By Michael Regan and Eric DuVall email@example.com
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — When a new marquee is installed at the historic Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda in a few weeks it may advertise more than just upcoming shows. It could well say “help wanted.”
Frank Cannata, the executive director of the Riviera for about a decade — who’s been credited with the theater’s turnaround, returning it to a regional entertainment destination after languishing for years — has resigned.
In addition, he recently filed a lawsuit against his former employer over the terms of his departure, specifically a severance package he says the theater’s board owes him, but has not paid.
The reason for his departure remains unclear. Both he and members of the theater’s board have declined to elaborate.
“Officially, I resigned,” Cannata said, adding because of the lawsuit he is not able to speak publicly about the problems that led to his resignation in late January.
In practice, however, Cannata has not been running the theater for nearly six months.
Cannata took a leave of absence in early November, according to Riviera Board Member Phyllis Gentner.
“What we know for a fact is for the last quarter of 2013 Frank was on a leave of absence as executive director of the theater,” she said.
A News reporter inquired about Cannata’s absence at the time and was told it was for health reasons. Cannata denied that was the reason for his leave but declined to say what the real reason was.
“I did not have a leave of absence at that point because of health reasons,” Cannata said.
Gentner said she is limited on what she could disclose about Cannata’s resignation, citing a personnel issue.
Joyce Santiago, president of the non-profit board that oversees the theater, said in an interview with the Tonawanda News on Thursday she was not given a reason for Cannata’s initial leave of absence and refused to disclose why he tendered his resignation. When asked if his departure was due to an internal fight with the board, Santiago said “no.”
But her description of the parting implies it wasn’t mutually agreeable.
“He resigned from the Riviera Theatre,” Santiago, who also runs the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, said. “He submitted his letter of resignation. If the board had wanted to, you could be hearing that he was fired.”
Adding to the tumult is the resignation of several members of the board itself. At least three members who have expressed admiration for his job performance, which included more frequently using the Riv as a venue for live music and a multi-million dollar expansion project presently under way, quit around the time of Cannata’s departure.
Santiago denied the board members quit in a show of support for Cannata, instead saying they could no longer meet the time commitments for serving on the board.
“There was a couple of members who didn’t want to be part of the changes,” Santiago said. “The reason they gave had nothing to do with (Cannata’s departure).”
Santiago added that “negotiations in regards to his departure” are ongoing, an apparent reference to the lawsuit Cannata filed over the severance package.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not understanding the necessity of it,” she said, of the lawsuit. “It’s not making any sense. I think it’s more or less a clarification of the terms of his departure. I thought it was crystal clear.”
Cannata wouldn’t speak to specific terms of the lawsuit and the News was not able to obtain a copy of it before the close of business Thursday but Cannata was firm stating he signed a termination agreement “and they haven’t honored it.”
“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “I haven’t been able to collect on it. That’s the nature of the lawsuit.”
Santiago said she did not make Cannata’s departure public during the last two months because “to draw attention from that would have taken away from the theater.”
“Even though Frank was a chapter in the Riv’s story he wasn’t the end-all, be-all,” she said. She later added: “Mr. Cannata has done a lot for the Riviera Theatre. He’s a gentleman. He’s a good worker so you don’t want to disparage anyone.”
Cannata’s hiring was controversial at first. He had been fired from a job as principal in the Grand Island school district after being arrested for crystal meth possession. He flatly denied the reason for his resignation was due to a drug relapse.
“No. That’s been years (since the arrest) and it’s nothing like that at all,” he said. “I was an at-will employee. They could have fired me for any reason at all. If it had been anything illegal ... that would have been the end of it.”
Jim Pritchard, who previously served as the technical and facilities director, has taken over as the interim director of operations. Santiago said the board will conduct a national search for Cannata’s permanent replacement that will likely take months to complete.
“I wish Mr. Cannata well,” Santiago said. “I hope people realize the Riv is heading in the right direction.”
Cannata said he is “actively looking” for new employment and when asked if there were hard feelings over his departure he said he’s proud of his tenure leading the theater.
“I loved my job, I love the community and I enjoyed what I did for a living and (that I) worked as hard as I did,” he said. “I’m proud of what I accomplished there. I left things better than I found it. Certainly Webster Street has thrived and that’s in no small part because of the Riv’s growth.”