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, described the issue as an internal matter and said discussing it in public would not help or take the theater forward.
“I don’t know why this would be of interest to anyone,” she said. “Positions change all the time.”
But when pressed, she said, “He did help to take the theater to the next level, there’s no denying that, but there’s still a great vision for the theater and many people who play big roles in what the theater has to offer for the future.”
Cannata, who had been with the theater since 2006, said last week that he had taken a leave in November that ultimately ended up with his resignation Jan. 23.
A breach-of-contract lawsuit was filed on behalf of Cannata on March 4 in State Supreme Court in Erie County by attorney Harvey P. Sanders, alleging that the theater did not honor a severance agreement.
According to the lawsuit, Cannata was notified Feb. 1 that he was terminated effective Jan. 23 and that the theater had agreed to pay him a severance package but failed to do so. Cannata had allegedly accrued four weeks of paid vacation time, valued at $5,700, and he said the Riviera ignored multiple demands to pay him for the time. Cannata’s suit also alleges that the agreement entitled him to 24 weeks of severance, valued at an additional $34,000, and health and dental insurance through July 31. Cannata’s suit said that despite multiple demands, the Riviera has not paid him or paid for his insurance.
Sanders said the lawsuit does not deal with the termination itself.
“I loved what I was doing there, and I loved the people,” Cannata said. “It’s a great facility, a great community, and over the last few years the regional community has really come out to help the theater grow.”
“I am proud to say that I left the building and the organization in general much better than the way I found it,” he added. “The Riviera really became an anchor for Webster Street.”
Because of the ongoing legal action, Cannata said he could not discuss any specifics regarding his departure. But he also said there was nothing illegal, immoral or unethical involved in his resignation, nor was it a health issue.