By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — There was a point and time where the future of the Riviera Theatre was in doubt.
But through the grit and determination of some concerned Western New Yorkers and a decades-long plan to return the much-beloved theater from near financial ruin, that scenario now appears far in the past as those associated with it prepare for next week’s 85th anniversary.
Neil Lange, who was a part of a group that purchased the theater in 1989, continues to serve on its board and has grown up at the Riviera Theatre during the last 32 years.
He said that when a group of volunteers first entered the theater after the purchase, they spent months meticulously cleaning and revamping the structure and envisioning what direction to take it.
”When we took over that first night Feb. 14 the place was dark, dirty, smelly and falling apart,” Lange said. “Every night we went in we dumped a bottle of bleach in the bathroom. It was that bad.”
There were other challenges to be sure, Lange said, but with what he described as the “spirit of volunteerism” and the 2006 hiring of the Riviera’s executive director, Frank Cannata, who has since brought in big name acts as well as a path to financial solvency, as of late the performance space is looking better than ever.
”We’re getting there,” Lange said. “Everybody still loves the Riv, and that is growing.”
Lange said his time at the Riviera was a family affair, with both his mother and father participating in bringing it back to life through weekly volunteer trips from their Kenmore home.
On Dec. 30 1927 the doors opened to the Riviera Theatre, where for decades it served as a moviehouse. But in the 1980s and 1990s an addition to the stage and the removal of some organs from “the pit” area allowed for bigger acts to come in, which opened up the revenue stream.
Barb Dietrich, a spokesperson for the theater, said the Riviera will celebrate its anniversary by bringing in the von Trapp family for a two-night performance on Dec. 29 and Dec. 30. The great-grandchildren of Maria von Trapp, whose memoir led to the famous 1965 film “The Sound of Music,” will perform original and Christmas-themed songs as well as other well-known hits from the movie.Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.