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After 90 years, the Riviera is stronger than ever

Chris Caya

North Tonawanda's historic Riviera Theatre is marking its 90th birthday this week. And the refurbished theater is playing an important role in the city's downtown revitalization.

The Riviera's Mighty Wurlitzer organ has been entertaining patrons since December 30th, 1926.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

"It's the reason the Riviera is still here," said Jim Pritchard,  Director of Theater Operations. He said a live organist begins playing 30 minutes before nearly every show.

"It's the only Wurlitzer that is installed in the city that the Wurlitzers were built in. The Wurlitzer factory was right here in North Tonawanda. There are 35 Wurlitzer organs left in their original theaters that they were built for in the country. But we play it more than most theater organs around the world," Pritchard said.

But it took a lot of hard work. Board Chair, Neil Lange said he first got involved with the Riviera in 1980 when he and his father volunteered to help fix the organ. Lange said "the rest is history." He was among a small group who purchased the landmark.

"When we started here, we took over in '89, this was the biker-bar street. That's what it was. A dump next door. A dump across the street. It was horrible," Lange said.

Inside, the theater walls were painted red and black, and the lobby's original stained glass doors and other fixtures were missing.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News
Replicas of the original lobby doors were made by a craftsman in Colorado who has connections to the Riviera.

It's taken hundreds of volunteers decades to restore much of the Riviera's original grandeur. And it's having a positive effect on downtown.

"To see it go from a falling apart downtown area to this. It's a Mecca," Lange said.

A 2015 study for North Tonawanda's master plan shows the Riviera has about a $3 million economic impact on Western New York. Michael Zimmerman, Lumber City Development Corporation Executive Director said the Riviera has really taken off over the past seven years.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News
Webster St., North Tonawanda

"And in that same amount of time, you can track, there's been a ton of new restaurants, a ton of new businesses and shops on Webster Street in downtown. And that growth has all been right in step with the Riviera's growth," Zimmerman said.

Directly across from the historic theatre, Paul Schwandt and his family invested their life savings in a new restaurant, Canal Club 62 Tap & Eatery. The Riviera "is the cornerstone," Schwandt said, that other businesses feed off of. He said people are also drawn to the nearby waterfront.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News
Paul Schwandt's family runs Canal Club 62 Tap & Eatery at 62 Webster Street.

"People just walk around and enjoy it. The concerts at night we have. Canal Fest. Stuff like that. So, it draws people here quite a bit. And I think a lot of people want to just get out of the normal city atmosphere and just come here and enjoy themselves," Schwandt said.

Just down the block, Walker Brothers & Monroe has been selling clocks and jewelry on Webster Street since 1925.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News
Walker Bros. & Monroe Jewelers is the oldest business on Webster Street, according to its owner.

The store has been in Jay Soemann's family for three generations. Soemann said in recent years, public dollars invested in historic preservation - and the Riviera's restoration - have helped attract a lot of new businesses to downtown.

"So we've got a kind of a special little destination here. And it's got a typical Main Street, USA, feel to it," Soemann said.

The Riviera's 175 shows a year draw nearly 100,000 visitors, which Soemann said helps generate a lot of foot traffic for him.

"Every time somebody comes down to a show, and they see it, and they say, 'wow, we were across the street for a show. We came back because we saw your store,' Soemann said.

Credit Chris Caya WBFO News
Most of the Riviera's 1130 seat theater has been restored.

And downtown North Tonawanda could see more visitors in the near future. The Riviera is in the midst of a $6 million capital campaign to expand and modernize the 90-year-old theater.

Pritchard, the operations director, said the main stage will be busier than ever.

"We're going to add a black-box theater so we can do even more events, smaller events. We can also do seminars, and conferences, and banquets. And we're also going to improve our lobby experience. While we have a gorgeous lobby we don't have enough concessions and bar space. We don't have enough bathrooms. So we're going to try and make something better for everyone," Pritchard said.

The nonprofit is hoping to break ground sometime in 2017. Once complete, the Riviera's economic impact on the region is expected to increase by more than $650,000 annually.