Billed as the “Showplace of the Tonawandas”, the Riviera Theatre was built during the year 1926, by the Yellen Family. The architects Leon H. Lempart and Son drew the plans, which were patterned after the Italian Renaissance. The interior artwork was painted at the Rochester Studio of Willard M. Lusk, by Ferdinand Kebely.
Opening night, Thursday, December 30, 1926 of the new ‘TWIN CITIES RIVERA’ (as it was spelled then) was a ‘gala event’ in the Tonawandas. Advance reservations for opening night cost $1.00. Present on this special evening, were the Mayors of both Tonawandas. From the stage, Mayor James P. Mackenzie of North Tonawanda, praised the President of the Ownership Corporation of the Theatre, Henry Henshel, and the Theatre’s Manager, James J. Kelly.Messages of Congratulation of the Grand Opening were received from Governor Alfred E. Smith, and famous movie producer Cecil B. Demille.
Featured on the screen, were the movies “Upstage” starring Norma Shearer, “The Mona Lisa”, in Technicolor, a short comedy, and the newsreel. Organist Fred Meyer accompanied the films and soloed at the Mighty Wurlitzer. The stage featured vaudeville and musical events, as well.
During the depression years, the theatre became a Shea’s Theatre, and the name was changed from “New Rivera” to “Shea’s Riviera”. The organ was extensively used for the first seven years, and featured organists Al Bollington, “Dusty” Rhodes, Jack Ward and Art Melgier.
By the mid-60’s, the Riviera became part of the Dipson Theatre chain, and with this change, brought a manager whom himself was an organ enthusiast. Carlton and Harry Finch, who kept the organ alive and active since 1944, requested the club’s help to do a more extensive restoration. William Hatzenbuhler, acknowledged organ builder and technician in this area, along with club volunteers adopted the restoration project. Manager, Frank Guzzetta, assured fullest cooperation.
Approximately June 15, 1970 the Riviera changed from a Dipson Theatre, and was sold to MDA Associates. The theatre operated under MDA until April 5, 1971 when the theatre closed suddenly. The future of the Riviera was overcast; it went up for auction on August 12, 1971, when it was reacquired by Smith Properties (owned by Max Yellen). The Riviera remained closed for a year, until it was acquired by MACDOP Enterprises and reopened April 27, 1972 with North Tonawanda’s mayor present for the opening.
The club enhanced the theatre itself with the purchase of a huge crystal chandelier that formerly graced the Genesee Theatre in Buffalo. Installed in the Riviera’s main dome in January 1974, the chandelier measured 10 feet in diameter, 14 feet high, contained 15,000 French crystals and had 3 circuits of 35 bulbs each. A smaller chandelier that came from the Park Lane Restaurant of Buffalo was installed in the Riviera’s outer lobby at the same time. Also, added to the stage equipment was a scenic backdrop donated from the Bradford (PA) Theatre. A very historic grand piano was also acquired from the same theatre at the same time. This piano was to be used for stage presentations. It should be noted that this instrument is separate from the other piano already connected to the organ.
The Riviera Theatre was placed on the Register of Historic Landmarks by the U.S. Department of the Interior – April 22, 1980 – but the future of the building was somewhat in doubt. A “Save the Riviera” benefit concert was held in June of 1981.
The theatre was then acquired in early 1982 by SALED Properties, with the provision that the Wurlitzer Organ be a part of the sale of the building. The organ club responded, in the interest of keeping the theatre alive, and sold the organ back to the new owners. The Riviera also became the headquarters for a chain known as Key Theatres under this new ownership. In August of 1986, two of the Key Theatre in this area introduced live comedy on stage, on Saturday nights before the regular movie. The Riviera had the added feature of providing an organ interlude, featuring theatre organist Eddie Baker, prior to the stage comedy presentations. This special is quite popular among the patron right up to the present time. (Note: this was written in 1989, the theatre does not present comedy on Saturday evenings any longer).
Early in 1988, the Riviera was once again put up for sale, along with its Mighty Wurlitzer. The organ club (Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society) decided an attempt should be made to purchase the theatre, by the club itself, and on August 12, 1988 a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ was reached with the owners. In the next few months a fund raising drive was undertaken in the Tonawandas and Western New York. Even the City of North Tonawanda itself attracted widespread interest and help. On February 14, 1989 the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society (N.F.T.O.S. – Now called the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society (RTOPS)) closed the deal to purchase the Riviera and its Wurlitzer. Every effort of the club, city and Western New York is geared towards the goal of preserving the Riviera and its heritage, and to turn this fine theatre into a “Performing Arts Center of the Tonawanda”.
The 89 year history of the Riviera Theatre has indeed been very interesting and frightful on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, the wrecking ball was evaded, as was the fate of over 30 other theatres in Western New York. The Riviera and the Shea’s Buffalo are the only standing examples of the movie palaces and their original “Mighty Pipe Organs” in an area which once boasted over 40 theatres with organs.
Today the historic Riviera Theatre is owned and operated by the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society (RTOPS), a registered 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit organization. The mission is to preserve and maintain the Historic Riviera Theatre and the Mighty WurliTzer Organ and to promote the performing arts.
Over the past several years the Riviera Theatre has made great progress including the restoration of our iconic marquee; improvements to our stage rigging system; digital projection conversion project and fully re-mediated a brownfield site behind the theatre that will now Set The Stage for our planned $6.1 Million Riviera Theatre Expansion and Development Project which includes 23,000 square feet of new performance space and amenities.
Today the Riviera Theatre is a regional destination with 100,000 visitors annually and a $3 Million annual positive economic impact to the community and region. Visitors form across New York State; Southern Ontario Canada; Ohio; Pennsylvania and beyond now attend events. As a direct result of the progress, we now see the revitalized areas around the theatre with new restaurants, bars and shops and a new sense of pride.
The Riviera Theatre could not do any of this without the continued generous support of patrons and supporters in the community. The Riviera Theatre continues to seek support to help SET THE STAGE so that many more successful chapters of the Riviera’s history will be written in years to come, and that this heritage may be shared for many future generations to enjoy.