After a year and a half and several interested buyers, UB is in final negotiations to sell the Pfeifer Theatre - a longtime staple in Buffalo's Theater District - to the owners of Club Marcella's, an area nightclub.
The UB Foundation, a non-profit educational corporation that oversees the university's fundraising and development efforts, originally placed a $500,000 price tag on the theater, but will likely settle for under that amount, according to Ed Schneider, executive director of the foundation.
Both Schneider and Mike Slyder, a spokesman for Club Marcella's, were unable to provide specific information about the sale, pointing to a confidentiality clause in the sale contract.
The UB Foundation purchased the theater in 1986 from Studio Arena, but with the completion in 1994 of UB's $52 million Center for the Arts, which houses four theaters, the university slowly phased out its programs downtown and moved them to venues available on the North Campus.
The last UB show held at the Pfeifer Theatre was two years ago, according to Gerard Kegler, facilities director for the Center for the Arts. By that time, Kegler said, the university was renting the venue largely to outside performers and acting troupes.
The shift in venue and imminent sale have upset many Buffalo and UB theater advocates, who feel that the university's decision to abandon a downtown theater is disruptive to the city's art scene.
"The Pfeifer should be maintained as an art post downtown because so much activity has happened to North Campus," said Saul Elkin, a professor of theater and dance and artistic director for Shakespeare in Delaware Park.
"The sign on the subway stop says Theater District," said Elkin. "It would be a terrific loss to the university and the city of Buffalo if it lost its role as a theater."
Kegler agrees. "The Pfeifer is an ideal place to train students and provide a public outlet for theater and dance," he said. "Over here, we're all hoping that it remains a theater."
Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello recommended the sale of the Pfeifer Theatre to Empirian Studios Limited, a local theater group, in a letter written to the UB Foundation last May. But after potential funding partners pulled out for the local group, changes occurred within the organization and they failed to seriously negotiate a sale. The university then looked to other buyers.
The theater company is now fighting to keep the building a theater, rather than see it transformed into a nightclub.
Rahit Kapoor, Empirian Studios Limited's artistic director, attended the Theater District Association's April meeting and made clear his desire to keep the venue in the hands of theater groups and reserve nightclub activities for elsewhere in town.
"I have nothing against the two owners of the club (Marcella's)," said Kapoor. "Just don't ruin the theater that exists."
Kapoor said Joe Marcella, one of the owners of the club, had approached him and other theater advocates in hopes of working together, but no plans are currently being considered.
City officials said they would like to see the building used in a way that will encourage economic development in the entertainment district, so long as the venue does not solely target the "alternative community," referring to Club Marcella's popularity among Buffalo's gay and lesbian population.
"The new purchasers have proven themselves to be successful business partners downtown and good residents," said Tod Gleed, a spokesman for the mayor.
Gleed said the mayor's office would welcome an upscale nightclub that would compliment his efforts to allow the theater district to "more fully capture urban exposure to housing, business and service" outlets.
"In a perfect world, there would be a spot for everybody," said Gleed. "The university worked hard to reserve that building for the theater group and kept that integrity, but was unsuccessful. . The next avenue was to have a business that would fit into the entertainment quotient."
Kapoor pointed to the nearby location of the Jesuit church St. Michael's and said to house a nightclub in the vicinity would be "inappropriate."
"There's a lot to be said about the Theater District," said Schneider. "I have mixed emotions, but the university made this decision and I have to respect that."
"When given a choice between maintaining a duplicate facility downtown and the need to cover both operating and capital versus having funds to directly support the theater program on this campus, the choice is obvious," stated Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi in an e-mail. "The academic program of the theater department is benefited much more by direct support."