Studio Arena Theatre: A Personal History

Gail Golden

I grew up in Buffalo in the 1950’s when Studio Theatre was the foremost community theatre company in town.  For summer musicals, the place to go was Melody Fair, but that’s a different story!

Studio Theatre was founded in 1927 by the venerable Jane Keeler and its first location was the corner of Elmwood and Anderson in the space that later became Theatreloft.

In 1937, Studio Theatre moved to the Universalist Church at the corner of Lafayette and Hoyt where it remained for almost 30 years, still under the auspices of Jane Keeler. Fred Keller Sr. once told me that Studio Theatre was considered the place to aspire to for all WNY actors in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was a lovely facility with a proscenium stage, a large shop down the stairs off stage left, dressing rooms and greenroom, a lobby furnished with sofas and chairs, and a dance studio. Upstairs, there was a second stage in a large room for classes. The upstairs stage was smaller than the main stage, but it had lights and a little cyclorama. Costumes for students were stored in big closets along the wall. Costumes for the main stage were created next door in a large, old refurbished house. The theatre building had beautiful old woodwork throughout. WNY actors, directors, designers, and stage crew came together as a family there.

The director of the educational program in the 1950’s was the formidable Mary Barrett Healy. Ms. Healy had been a radio star, notably on “The Lone Ranger.” In addition to teaching at Studio Theatre, Ms. Healy wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the large scale Easter and Christmas shows including “Alice in Wonderland” and “Winnie the Pooh.” Some lucky drama students (including me) were cast in the shows along with a stellar cast of the best known actors in Buffalo.

In the early 1960’s, Neal Du Brock moved to Buffalo. Du Brock’s main credit was that he had assisted Director Jose Quintero at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Bleeker Street in New York City. Buffalo was glad to get Du Brock’s attention and he produced and directed innovative shows around town including “Little Mary Sunshine” as a dinner theatre production at the Statler Hotel and “Plays for Bleeker Street” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

When the great news arrived that Du Brock was taking over Studio Theatre from Miss Keeler, the Buffalo theatre community was excited! We were sure he’d jazz things up at Studio Theatre and, for a year or two, he did with wonderful productions like “Raisin in the Sun” starring Claudia McNeil and a host of musicals including “The King and I,” “Music Man,” “The Boyfriend,” and “Stop the World.” Every actor in Buffalo was involved in these productions and the audience response was tremendous with sold out houses and extended runs.

After several years, however, we noticed that Du Brock started spending more time in NYC than in Buffalo. Then came the big announcement – Du Brock was changing the name of the theatre and moving us out of the lovely Lafayette and Hoyt location and into the Town Casino. And, instead of casting the local actors who had been so supportive and enthusiastic, he was going to cast his Equity friends from New York City. There was outrage in the local theatre community and Du Brock hosted a big meeting where he assured us that he wanted us all to be part of the new theatre and the upshot of the move was just that we’d all be getting our Equity cards.

This isn’t what happened. A few of Du Brock’s favorites were still cast. Several other actors, who had been Studio Theatre stars, were now backstage – in charge of publicity or in charge of the ushers. Most of the Studio Theatre actors were either cast as extras once in a while or simply out of the picture.  Studio Arena was a showcase for Du Brock and not part of the Buffalo theatre community any more.

For theatre goers in WNY, the move to the Town Casino was more positive. It was terrific having stars like Colleen Dewhurst, Olympia Dukakis, and George Grizzard (in a production of “Cyrano” that ran over 4 hours) perform locally. The theatre also premiered works by distinguished national playwrights.

Over time, Du Brock was ousted and Studio Arena stopped bringing in stars but continued to only employ a handful of actors with Buffalo addresses. The theatre was funded by Erie County but didn’t employ  Erie County actors on a regular basis. Du Brock had done just want he said he wouldn’t do – he took Studio Theatre, the best local theatre showcase for actors, away from the Buffalo theatre community.

Studio Theatre moved to the Palace Burlesque in 1978 and it went bankrupt in 2011. Now the property is run by Shea’s and, in an interesting turn around, Shea’s frequently rents it out to local theatre companies so, at last, Western New York actors are again performing on its stage!