Searchlights raked the midnight blue winter sky over Hertel Avenue Friday night as hundreds of people streamed under the glowing marquee of the North Park Theatre for an early glimpse at the newly restored neighborhood landmark.
Squeezing in an extra celebration between Christmas and New Year’s, the Sneak Peek Fundraising Gala had the feeling of a neighborhood block party combined with a long-delayed reunion, as attendees greeted friends and gazed in delight at what a small army of restoration workers has wrought in the past six months.
“It looks beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” said Ann Wells, who grew up in North Buffalo with one of the theater’s owners, Left Bank restaurant owner Michael G. Christiano. “We always came here, since we were kids.”
Almost as though they were coming to a movie, many of the ticketholders arrived almost as soon as the event started at 7 p.m., stopping by at the rediscovered original concession stand for a drink or making their way to where Chef James Fatta and his team from Christiano’s restaurant were serving an array of hors d’oeuvres – duck with spicy plum reduction, oysters Rockefeller, chicken satay with peanut sauce, crab cakes and mini dumplings with a sweet chile reduction. You could find some mountains of crumbled gourmet cheese and crackers, but there were no neon-orange nachos or buckets of popcorn in the theater for this party.
Johnny Lewis, a lifelong North Buffalo resident, snuggled his wheelchair up against the back wall so he could watch the action.
“I couldn’t miss this. This is my church. I grew up here,” Lewis said. He recalled how he and his friends were always fascinated by the paintings in the recessed dome, as dingy as they once were. After studying art history in college, he said, he appreciates how much effort went into restoring the works by Pan-American Exhibition artist Raphael Beck.
“The ceiling is absolutely beautiful. I can’t believe what they’ve done here,” he said.
Theater co-owner and local attorney Thomas J. Eoannou, in between welcoming his guests, pointed out that the glass chandeliers over the seating were the only parts of the restoration that weren’t original to the theater. He found them in another theater in Philadelphia, contemporary with this one.
Eoannou said they expect to be open for business in about a month, with help from a national art film distributor. The new seating – which virtually everyone is looking forward to – will be installed by then, along with new digital projectors.
But the real silver screen is not going anywhere. Friday night, showing on it were images from the restorations interspersed with pictures from the North Park and the Hertel neighborhood taken over the years since it was built in 1920, while the Hot Club of Buffalo – Kevin O’Brien, E.J. Koeppel, Josh Assad and Dean Gionis – played gypsy swing in front.
The text on screen also thanked contributors to the restoration, the Rupp Family Foundation, M&T Charitable Foundation and John R. Oishei Foundation, among others.
Blythe Merrill, the Oishei’s vice president, was among those celebrating the project’s progress.
“This is an important and exciting private effort that is so important to the neighborhood and the community. We are proud to support it,” Merrill said.
She was chatting with Rep. Brian Higgins, who joked that he had a “four-hour pass” from his South Buffalo neighborhood to pay tribute to the work being done in North Buffalo.
Not everyone attending spent long-ago childhoods at the North Park. Nick and Alexandria Alterio, a young couple who bought their North Buffalo house only two years ago, also got dressed up for the party.
“We really want to help the community and this theater. I love old architecture, and he really loves film,” said Alexandria, nodding to her husband. They hope the North Park will be including older movies and foreign films in its art house offerings.
Nicholas Rolle was home for the holidays from Oakland, Calif., to visit his parents.
“I told them I didn’t want anything (for Christmas), so they said they would donate it to this event,” Rolle said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. One thing I remember most distinctly was the bathrooms, they had this ancient tile ... ”
Gary D. Byrd, director of the Health Science Library at the University at Buffalo, just returned from holiday travel a night earlier and came at the last minute.
“I’m a big film buff, and I was sorry to see Dipson pull out,” he confessed. “They brought in some good movies, and I always liked coming here, even in its worst days. I’ll be interested to see what they bring in next.”
Also enjoying the party from a safe spot overlooking the seats was one of the North Park’s most treasured “fixtures,” Norm Dechert, who worked at the theater for 47 years until it closed in June.
Smiling, he said he won’t be coming back to the ticket booth, or any other job there, when it reopens, as his wife chimed in that “47 years was enough!”
“I’m a has-been,” Dechert joked, but he noted that the same couldn’t be said for the North Park. “The best is yet to come!”