Michael Shea grew up in Buffalo’s First Ward in the late 1800s. He worked as a laborer on the docks and also as an ironworker. His first business venture was a saloon, which he opened in The Ward in 1884. Shea was working man from a working family and understood the importance of distractions from the daily grind. His saloon served as a means of not only providing a distraction, but also as a way for him to begin saving for his bigger dream; providing exciting entertainment possibilities for the working people of Buffalo.
Shea borrowed ideas that were already popular in Europe, but that had little presence here in the United States. He used his savings to open Shea’s Music Hall in 1892. Entertainers from around the world worked their craft to the delight of their new Buffalo fans. His love for entertaining the common man, materialized in the opening of Shea’s Garden Theatre, Buffalo’s first vaudeville theater in 1898. This was one of the first vaudeville houses in the country and Shea was becoming known as a pioneer in the entertainment industry.
Always having a feel of the public pulse, Shea seemed to be a step ahead when the winds of change were blowing thru the industry. As vaudeville started its decline, Shea opened his Hippodrome Theatre in 1914 and began showing motion pictures. This led to opening of a group of theaters in Buffalo and Toronto. Of those theaters, the North Park and The Riviera are still operating today.
Despite his worldwide reputation as an innovator and pioneer in the entertainment industry, Shea was not satisfied. He wanted to create an everlasting monument to the industry that was his life. Hence, he solicited the help of architects George and C.W. Rapp and together, with an initial budget of $1,000,000, they embarked upon a re-creation of the baroque opera houses that were popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. No expense was spared and in 1926, The Buffalo opened on Main Street. The huge theater would hold up to 4,000 patrons. It was very successful and profitable until the Great Depression hit in 1929. Shea struggled to hold on, losing a considerable fortune in doing so.
Shea didn’t make it through the Depression, dying in 1934 at the age of 75. However, as one of the world’s greatest entertainers, who always believed things would turn around, he left his mark of an industry and a city that still stands today.
It didn’t always look that rosy for what we now know as Shea’s Buffalo, or for that matter for The Riviera or the North Park Theatre. The same working people that Shea built these fine building for, stepped in and decided that they needed to be saved. The preservation efforts, the millions of dollars raised and the same commitment to provide excellent entertainment to the people of Western New York, lives on today in those three remaining theaters.
Michael Shea’s vision is alive and well, and looks to continue to thrive for years to come.