Crowds greet reopening of Buffalo’s only movie theater

Jessi Dodge, Buffalo Bulletin photo. Moviegoers arrived more than 30 minutes before the start of “Sing 2” on Friday, Jan. 14, for the grand opening of The Buffalo Theater. The theater closed at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, making the animated musical the first movie screened for a paying audience in almost two years.

BUFFALO — The smell of buttered popcorn once again filled the lobby at The Buffalo Theater on Jan. 14 as employees, dressed in white button-downs, black slacks and ties, served excited moviegoers their first movie theater snacks in almost two years.

The Buffalo Theater last welcomed customers in March of 2020 before the theater had to shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jan. 14, the theater reopened under the new ownership of Chris and Kira Wages.

“We are really excited to get the movies back here in Buffalo, because we just think it's such a great, not just a place to go, but just as an art form. We love movies,” Kira Wages said.

Buffalo residents were also excited to have the movies back, and a line of people wound through the lobby and out into the night. Many of the moviegoers were teenagers, clumped in groups of three or four, or elementary schoolers with their parents or grandparents. There were older couples by themselves too, out for a night, as well as others, alone, just there to see a good movie.

Bart Rhodes waited in line to see “American Underdog,” a biopic about Kurt Warner.

A lover of action and superhero movies, Rhodes said he missed the movie theater while it was gone. When it was open before, he went about once a month, but he said it's far less convenient to drive to Sheridan to see the latest Marvel film. 

“I'm happy that they have it back in Buffalo,” Rhodes said. 

Tyrus Connors, 10, and his mom, Tanya, were there to see “Sing 2,” in which misfit animals join a singing competition. Tyrus hadn't seen “Sing 1,” but that didn't seem to bother him. In general, he's a fan of “cartoony” movies and enjoys the large screen at the movie theater, something you can't get at home.

More than 150 people attended the theater's first two shows, selling out “Sing 2” and filling a decent portion of the theater for “American Underdog.” Dulce Ruiz, the theater's former manager and one of the many people who helped the Wages get the theater back up and running, said she was glad to see so many people turn out to support the theater.

“It is more than I expected. It's very busy, and that's what we needed,” she said. 

The Wages took over the theater almost by accident. Both movie lovers, they were disappointed the theater had closed and that there was no indication it would reopen. They decided to call and ask what was happening, and they discovered that the theater was for sale. 

“It just kind of worked out. One thing led to another and then we decided to try it,” Wages said.

There's a lot to learn about operating a movie theater, and Wages said it's been a “steep curve” in the past few months. 

“It's really interesting, because it's all stuff that I love. Like, I love the movies and always have loved the movies, but I've never known that side of the film industry,” Wages said. “We've learned a lot in the last few months.”

Wages said they've relied on the experience of former employees throughout the preparations, in particular Ruiz, Julia Maertens, Massimo Haas and projectionist C.J. Constantine.

Maertens and Haas said they loved working at the movie theater and missed it while it was gone. Now that it's back, they're more excited than ever about its potential. 

Part of the work done to get the theater ready to reopen was renovations. The theater received a new paint job, and the old blue carpet was exchanged for a faux-wood floor. The countertop is also new, as is the popcorn machine.

Haas said he felt the renovations were refreshing, and Maertens said she loves the new look. But more important than a new coat of paint is having the movies back in town, they said.

“We're grateful that we can reopen,” Haas said. 

A highlight for Haas is the atrium, where many kids spend time after watching a movie. Instead of the wooden tables and chairs that used to fill the atrium, there's now a long gray couch and chairs. On either side of the couch is a foosball table and a pool table, among other games. 

Wages said she has “big dreams” for what the space could be.

Choosing what movies to show — and finding out which movies the theater will be allowed to show — is a challenge, Wages said. Some movies can only be shown in a limited number of theaters, and the Buffalo theater is too small and too low priority to access them. 

Other movies, especially the big blockbusters, also come with restrictions, such as a minimum number of weeks they must be shown in the theater, which could pose a problem for a small theater with a limited audience, Wages said. 

Wages said she hopes community members have their own ideas about what movies they'd like to see, as well as other events that could be held at the theater. 

Wages said she's hopeful the theater could host a film club or a small movie festival. Haas suggested the theater could host showings of football games or Oscar-nominated short films.

“We really want this to be a community place,” Wages said.

Ruiz said that, when the theater shut down, she was afraid it would never reopen. She missed watching the movies and getting to know the regulars, and she still remembers the last movies shown at the theater, “Onward” and “I Still Believe.”

Their posters hung for months outside the door, gradually fading in the sun, until Ruiz finally hung new posters, “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Mulan,” just to maintain some hope that the movies would return.

“It was a little depressing,” Ruiz said of watching the posters slowly deteriorate. “It was just kind of a reminder that - it almost felt like a reminder that the movies were never going to come back.”

But, on Friday, Jan. 14, with people milling about the lobby and the smell of fresh popcorn seeping out the doors and into the night, it was clear the movies were back.

“I haven't smelled that in forever,” Ruiz said. “It just felt like home.”