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August 2001

The Shining Star of Shea’s:
Tony Conte Takes Over

by Maria SCRIVANI

It’s as if some celestial Central Casting office sent Tony Conte to fill the chief executive officer role at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Conte, a Utica native who’s been a Western New Yorker since 1969, brings an affability and can-do spirit to the job that’s in the best “show must go on” tradition.

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Tony at 3 1/2 years old in 1948.

Tony at age 10.

In fact, Tony Conte was one of the folks most instrumental in saving Shea’s from the wrecking ball some 30 years ago. In 1969 the Ohio State University graduate, having recently moved to Buffalo to be near his then-fiance who was a student at Fredonia, joined M & T Bank as a management trainee. He soon took over the Main-Tupper branch office, with Shea’s as a customer.

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Tony and Linda’s engagement picture, 1968.


Conte was more than a banker: He rose to the challenge of revitalizing that declining section of Buffalo’s Main Street. Working with neighboring business owners and what was then called the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, he helped form the Upper Main Street Task Force. “We were at best marginally successful,” he recollects. “It was tough.” But Shea’s was a key component of the neighborhood, and largely due to the efforts of Friends of The Buffalo Theater, they managed to stop the city from, literally, paving paradise to put up a parking lot. Conte facilitated loans from M & T to cover the theater’s outstanding utility bills, halting the city’s demolition plans and buying time to work out an extensive restoration program.

It’s hard to believe how close we came to losing the treasure of this venerable theater, built by Michael Shea in 1926 as an entertainment showplace for Buffalo. And so it remains. Early on, Tony Conte signed on with Shea’s growing volunteer corps to help preserve and restore the glittering structure. Since the early ‘70s, he worked in many volunteer capacities, including serving on marketing and development committees. In 1981, the Shea’s-O’Connell Preservation Guild took over the work of the defunct Friends of The Buffalo Theater. He spent seven years on the Shea’s Board of Trustees, finally serving on the Executive Committee. When the theater’s esteemed president Patrick J. Fagan announced plans to retire in June, 2002, the board created the new position of chief executive officer, tapping Conte to fill the post. He has already taken over responsibility for the theater, allowing Fagan to focus on fundraising and assisting the new CEO.

Seen in theatrical terms, Fagan will serve in a supporting role to Conte, making what is unquestionably a tough act to follow just a little bit easier. And since Conte has been in the wings for a while, it looks like the transition will be smooth.

How did a kid from Utica, who spent his early working years tending bar in his dad’s Utica restaurant, end up in a wood-panelled aerie with wide windows overlooking Buffalo’s bustling entertainment district? “Not in a million years did I imagine this,” Conte admits. “When I retired I thought I’d not work full time again.” Fate, as is so often the case, was reading from a different script.

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Tony’s family in 1955: Dad, Mom, Carla, Joyce and Tony. Missing from photo: sister Carolyn, born in 1964.

Tony’s dad Carl at work in the family’s restaurant, 1955.


In 1980, Tony Conte left M & T, where he’d ended up managing a group of the bank’s commercial lending officers, to take a job as corporate controller for Larry Smith Office Equipment. By 1984 he was serving as the company’s vice president and general manager. In 1988, he and partner Greg Bruno purchased the firm from the Smith brothers. In 1997, they sold the business to Ikon Office Solutions, and Conte, at the ripe old age of 50, thought he would retire from the workaday world.

He and his wife Linda, whom he met back home in Utica when she had a summer job in his family’s restaurant, had plans to build a new vacation home on their Chautauqua Lake property. Working right alongside a construction crew, he and Linda did much of the labor themselves and, in just under a year had a beautiful year-round retreat ready for relaxing and entertaining. The Contes, who also have a home in Snyder, are avid water skiiers and swimmers.

As if the homebuilding project wasn’t enough, Tony Conte also took a job as adjunct professor of entrepreneurism at Canisius College. He recently completed his last teaching commitment in the economics department. Oh, yes—in his spare time, he’s restored a beautiful 1937 Packard automobile—a project that neatly dovetails with Conte’s appreciation for beauty and willingness to help bring it about.   

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Tony working on his 1937 Packard in 1972.


During these “retirement” years, of course, Conte also remained an active Shea’s volunteer. His wife joined the theater’s restoration volunteers—an elite crew of some 40 workers trained by renowned art restorer Doris Collins to painstakingly rehab the Shea’s interior, from repairing fabulous marble and terrazzo work to cleaning delicate paintings and light fixtures. It is truly a labor of love, already three years in the making and estimated to require another 10 years of intricate, careful work to complete. It’s an amazing and unique collaboration involving volunteers of all ages, from all walks of life, choosing to spend time learning restoration skills “not for money—we couldn’t afford to pay people to do this kind of work,” as Conte notes, “but for the love of Shea’s.”

If his genial personality and business acumen were not qualification enough, Tony Conte also brings to the Shea’s leadership team a love of music that appears to be in the Conte family gene pool. He played trombone in the Ohio State Marching Band during his college years (in addition to attending classes full time and working in a camera shop as assistant manager and shooting yearbook photos—a day in the Conte lexicon is clearly longer than 24 hours). His wife is a former music teacher who now gives private piano lessons.

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Tony in 1988.


They are the proud parents of three children. Son Michael, 30, is a high school band director in Orchard Park. His wife Marni is band director at Mill Middle School in Williamsville. They have two children, Nicole, 4 and Jordan, 1 of whom the Contes are doting grandparents. Second son Carl, 28, is major accounts manager for A T & T in Buffalo. He and wife Ceaton, a social worker at Buffalo General Hospital, are expecting their first child this fall.

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From top: Jeanne, Michael, Marni, Linda, Tony, Carl and Ceaton.

Tony’s grandchildren; Nicole, 4 and Jordan, 9 months.


Daughter Jeanne, 23, is high school band director at Lakewood High School in Hebron, Ohio. She is also a substitute French horn player for the Columbus Symphony.

Conte remains a very active Ohio State alumnus. Tony is president of the local Ohio State Alumni Club and he and Linda are lifetime members of the President’s Club. They travel to all the university’s home football games, giving them an excuse to visit their youngest child. Their two boys live near their parents’ Snyder home and the whole family convenes for vacations and holidays at Chautauqua Lake. Though the Contes love to travel, long distance and exotic places are out of the picture for now, since the grandchildren have become such a good reason to stay home. Plus, there’s the small matter of the retirement that turned into a bigger, better and busier-than-ever full-time job for Tony Conte.

Is he complaining? Not on your life. “My wife calls me the eternal optimist,” he laughs. He claims inspiration from his father, a respected Utica businessman who worked long hours and supported a family though he was totally disabled, a victim of rheumatoid arthritis. “I learned a lot seeing what my dad put up with,” Conte says, “ and seeing how he made it through the day.

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Tony and Linda on a cruise to the Bahamas in 1999.


“At Ohio State I studied the various aspects of business and learned how to manage my time...and I guess I’ve always been one to see the positive side of things. That’s what you focus on in times of adversity; how to make things better. There’s always room to improve. That’s what’s always driven me, through my whole business and personal life.” He also believes in the great football coach Woody Hayes’ admonition to pay forward, not back.

“To me, that’s about community support. By ‘paying forward’ we provide community amenities that enhance life for future generations. We all need to recognize our responsibility—and that’s what makes a community great.”

With that kind of philosophy as the driving force behind Shea’s, the theater will shine even more brightly. Talking of the future, Conte is a one-man band of contagious enthusiasm. “We are now ‘bright’ 200 nights a year, from September to June. I’d like to see us go to 250 nights. I think there’s room to do some additional shows. I’d like to see us do a few more community-oriented programs and more work with the local school districts.”

Another challenge for Conte is the Smith Theater, recently acquired by Shea’s. The facility, next door to Shea’s on Main Street will be run as a 200 seat cabaret style theatre. Conte is presently searching for off Broadway shows in order to open the Smith Theatre by Curtain Up! “It’s one more theater for the Theater District, “ Conte says.

 

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

 

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