The Riviera Theatre – All You Need to Know

The Riviera Theatre is an extremely historic and popular entertainment venue located in North Tonawanda, New York. This theatre can seat 1140 individuals and host many events related to the performing arts. This includes movies, dance shows, concerts, and theatre.

The Riviera Theatre is also famed for restoring and keeping the ‘Mighty Wurlitzer.’ Visiting the Riviera Theatre is an absolute must to visit to feel the historical and cultural feel of the region.


History of the Riviera Theatre

The Riviera Theater was built in 1926 and was known as the “Showplace of the Tonawanda’s.” Architects Leon H. Lempart and Son constructed the structure for the Yellen family. The theatre’s plan was drawn in the Italian renaissance design.

The Riviera Theatre’s opening night was a gala event on the 30th of December, 1926. Many influential guests, including both Tonawanda’s mayors, were present during the evening. As time passed the Riviera Theatre changed ownership multiple times and became known as the ‘Riv.’

The theatre was private, and then big companies Dipson and Shea began taking more control over the theatre. As the ‘talkies’ were invested and the silent film era fizzled out, the ‘Might Wurlitzer’ soon began falling into disrepair. It was only used occasionally for concerts.

The Riviera theatre building was largely neglected in the 60s and 70s. It had to go through a major restoration in the years to come. However, one notable addition to the theatre was the Grand Chandelier in 1974. The huge light fixture measured ten feet in diameter and was fourteen feet high. This chandelier was purchased from the Buffalo Genesee Theatre before it shut down.

In 1989 the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society (NFTOS) purchased the Riviera Theatre to save the Might Wurlitzer Organ. The theatre was a turning point for the Riviera Theatre. Volunteers and painters worked tirelessly to bring it back to life and restore its original grandeur.

Over the years, the Riviera became immensely popular. Live concerts, dance shows, theatres, movies, and live comedies were shown at the theatre. Millions were also spent on installing updates around the theatre. In 2014 the Riviera Theatre’s 1949 Marquee was also restored.

In 2015, Riviera’s infrastructure for movie presentation was also updated from film to digital. The Riviera Theatre also received generous grants and is equipped to show classic and contemporary films for years to come.

The Wurlitzer Organ

In the 1930s, the regular use of the Wurlitzer organ was discontinued at the Riviera Theatre. This grand organ was only used occasionally for special functions. Soon after, the organ fell into disrepair with damaged pipes and missing parts.

Mr. Carlton Finch and his father then received a nod from the theatre management to try and restore this organ. By 1944 the Wurlitzer was good enough to use in events and was used for the first time in ten years in a concert.

The years 1967 to 1969 were just used in special public events. Concerts took place at the Riviera 12014 times a year, and the Wurlitzer was used occasionally. However, side-by-side work on the organ continued.

The NFTOS then offered to purchase the Wurlitzer to secure the Riviera’s future. This offer was eventually accepted, and the NFTOS took ownership of the Riviera. The NFTOS hired the respected tonal finisher and organist Clark Wilson to make the Wurlitzer ‘sing’ again.

In 2014 the theatre’s Marquee was fully restored with its original paint color, neon, and flashlights. In 2015, like most theatres, Riviera also had to update a digital Cinema System to show films. This was because 35mm films were completely phased out. This upgrade was only possible through generous grants and donations the theatre received. This new cinema system offers the best picture quality and will help carry on the rich history of the Riviera Theatre.

There are also plans to expand 23000 sq. feet of the theatre to include new production space, new bathroom facilities, an elevator that goes up to the balcony level, a bar, and an expanded lobby. This expansion is estimated to cost $6.1 million and special meeting and rehearsal space. The black box theatre performing area will also be created to cater to art groups in the surrounding region.

The Mission of the Riviera Theatre Today

Performer on stage with red curtain.

Today the Riviera Theatre serves as a regional premiere destination. It is well known for live music and the performing arts. The theatre’s pride is the most well-maintained historic landmark, the Wurlitzer Organ. This historic working theater has expanded to contain all the necessary amenities modern audiences desire.


Today the Riviera Theatre is owned by the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society. This non-profit organization is also responsible for the daily operation of the theatre. The theatre also has a solid group of hundreds of volunteers who are entirely dedicated to the theatre.

These volunteers work countless hours and also serve at events. During events, they usher the audience, scan the tickets and work as cleaners, box office personnel, and organ engineers.

Concluding Thoughts

Today the Riviera Theatre continues to make history each day. The legacy of the theatre is kept alive by the surrounding community. The theatre offers top-of-the-line entertainment at affordable costs for the public. The Might Wurlitzer is also the theatre’s prized gem and is extremely well cared for. Visiting the Riviera Theatre is an absolute must to absorb the region’s historical and cultural vibe.

You can attend modern theatrical performances and watch classic or contemporary movies in the Riviera Theatre. Today, famous artists can also attend live concerts and musical performances at this historic theatre.

The McClain Family

We hope we helped. Please let us know of any place that you want to know about in NYS or if we did a poor job with any part of this. Our goal is to help as many people as possible.

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