The Bradford Theater - Shea's
Perhaps no other building in Bradford is remembered with such fondness as "Shea's" Theater. Built in 1903, it reigned as the city's primary theatrical entertainment experience for thousands of people until its demolition in 1961.
Early theaters in Bradford, as elsewhere, were called "Opera Houses", although all sorts of various types of entertainment took place there, including lectures, burlesque, stage plays, and even graduations. In 1879, Bradford had 5 theaters, and all of them well attended. In 1903, a group of businessmen decided to build a brand new theater, and locate it directly behind the IOOF Building on the corner of the Square. Nationally known theatrical architects Leon Lempert & Sons of Rochester, NY were contracted to design a theater that could seat 1500 people on a lot 80' x 119'. It was completed late that year, and on December 15, 1903, the "temple of amusement" as The Bradford Era called it held a gala opening event.
An excerpt from The Bradford Era, dated December 15, 1903, is as follows: "At 7 o'clock last evening the New Bradford Theater was formally opened for inspection by the public and for the auction sale of seats and boxes. Although an admission fee of 50 cents was charged, several hundred persons attended and the sale of seats was quite spirited for a time. S.G. Coffin had the honor of purchasing the first seat in the new playhouse, paying a premium of $7.50 in addition to the regular price of $2.50 for a parquet chair, a total of $10. The structure contains eight boxes with a total seating capacity of 64 persons.
The officers of the new Bradford Theater are as follows: President, S.R. Dresser; Vice President, O.F. Schonblom; Treasurer, Thomas Kennedy; Secretary, Otto Koch.
The dressing rooms, which are located both above and below the stages, are veritable models of their kind, supplied with hold and cold water, gas, electric, lights, carpets, toilet apartments and adequate furnishings. They are sufficiently numerous to accommodate the largest dramatic or musical organization traveling. The directors and architects have made every provision for the care and safety of the patrons of the theater. Every floor has its fire escape, furnished with doors which may be opened at all times from the interior. Over each fire exit is a red electric light, so that in case of a conflagration, there need be no confusion as to the location of the escapes."
The opening night performance was "The Prince of Pilsen".
In the years that followed, the new Bradford Theater grew in popularity. In 1906, "The Wizard of Oz" played there, with 50 performers and a live cow. Sarah Bernhardt herself played on the stage in "La Sorciere", a drama spoken entirely in Spanish. No one in Bradford understood Spanish, but the theatergoers were enchanted by the great Sarah just the same, even it they did not quite "get it".
In 1922, the theater was sold to the Shea's Theater Company of Buffalo, NY, and the name changed. The list of famous performers went on and on. Some of the more famous entertainers were: Sally Rand (the famous "bubble dancer"), Harry Blackstone, Boris Karloff, Gypsy Rose Lee, Ethel Barrymore, Arthur Treacher, Lyle Talbot, and countless "big bands" with their singers, including Rosemary Clooney.
But times change. In the late 1950s, the building was bought by the Dipson Company, and plans were made to demolish the structure. The Bradford Parking Authority expressed an interest in the lot, hoping to put in a 40-car lot by September 1, 1961. (Ironically, there were also plans made to demolish the old City Hall at the same time, to also allow for more parking). On Friday afternoon, August 18, 1961, the demolition began. Local police and fire department officials ordered the area blocked off when the upper portion of the Shea Theater building bulged a bit and gave indication that it might collapse. A large crowd was attracted to the scene, as the building was ready to collapse. Soon, it was just a memory.
Today, Shea's Theater only remains in the minds of Bradfordians. It's sister theater, The Palace", in Olean, NY, also built by Leon Lempert & Sons of Rochester, was demolished in October of 1998. The days of a truly "theatrical experience" have passed.