Most days for the past 13 years, Anthony Conte has climbed the dozens of carpeted steps that separate the opulent lobby of Shea’s Performing Arts Center from his office in the building’s upper reaches.
Each of those daily climbs brought with it a small sign of progress, as Conte and his staff diligently worked to return the once-downtrodden 1925 movie house to its former glory. And now, as the theater approaches the last of a series of restoration projects, and Broadway producers clamor to tap into its growing profit potential, Conte is turning his attention to other projects.
And not a moment too soon.
Even as he oversees efforts to draw audiences to the former Studio Arena Theatre (now known as the 710 Main Theatre) and pushes Shea’s restoration toward the finish line, Conte is working to solve another problem: the potential closure of the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre directly across the street from Shea’s.
“I must have had two beers too many, but my responsibility is to spearhead putting a plan together, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now,” he said. “I think it would be a travesty if it closes … If it can hold on for a couple more years, I think it could be a pretty viable, even commercial operation.”
Conte said that the path forward for the Market Arcade is far from clear. But chances are he will apply the same philosophy to that building’s trouble that he’s used at Shea’s and at 710 Main. That philosophy is extremely simple and reveals a passion for the buildings themselves more than the specific activities they host: “You have a facility, you’ve got an asset. The best thing you can do with that asset is find ways to make it generate revenue.”
Bruce Jackson, a University at Buffalo professor who is on the volunteer board of the struggling cinema and runs the popular Buffalo Film Seminars with his wife, Diane Christian, praised Conte’s contributions to the incipient plan and to the Theater District as a whole.
“Tony for me has been a driving and organizing force in the district. He has looked upon it not just as his building and the buildings around it, but rather as a community of buildings, all of which serve to help each other,” Jackson said. “I’m really grateful to have him here.”
As investment flows into the Medical Campus, Canalside and other blossoming pockets of the city, Buffalo’s Theater District, aside from Shea’s, is largely on economic pause. But Conte, a former banker with a head for numbers and a no-nonsense demeanor, is intent on spreading the success of Shea’s to his neighbors on Main Street and on bringing the long-simmering dream of a vibrant Main Street entertainment district to a boil.
He’s the first to acknowledge that the work that remains will not be easy. At 710 Main Theatre, which is presenting a sampler of locally produced shows and touring productions, Conte’s plan is likely going to require multiple years of financial losses.
“We knew the first couple of years we were going to lose money. That’s what you do when you start up,” he said, adding that the theater project came within 1 percent of the losses he projected for this year. “We’ve seen very, very positive response from folks who have come to shows there, people thanking us for reopening the building, that they miss the building and that sort of thing. That’s been very rewarding, frankly, to hear people who were really pleased. We’d just like to see a lot more of them.”
The possibilities, he said, could involve multiple local theaters joining forces on productions there, which could potentially tap into a much larger audience than any one company could draw on its own. An even more enticing prospect, he said, would be for one or more companies to re-establish the venue as an Equity theater – the one missing ingredient on Buffalo’s otherwise hyperactive theater scene.
A massive influx of new theatergoers isn’t likely in the spring, when the theater presents local productions of two acclaimed but tough-to-market plays: Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s stylized take of the classic play “Cyrano de Bergerac” in February and MusicalFare Theatre’s “Red,” about the painter Mark Rothko, in March. The only sure bet on the immediate horizon is a one-week run of “Golda’s Balcony,” starring Tovah Feldshuh, in May.
In 2013, the theater produced Road Less Traveled Productions’ “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “Clybourne Park,” neither of which pulled in huge box-office receipts. But Conte is unruffled. As with his work on Shea’s, he is playing the long game.
Those who think of Conte as obsessed with the bottom line might be surprised that he has accepted proposals for productions that have little chance of making money. Conte, who admitted that he used to regularly fall asleep at productions of dramatic plays before he got into the business of programming them, seems happy to let audiences grow organically.
“I’ve found that since we started this project, I don’t fall asleep any more. I’m paying too much attention,” he said. “Part of our corporate responsibility in this community is to be supportive of the other theater companies in any way we can. I think that’s an important piece of what we can bring to the table. So I’m open to virtually anything.”
Conte said saving the Market Arcade won’t be easy because of major problems with the building – not least of which is the fact that Buffalo doesn’t own it and therefore can’t directly fund it. Even so, he said, he is determined to help chart a new course for the institution to remain viable, just as he’s done for Shea’s and 710 Main.
“I think it would be a travesty to see the street open in April, and the theater closes in May,” he said, referring to the imminent return of traffic to that block of Main Street.
Whatever the prospects for the building were before Conte came on board, his involvement bodes well for the building and the entire neighborhood.