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April 1999

Western New York’s Top Impresario
Has Lifelong Love of Living Theater

 

by Sam GIFFORD

“Want to see how we’re coming along?” The voice is familiar and distinctive, mixed with the din of early morning Pearl Street traffic and the clank-thud of construction.

The question hardly needs an answer, but gets one anyway. It is, of course, “yeah,” then a short pause for eyes to meet—“good morning.” The distinctive voice is Patrick J. Fagan’s and his offer is to tour the nearby site of Shea’s expanding stage and environs. Redirection to the construction site requires only an oblique left turn-and-trot across Pearl Street then a tight squeeze between a tool van and a high lift, which leaves white swaths on the fronts and backs of navy blue topcoats. Patrick Fagan doesn’t seem to mind the squeeze or the coating of concrete dust. He is alone in that.

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Proud mother, Eleanor with 1 year old Patrick.


The tour itself is like any other construction walk-around, except it is conducted by the man responsible for this activity. Shoes sinking a little in demolition slush, Fagan describes a scene overlaid on the destruction. More room here for major sets like Lion King’s, Les Mis’s and Phantom’s; more civilized dressing rooms over here. Bigger, better, more beautiful and more competitive are the adjectives he uses. He sees what others do not. Shoes and trouser cuffs are now flecked with a kind of concrete slurry slush. Fagan again doesn’t seem to mind.

Broken beams, crushed concrete blocks and scattered bricks make up the landscape and, to most, the reality. For Fagan, a glittering live theater with orchestra tuning up before a packed house is the reality. The revving Diesels and slam-crashing of wrecking machines comprise only the overture. The main event—clear to Fagan—is soon to come.

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Patrick at 3 (right) caring for his 1 1/2 year old brother Michael (left).


A little more than a year later, another impromptu tour—this time indoors—is conducted by Shea’s Marketing Director, Meghan McQuestion. The stage is open to its backmost wall and the expanded wings are uncovered. Unlike the first rustic tour, the vision is now a reality to almost anybody looking down upon the great stage and supporting areas. In the spirit of the year-ago tour, concrete dust coats the theater seats upon which a veteran navy blue topcoat has been laid. McQuestion explains the dust and assures it will be gone before any patron is seated.

For Patrick Fagan, opening night at the expanded New Shea’s will be a deja vu—he’s seen it all before, many times.

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At 4 Patrick was stationed at Fort Niagara.

In Washington, DC at St. Stephen
the Martyr School - age 12.


In 13 years as head of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Fagan has marshaled his talents to raise Shea’s from being a financial drain and aged frump of a curiosity to an architectural, artistic and fiscal success. That would be enough for most executives, but he is not typical.

While taking Shea’s to a state of physical and financial health, he has also expanded his own role as President and CEO of Shea’s Performing Arts Center to that of the seminal manager of Buffalo-area arts in general—an impresario in the strictest meaning. His reputation as an overseer of arts organizations has resulted in management contracts with some of the most prominent groups on the Niagara Frontier, including Kleinhan’s Music Hall, Artpark and the Waterfront Concert Series; QRS Recital Series and Greater Buffalo Opera Company, helping to ensure that quality opera stays in Western New York.

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In Arlington, Virginia at Strayer College - age 20.


He also serves as president of the Arts Council. On February 3, as if gilding the lily, the Erie/Niagara Chapter of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers announced that Patrick Fagan was named its 1999 “Citizen of the Year.” He was honored at the Chapter’s Annual Banquet on February 26 at the Albright Knox Art Gallery.

That would seem enough in this market. But he has also undertaken the heroic Shea’s expansion now nearing completion. With $14.5 million from banks, public funding and private donations, Shea’s is poised for its new role as a first choice theater. The $7 million raised from the private sector is actually a loan from a consortium of banks led by M&T, and also KeyBank of Western New York, Fleet Bank and Lockport Savings Bank.

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Patrick and Janice met at Shea’s and were married at Shea’s...truly Patrick’s finest theatrical production.


It is estimated that the expanded Shea’s will attract 500,000 theater-goers a year and have an economic impact on Western New York of $50 million annually. What kind of person makes things of this magnitude happen?

“It has been a lifelong dream,” says Fagan, “I always wanted to lead.”

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As President of Washington’s famous Touchdown Club of America -
Patrick presided with President George Bush and Redskin star, Larry Brown in 1983.

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Patrick joins Mayor James Griffin and Helen Bennet
(Michael Bennet’s mother) to dedicate Michael Bennet Lane in 1987.
In 1991 Michael Bennet was inducted into Shea’s illustrious Hall of Fame.


The Dunkirk native and eldest of four children learned valuable lessons in leadership at an early age. “My mother worked, so I was in charge of my siblings. I cooked and did the laundry,” he recalls, “and I learned to iron clothes when I was 14 and attending Cardinal Mindzenty High School.”

Even earlier, at age 10, Fagan tells of organizing a baseball team with the expressed mission of beating the high school junior team. “We were the ‘Red Caps,’ with red hats, white t-shirts and blue jeans. We challenged the junior high school team and they killed us,” he laughs.

Fagan loved his days at Cardinal Mindzenty, especially the camaraderie—and sometimes harmless mischief—with his friends. “I was a performer, albeit a bad one,” he says, recounting his propensity for clowning and a memorable performance in the Cardinal Mindzenty Drama Competition:

“Father Waite, a moderator of the Drama Club Competition, thought I might be good in a one-act play contest because of my voice.” It was more modulated than other boys his age, he explained. “I took the stage and promptly skipped three full pages of lines...we placed last.”

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Patrick hosts Stu Green of Magic City Productions and Kenny G at their
Shea’s performance in 1992.


But he feels that clowning and benign mischief were his most identifying traits as a youth. “The Dunkirk guys still can’t believe it’s the same Pat Fagan, class clown,” he says, recalling a not-so-isolated incident at Cardinal Mindzenty. Good judgement, he confesses, deserted him.

“Sister Mary Immaculata was upbraiding me for my scholastic performance. She was telling me ‘you’re wasting God’s talents and you need to apply yourself.’ When she was finished, I tweaked her nose. It happened that the principal was watching. I got three weeks’ detention.”

Those times were fleeting. Fagan’s father was in the military and he was reassigned out of state before the youth graduated from Cardinal Mindzenty. He finished that facet of his education at Fort Meyers, Virginia. “At the time, it was devastating, I felt deprived of something,” he says, but, “in retrospect, it was bittersweet. I loved Cardinal Mindzenty and Dunkirk and wanted to keep those friends for life. Now I realize that most of my friends from high school are gone from the area anyway. Nevertheless, it was hard. Don’t take your kids out of high school. That’s my advice.”

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Patrick welcomes First Lady Hillary Clinton to the 1996
Buffalo Teacher’s Federation event at Shea’s.


During the ensuing years, Fagan returned to Western New York for the holidays and vacations from St. Joseph’s College, where he earned a BA, and Catholic University of America, where he was awarded a Master’s Degree (He is a CPA in Virginia). “I never got Western New York out of my blood,” he states. In 1985, he left the Washington D.C. area and returned permanently to the scenes of his childhood happiness. “I saw opportunity here,” he says with a grin. About the 1985 Shea’s he embraced upon his return home that year: “the best place to be is on a rocking boat,” he states—but, “just make sure it
doesn’t go down.”

Fagan’s history at Shea’s is well-documented and widely publicized, but the man himself has stayed mostly in the background of his own accomplishments. He is known as a demanding but even-handed employer. He loves making money on a production and hates the converse. He admires Dolly Parton and David Merrick and describes Johnny Mathis as “the nicest celebrity I ever met.”

He likes country singers’ humbleness and Victor Borge’s wit. He tells of seeing Borge on stage in 1960, then meeting the star in person in 1992. “I saw you in 1960,” Fagan said. “You haven’t changed a bit,” Borge returned.

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Robert Goulet and his wife Vera join Patrick when Man of La Mancha thrilled
Western New York audiences in 1997.


But most of all, Fagan loves live theater. “The thrill of live theater is that it’s human—mistakes are made—it has charm.” Of the live theater he loves, he loves the musical “Les Miserables” best of all.

“It’s theater, it’s opera, it’s dialogue, it’s comedy and, unlike Chekov’s characters, there’s hope. Jean Valjean is uplifting. Les Mis is the greatest engineering feat on stage in history,” he states. “It’s incredible to see 40 or 50 years of history in a mere 10 minutes - live!”

With his artist’s enthusiasm for live theater also resides the impresario’s pragmatism. “Theater is a business, a very special business. It’s a public benefit trust organization that we are obligated to run profitably,” Fagan points out. “More than 90 percent of our (Shea’s) income is earned; that is, it comes from activities we generate. If you’re even with your debts you’re fiscally responsible,” he notes, “and we are.”

He adds that “Part of our job is to complement and assist smaller theaters. There is no shortage of theater talent in Buffalo,” he states, offering the example of actor-producer Saul Elkin’s recent performance in “Death of a Salesman.” “Saul Elkin is unequivocally the best Willie Lohman I have ever seen,” he said. He also is a fan of Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theater, newly-relocated across Main Street from Shea’s.

His wife, Janice Walek (she retains her family name), shares Fagan’s love of the theater, or almost. The Clarence Center Elementary School teacher occasionally informs her husband, “I really don’t want to see this play again,” Fagan says.

Patrick Fagan’s vision of a major live theater in Buffalo is just one month from reality. Meanwhile he will use the time to practice one of his favorite pursuits: people-watching. Specifically watching and reading the faces of patrons exiting Shea’s after one of the high-quality smaller stage productions being produced in the interim before the expansion is complete. “If they are smiling, I smile,” he says.

Sam Gifford is an award winning journalist, magazine, tv and movie script writer, and has been speech writer to the CEOs of Kodak, Barnes Group, Borg-Warner Corp., Continental Group and Delaware North Companies. Currently Vice President of Public Relations for Crowley Webb and Associates, Buffalo, Gifford has been part of the WNY arts scene for nearly two decades. Sam Gifford also serves on the faculty of SUNY - Empire State College.

 

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