When Scott Behrend, Artistic Director for Road Less Traveled Productions (RLTP), first asked me to come take a look around his new digs inside the former Buffalo Christian Center, I jumped at the opportunity. These days, there are fewer and fewer buildings that evoke a mystery of this nature, as developers work their magic restoring this city’s architectural jewels.
As for this particular building (now owned by Ellicott Development), we can plainly see that the exterior is simply stunning. Over the years I heard about the interior, but never imagined that the building beheld such treasures, which are now in the hands of a capable and deserving organization. “The building was built in 1924 by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles,” Scott told me. “It’s interesting to note that the “theater” was originally built as a ballroom, with a flat floor and no fixed seating.
“When I first saw this space I thought that it was more than what we needed, but when we lost our lease in the Market Arcade, we needed to do something quick. It turned out that Ellicott Development didn’t have any immediate plans for the space (formerly Forbes Theater), so it worked out for both parties.”
In 1958, the social club sold the building to a Buffalo Christian group, that began to convert the interior to their own needs. The club’s lavish amenities, such as the ballroom and the massive lodge room with walk-in fireplace, began to transition into youth-oriented amenities, such as a skating rink. The building still boasts a swimming pool and bowling alleys, among other unique features.
Fortunately the theater (originally the ballroom) made it through this time period relatively unscathed, as you can see. “They did paint some of the marble black,” Scott pointed out. “The lobby ceiling is painted with pink sparkles. We moved in “as is”, and we couldn’t be happier. We signed a two-year lease, and we’re hoping to arrange for a 20 year lease beyond that. At that point (fingers crossed) we would be able to move forward with a capital campaign that would make this place even more stunning than it already is.”
Aside from some of the tragic aesthetic decisions that were made, Road Less Traveled is sitting pretty. The theater company now has a grand entranceway with a box office, a flashy marquee, and a partitioned lobby with a bar. “Patrons can come in early before the show and enjoy a cocktail in the lounge,” said Scott. “Then they can come back and relax after the show, where they can talk about the performance and unwind. As for the theater, we built risers and a stage (besides the original stage, which is accessible when need be). We still have 90 seats. We built scaffolding towers and a false proscenium in order to focus attention on the set – there’s stadium seating with perfect sight-lines. We also have the most leg room in Buffalo, with comfy seating. These are things that we never had before, not to mention the conveniences for the actors, a tech booth, wings on both sides of the stage, increased storage capacity, and space for unlimited set design.”
In a matter of months, RLTP has gone from a theater company that some people thought was dead, to one that has the world in its grasp. The potential for the company to grow is limited only by the imagination – and Scott and his crew are some of the most imaginative people in Buffalo.
While Scott tried not to show his excitement for the extended future (one step at a time), he is well aware of his finely upgraded station, which will assuredly open numerous doors for RLTP. In just three months, workers have created a fully functioning new theatrical home… can you imagine what they could do if given the opportunity to extend the arrangement beyond the two-year arrangment?
This timely move affords them to consolidate their operations, increase their patron and actor amenities, and allows the company to look forward to the future. “We couldn’t have done it without Bill Paladino, who saw the potential, as well as Buffalo’s funding community that got us to where we are today,” Scott assured me. “We are very lucky. These types of buildings need people with vision. Ellicott Development has big plans for the rest of the building (mix use), which will benefit us down the road. We’re a rent paying tenant, and we’re lucky to have gotten this place when we did. The days of getting cheap rent in Buffalo is almost over. Fortunately, we were willing to take the space as it was, in the hope that we can grow alongside the rest of the development. It’s a win-win for both parties.”
In the end, the real winner is Buffalo. This place is drop dead gorgeous. The potential is dizzying. The Theatre District has just become an even heavier hitter than it was before. All of this good fortune could not have happened to a better guy – a guy who has stayed true to his vision over the years, to now be rewarded with an opportunity that anyone in the industry would kill for.
Ticket holders to Friday’s sold out show (Curtain Up!) will be amazed at what they find inside this long buried Buffalo treasure. And, I believe that the best is yet to come!