By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — The Riviera Theatre, the heart and soul of Webster Street and perhaps in many ways the city at large, is nearing the end of one fundraising campaign and launching into another.
With steady progress gained over the last several decades, the focal point for the organization has been updating the interior of the structure hoping to draw bigger acts, more elaborate stage settings and thus, more patrons, with larger crowds bringing in more revenue.
While many of those goals have been achieved Frank Cannata, executive director of the Riviera Theatre, said the focus is now turning to the exterior of the building and its newly unleashed expansion efforts.
That was firmly established in July when the group tore down a former car shops behind the theater to eventually create new performance space.
With remediation work about to kick off, the $5.9 million project is expected to begin in the next two to three years, while theater officials are banking on a recently submitted state grant application that could bringing in $1.5 million, inaugurating the process. Another $315,000 grant already procured will clear the brownfield site before that work begins.
But while the funding initiatives for it started this summer, the organization is shifting its attention to the front of the theater on Webster Street.
With nearly $275,000 raised, the theater’s iconic neon marquee will get a major overhaul, while still falling in line with its architectural and historical significance since it was first erected in the 1940s.
When first constructed, the brand new marquee cost roughly $14,000. But it will take nearly $300,000 to restore it, including updating 785 lightbulbs, electrical work, replacing neon lettering that has dimmed over time, metal restoration, painting and the addition of an LED panel that will allow acts to be posted electronically.
Gary J. Rouleau, the theater’s director of development, said the theater has served as an anchor for the resurgence in the city’s downtown corridor, with restaurants and boutiques shops continuing to spring up along the street over the last seven years.
Moving rehabilitation efforts to the exterior of the building may assist in continuing that trend, he said, perhaps boosting the 176 events held last year in the theater and the 100,000 patrons who came to see the shows. The theater has a 1,140-person capacity.
“They’re going to have an immediate impacts and are going to have important economic benefits,” Rouleau said, of both the updated marquee and the expansion. “People can actually see the process.”
And while the big government grants and occasional corporate sponsorships have been the bread and butter of past rehabilitation projects and recent work to the exterior, small donations also add up, including a check for $500 given on Monday to the theater by Pist’n Broke Cruisers and Canalside Creamery, who put together summer classic car cruise nights each year on Webster Street.
Most of the theater’s operational costs are through ticket and concession sales, leaving a gap between the theater’s lofty ambitions and its overall funding portfolio. But with momentum continuing to build, that may change.
“Every dollar helps,” Rouleau said. “No amount is too small.”
Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.