Riviera Theatre

The Riviera Theatre is listed on the National and New York State Register of Historic Places . The theatre is a historic, 1100 seat entertainment venue in North Tonawanda, New York.

A local landmark and movie house, the theatre was constructed in 1926 to much fanfare, and was originally named "The New Rivera." The first films shown were Upstage starring Norma Shearer and The Mona Lisa. The Wurlitzer Theatre organ installed in the theatre: Opus 1524 was shipped from the Rudolph Wurlitzer Factory on November 19, 1926. Listed as a Model 235 Special, the organ differed from a standard 3 manual 11 rank Model 235, by substituting an Oboe Horn rank of pipes from the standard Salicional pipes usually found on this model. Other differences included the omission of the standard remote Piano, and a 5 H.P. blower instead of the 7-1/2 H.P. The console was painted and decorated to harmonize with the theatre’s interior, by Wurlitzer’s Band Organ Artist. The theatre was also a popular vaudeville venue. During the Depression, the theatre was purchased by the Shea's Theater company. At the end of the silent movie era in the 1930s, the Wurlitzer Theatre organ went into disuse and disrepair and was not heard again until 1944, when it was refurbished. The Riviera was sold to Dipson Theatres and then to MDA Associates. The theatre changed hands many more times since then.

In the early 1970s, The Niagara Frontier Theater Organ Society (NFTOS) made an offer to purchase the Wurlitzer organ for a substantial amount, along with the provision the instrument must remain in the theatre. This offer was eventually accepted, the NFTOS owned the organ and assured its future. 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 a Bradford (PA) Theatre. A historic grand piano was also acquired from the same theatre at the same time. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 1980. Changing economics threatened to shutter or destroy the theatre on numerous occasions, but it is now a great source of community pride for residents of the Tonawandas.

Rumor has it that at one point in the 1980s Buffalo-born singer Rick James tried to purchase the theatre for a recording studio. In 1988, the theatre was purchased by the NFTOS, now named the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society, Inc. (RTOPS), a 501(c)3 non-profit volunteer organization. The theatre was painstaking restored by volunteers donating thousands of hours of labor and has been continuously operated by RTOPS since then under the direction of different managers. In 2006, RTOPS hired Frank Cannata as executive director, who has increased shows and attendance in the venue for the community, as well as increased grant monies received for building improvements.

Plans are now underway for a capital campaign and expansion of the theatre to include new production and stage space, as well as expanded lobby and concession facilities. The expansion will also include meeting space, rehearsal and performance space to incubate arts groups from around the area.

The Riviera is most notable for its Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre organ, which was produced in North Tonawanda, once the home of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. In 2008, the organ was re-voiced and restored to nearly original condition, providing a new symphonic sound for concerts and events. The Riviera’s Mighty Wurlitzer has provided more entertainment consistently in its original setting than most other Theatre organs, nationwide. Many top name artists, in this country, have performed here in hundreds of concerts over the past 35 years. The Riviera’s organ is acclaimed internationally by artist appearances from Europe, Australia, Britain and South America. Several popular organists played their ‘first’ public concert at the Riviera Theatre. The organ has been televised on several occasions, and several commercial recordings have been made on it.

Building Activity

  • Patricia Starr
    Patricia Starr commented
    The "neatest" thing about the organ is how it is slowly raised from beneath the floor, complete with excellent organist, prior to the play or concert. When the "main event" is about to begin, the organ slowly disappears into the underworld from which it came. The Wurlitzer factory is also well known for its incomparable juke boxes which are highly prized by collectors.
    about 6 years ago via Mobile