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Michael Shea – The Improbable Entertainer
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp.136-139
by Timothy Bohen
Reprinted with permission.
Another saloon owner from the Ward capitalized on the growing desire for entertainment by the middle class of Buffalo. On April 17, 1859, in the same year that the political boss William F. Sheehan was born in the First Ward, Daniel and Mary (Griffin) Shea gave birth to a boy, Michael, who would create an entertainment empire in Buffalo.
It is disputed as to whether or not Michael Shea was born in the First Ward or in St. Catharines, Ontario, but sometime shortly after his birth the family definitely settled in the First Ward. The young Shea attended both public and parochial schools in the Ward, and as early as age fifteen went to work on the docks as a laborer, much like the other young men in the Ward. After toiling on the docks, he was hired at the Union Iron Works near his house, where he labored as a structural ironworker helping to build some of the significant railroad bridges in the United States during this era.
Michael was a handsome man sporting a trimmed mustache and was well liked by people who interacted with him. The first mention of young Michael Shea was in the 1879 Buffalo City Directory where he was listed as a laborer living with his parents at 244 Katherine Street in the First Ward.
In 1884, Michael or “Mickey” as he was sometimes called, opened a saloon at 535 Elk Street and continued living on Katherine Street while presumably saving money for his future endeavors. Like Fingy Conners, Michael’s ownership of a saloon gave him the financial means to expand into other business ventures. Michael had grand ideas for entertaining Buffalonians. Entertainment empires like the one Shea envisioned however, were traditionally the product of people with extensive financial resources, not former dockworkers.
Shea’s entry into the entertainment business started in 1892 when he opened his first music hall: Shea’s Music Hall at 11 Clinton Street in the Arcade Building. Music halls, which provided entertainment for the working masses, had been popular in England for several decades, but this was one of the first music halls in the United States. At Shea’s Music Hall performers from England and France appeared for weeklong engagements. In 1893, a fire destroyed his building, but Michael was undeterred and started over again.
Next he opened Shea’s Tivoli on Washington Street next to the famous Lafayette Hotel.
In 1898, Shea decided to capitalize on entertainment for the “common man” by opening the first vaudeville theatre in Buffalo, called Shea’s Garden Theatre. In fact, Shea was one of the first men in the U.S. to start a vaudeville house and he is credited with helping to improve the reputation of this new form of entertainment targeted at the growing urban middle class. In 1900, Shea beautified his vaudeville theater, hoping to make it one of the top vaudeville houses in the country; many who visited agreed that he accomplished his goal. In addition, in an effort to improve the reputation of this new form of entertainment, he banned smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages in his theater.
In 1905, the restless Shea expanded his vaudeville empire and opened Shea’s Vaudeville House on Court Street with a tagline: Shea’s - Devoted to the Highest Class of Exclusive Vaudeville Attractions. Michael Shea was known throughout the U.S., England, and France for his efforts at promoting and helping to improve the image of vaudeville.
At the age of forty, with Michael Shea at mid-life, he married Josephine Carr. Four years later, with a solid financial situation, they moved out of the Ward to the West Side of Buffalo, settling at 43 Vermont Street near Niagara Street. Shea’s business ventures continued to prosper, and by 1905 he had an empire of theatres in Buffalo. Shea’s genius, however, was in understanding the changing entertainment tastes of the masses, and then responding to these changes. He was always one step ahead of his competitors.
This was evident when he expanded from vaudeville into motion pictures and opened Shea’s Hippodrome on Main Street near Chippewa in 1914. At the time it was regarded as the finest picture house between New York City and Chicago. The indefatigable Mickey Shea also opened Shea’s North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue in 1920. Other theaters in his empire included the Great Lakes Theatre, the Seneca, the Century, the Community, the Park, the Bailey, and the Riviera in Tonawanda. Mr. Shea even expanded his operations internationally to Toronto, Canada where he owned two of the largest theatres in that city: Shea’s Vaudeville and Shea’s Hippodrome.
Even in light of all of these successes, Shea still had a vision for his crowning achievement. Perhaps like Bishop Timon before him who built St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Shea felt his legacy to Buffalo had to come in the form of something monumental; in his case a “cathedral” dedicated to entertainment.
Soliciting the help of the prominent Chicago architects, C.W. and George L. Rapp, and with an initial budget of $1 million, Shea built and designed one of the most remarkable theatres in the United States at the time. His masterpiece, located on a prominent stretch of Main Street, was originally given the name “The Buffalo,” and later called Shea’s Buffalo. Shea wanted his masterpiece to rival other show houses in the major cities across the country and spared no expenses; consequently the building costs quickly escalated to $2 million.
The Rapp brothers used the finest furnishing companies in Chicago and Buffalo to outfit the building including The Victor Pearlman Company, Marshall Field and Company, Wm. Hengerer Co. and Wurlitzer Company. The terra cotta exterior, crystal chandeliers, and marble staircases built in the Baroque Revival style created a look of opulence; it was meant to resemble the baroque opera houses of Europe from the 16th and 17th century.
On January 16, 1926, the 4,000-seat theater opened with the kind of glitz and lights you would expect from Buffalo’s greatest showman: an estimated 7,000 exterior lights were used to illuminate the theater on opening night. The theater was wildly successful and profitable for its first three years until the start of the Great Depression in 1929. During the Depression it was estimated that Mr. Shea was losing $1 million a year on his vast enterprise, but he refused to lay off employees. In 1930, despite the onset of the global economic disaster, Shea and his wife moved to the most affluent neighborhood in Buffalo and settled at 675 Delaware Avenue. Despite Shea’s optimism that the economy would turn around, he would never see the return of his past financial success.
Michael Shea passed away on May 16, 1934 in the midst of the Depression, and his wife and daughter sold their shares in the entertainment enterprise shortly after he died.
The famous Broadway producer and fellow Irish American, George M. Cohan, once commented on Shea’s success by stating that: “Shea made his house in Buffalo the finest show stop in America. He had an astonishing flair for picking what the public liked.”
Legend has it that Michael Shea even influenced the stage careers of Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. In its first 25 years of existence, Shea’s Buffalo hosted world famous performers such as Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Bing Crosby.
It is worth asking the question: where did Michael, who grew up in the gritty waterfront area of Buffalo and lacked a formal education past age sixteen, derive his flair for entertainment? Perhaps, drawing from his own experiences toiling on the docks and at the Union Iron Works, he simply wanted to create an oasis of beauty and happiness for his fellow workingman. Shea set the prices for shows at his theatres so that everyone could afford the price of admission and there were no reserved seats, perhaps owing to the fact that he grew up in the unpretentious First Ward. In 1926, prices in his theatres started at as little as 25 cents, equivalent to about $3 in 2009. Michael Shea was certainly a genius showman in his time, and while only a few of his theatres still survive, Buffalo is richer today for what he built.
Additional renovations at Shea’s Theatre began again in 2011 with a $10 million dollar campaign that included a $1.75 million newly restored ceiling; $2.25 million for the main theatre renovations, including new chandeliers and restoration of the proscenium arch; $500,000 to replace the brass doors at Pearl and Main Streets; an elevator tower off Pearl Street; and additional meeting space. Shea’s is a thriving theatre hosting sold-out Broadway shows throughout the year.
Michael Shea would be proud to know that his dream of entertaining Buffalonians of all walks of life will continue to be realized well into the 21st century. Two of Shea’s other theatres are still surviving as well: the Riviera in North Tonawanda and the North Park on Hertel Avenue. This one-time saloon owner from the Ward and laborer at the Union Furnace will be remembered for generations to come.