By Lauren Zaepfel
While driving down Webster Street in North Tonawanda, you may be surprised by some famous acts flashing on the Riviera Theatre's marquee - acts unlike what the venue has booked in past years.
The theater recently hosted Steve Hackett, the original guitar player from the band Genesis; the Scintas, a Buffalo-born family that has a Vegas show; and '70s rocker Todd Rundgren. Several acts are already lined up for 2016, including "The Glengarry Bhoys" on March 18, and "An Evening with David Cassidy" on April 16.
"I often get asked, 'What type of shows do you do?' " Riviera Theatre co-director Jim Pritchard said. "There's no normal around the Riviera Theatre."
Riviera Theatre co-director Gary J. Rouleau said determining which shows come to the theater is all about "data and making decisions on facts and data and real things. It's about the organization. We have personal favorites, but if we can't make it work, they're not coming here. ... I could fall asleep probably on certain events we do here, but I don't care, because I know that people are going to be in the theater enjoying it and having a good time. And that's all that matters at the end of the day. It's a team-based approach here at the theater now and that's what we want to do with the community. We call it 'Team Riv,' and our capital campaign is called 'Set the Stage.' "
While the names of acts have recently been bigger, this change actually started in the late '80s. Rouleau said several years ago is when a real shift started to occur.
"In the late '80s it was going to be demolished, possibly, and the nonprofit (agencies and volunteers) came in to save it for the Wurlitzer (organ). Nothing much of greatness was happening here for quite a long period of time. The building was a mess when they took it over in the '80s and who knew that it would even survive?" he said. "Over the years, volunteers were doing what they could to fix it here and there, but we weren't set up to bring in a national touring act and do lots of events throughout the year. We didn't have the equipment. It needed a lot of work. ... So we started off working on writing some grants to some of the area foundations to get some community support for some large projects that we needed."
Pritchard began as a subcontractor as technical director. Rouleau was a consultant and helped write several successful grants.
Riviera Theatre co-directors Gary J. Rouleau and Jim Pritchard stand together in front of the marquee.
The theater received help from The John R. Oishei Foundation to install a new rigging system.
"We upgraded the equipment, the lighting, the sound - all that stuff - so that we can bring in some larger shows," Rouleau said. "But before that, it was some movies (and) community theater. We weren't doing very many shows that often - Wurlitzer concerts every month and a few things in between. It was nothing of real significance that was generating any real revenue to help the theater move forward."
Once equipment improvements were made, "You start seeing more events, and you start seeing the impact to the community, you start seeing more people come to the theater," he said.
On Jan. 1, 2015, Rouleau and Pritchard became co-directors of the Riviera.
They determined "The organization itself needed to move forward. So we started a rebranding of the theater, from the local community historical theater to a regional destination, which we are. And so we started making our branding consistent," Rouleau said. "We want people to understand that we're not just a local attraction in the Tonawandas anymore - that people from all over the state, southern Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania - they're coming to this area and they're not just coming to see our show now, but they're spending time here. And you see that gradual improvement."
Pritchard said the city jumped right in.
"Lumber City Development and the City of North Tonawanda put together a Main Street improvement grant, which is how the facades of the buildings got updated," he said. "And you look up and down Webster Street (and) you don't see any chains. These are all mom-and-pop, local businesses that are really making a difference in the community, and the community is helping them, too, which is fantastic."
Rouleau said elected officials, including former New York state Sen. George D. Maziarz, state Sen. Rob Ortt, and both Twin City mayors have been very supportive.
North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas has a personal connection with the theater. As a teenager, he secretly wanted to be an usher at the Riviera, but he didn't pursue his desire until late in life, when he and his wife became volunteers together.
"We've been with the theater doing that for about 13 years now," Pappas said. "So, we've been big promoters of the theater in terms of trying to encourage people in town to visit and to attend the different shows and programs, because now it's not just movies. It's a cultural arts center, too. And they have many shows from not just local talent, but around the state, around the nation and even from different places in the world. They bring in different groups and the shows are actually fantastic. So, in the 13 years that we have been ushering, we've seen it evolve from very few shows to many shows now of international notoriety."
Pappas also said he continues to support the theater "because it's not only benefiting our residents here in North Tonawanda, but the Twin Cities and the whole Western New York region."
Pritchard said, "When they're coming outside of Western New York, they're probably grabbing a hotel room. They definitely are getting a meal ... and spending more dollars in Western New York before and after they bought (their) ticket."
Rouleau said the City of North Tonawanda and Lumber City Development recently did an economic impact study, which determined the theater has a $3 million economic impact to the area.
"So we went from being demolished, to not really doing a lot, to now having this big economic impact to the community," Rouleau said, adding the theater will celebrate its 90th anniversary in December.
But with these positive strides, both Rouleau and Pritchard agreed there are still issues with the theater, which they hope to resolve with a new $6 million expansion project.
"If we are to move forward, we have to expand the facilities and bring all of our amenities up to a modern standard," Rouleau said. "Our bathrooms are prehistoric and our concession stand ... just looks bad. Everything is a cluster."
He said during a sold-out show, most people do not even get up from their seats during intermission.
An entrance will be added to the theater on Main Street "that will include an integrated concessions and bar area to really maximize everyone's experience and make it easier to get everything (they) want all at once rather than three different stops in four different places," Pritchard said.
An elevator will also be included in the expansion, which will allow patrons to sit in the balcony without climbing up a flight of stairs.
The expansion will not only improve patrons' amenities, but performers' as well.
Currently, dressing rooms are located in the basement of the theater. There isn't a place for performers to eat, change or to take a shower.
"They get all that in the expansion, which will help us bring in more shows and bring back ones that liked the sound of theater and the beauty of it, but didn't like the amenities," Rouleau said.
The project also includes the installation of a separate black box theater, which would provide flexible seating and accommodate more local acts.
"We can't expand within the building structure itself. We (would expand) with 23,000 square feet of new space," Rouleau said. "The expansion is an improvement onto the existing historic building to keep this building preserved for future generations."
Once complete, the theater is expected to create an economic impact of around $4 million, as well as contribute 14 new jobs annually. In December, the Riviera was awarded $1.2 million from New York state and other grants from various foundations and agencies.
"If everything goes the way we would like it to, we could have shovels in the ground either later this year or early 2017," Rouleau said.
For more information on the Riviera, visit www.rivieratheatre.org.