The Palace Landmark in Shelton Square
I Shelton Square in the 1950s was Buffalo’s Times Square! The Palace was located in a prominent place in the Square. Talk about icons! Buffalonians, surely those over 65, remember Crystal Beach and the Canadiana. Not far behind on the list of Buffalo’s icons should be Shelton Square and the Palace Burlesk Theater.
The bestselling book, Buffalo Memories, Gone But Not Forgotten, put together by local historian Joe Bieron, is a compilation of many of the Buffalo News stories (500 word columns) of the late George Kunz. The very first entry is about Shelton Square and the Palace. Kunz calls the Palace the “most famous Shelton Square landmark.”
A decade ago, WNY Heritage Quarterly did a feature on the Palace by local newspaperman, Jim Bisco. The focus was on Dewey Michaels, the impresario of the Palace. Local historian Steve Cichon has written about the Palace and its place in downtown Buffalo. There is a lot of material and information out there.
My intent is to add some color to the subject by tapping the memories of those who visited the historic showplace back in the 1950s.
First, here are a few facts to place the iconic theater in its downtown setting. Shelton Square was the hub of downtown Buffalo. As Kunz notes, it was used as a place to identify your location. A stranger might ask local Dick Klug, “Do you know where the Ellicott Square building is?” Dick’s response would have been, “You know where the Palace is? Okay, it’s just down a block or so on the same side of Main Street.”
In the middle of Shelton Square stood the “Shelton Square Shelter.” That is where the public transit riders waited for their next connection with a trolley or bus. In the basement were rather unsavory restrooms. As you looked around the Square, you saw the Big E, the Erie County Savings Bank building to the north. The Main Place Mall replaced it in the 1960s (some called that progress). Looking down the street, you could see City Hall. On your left stood the Hotel Niagara, a rather seedy facility by the 1950s. Nearby was the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, then back to Main Street and on the far SE corner stood the imposing Ellicott Square Building.
Directly across from the Shelton Square Shelter on the east side of Main Street was the Palace block. It ran from North Division St. to South Division St. It included several businesses such as Seeberg’s Men’s Store (buy a suit, get two pair of trousers and a turkey), a few low-end establishments, a cafeteria, and Foody’s restaurant (not really a fine eating establishment). But there was also the Mathias Cigar Store, the most legendary of places other than the Palace. Mathias had smokes, newspapers, magazines, and phones for placing a bet, but it was best known as a ticket outlet. There, you could buy tickets for all major events taking place in the Queen City, especially sports contests.
Close to Mathias was the Palace. Jerry Kissell, who knows as much about Buffalo sports in that era as anyone, notes that when the Palace closed in 1967, the successful college basketball doubleheader program in the Aud went downhill. He has a point there.
Why was the Palace so popular? For one thing, for male teenagers in the years following World War II, it was a rite of passage. It was like a visit to Tommy’s Schuper House where you might relieve the saloon of a hefty schuper as a souvenir, or perhaps a trip to the Crossroads restaurant where you would be dared into swallowing a goldfish in your beer.
Shortly after our high school moved to Main Street in 1950, our principal, Big Ed, warned us about heading downtown to dens of iniquity such as the Palace. Immediately, lights flashed and some of us organized a “tour.” Off we went to Shelton Square. We crossed the street, paid our 50 cents, and voila, we were in the Palace. The rather sparse audience (it was midday) included a few other high school adventurers, some crusty regulars, and a handful of businessmen with their fedoras pulled down over their foreheads (lest they be recognized by fellow workers). The orchestra played, the curtains were drawn, and a partially clad young lass paraded around and introduced the first attraction, a comedian. He was a bit corny, but funny. Then it was time for the hucksters, the pitchmen, selling Eskimo pies and boxes of crackerjacks. Each box was “guaranteed” to have a valuable prize at the bottom. We succumbed; Tim McA found an old razor in his box and immediately stood and yelled something incoherent. An usher told him to be quiet or leave. Tim sat down. Another prize was a stubby pencil, and so it went. Then it was time for a movie, B grade at best.
Finally, the feature: Blaze Starr (no relation?). She performed teasingly but actually quite modestly. She was a nice figured, good-looking woman. Blaze was one of the three big headliners who appeared at the Palace Burlesk. The others were Gypsy Rose Lee and Rose La Rose. Other less-known performers included “Ding Dong” Bell and Tempest Storm.
We left the theater contented that we had the experience. Indeed, it was an experience shared by many teenagers of the 50s and 60s. A few examples: Chuck Wilson recalls that when pledging for a UB fraternity, his task was to visit the Palace and secure an autograph from Rose La Rose. The indomitable Chuck succeeded. Sid Warner followed up his visit, with Adrian and the Brow along, with a stop at the Gayety, a hot Jazz spot on Washington St. He ended up sitting at the bar next to Gypsy Rose Lee. Honest. He engaged in a little small talk, but no date was forthcoming.
On one of those occasions, Adrian reported that for some reason all the lights went on in the Palace (by accident?) and half of Kenmore High School was there, or so it seemed. Mike Stooch recalled that he saw Busty Russell there; she lived up to her name but that was all. Mike preferred the comedians. Roger Cree reported that he saw the “Shimmery Queen from Bowling Green.” She was a disappointment. In fact, he and his fellow travelers booed and hissed so much that they were asked to leave. Coach Dickerson and his Siena rifle team took in a show at the Palace. They thought the experience might sharpen their marksmanship.
Tony McElroy, a Buffalo policeman in the 50s whose beat included the Palace, fondly recalls that he had a key for the back door. The key was also used for the police call box. Tony and his colleagues kept things under control. Often, they went to the basement of the Palace where they sat through orchestra rehearsals. Not bad work.
The comedians were an integral part of the show. Some future big-name celebrities played there, including Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, and Jackie Gleason. They were on the burlesque circuit, just as the girls were. It was actually called the “wheel” and it operated throughout the East and Midwest. For example, Tempest Storm would sign up on the wheel and then perform at the Palace for a week, then on to Cleveland, then Kokomo, and beyond. Dewey Michaels noted that the girls were assured of employment over a 40-week period. One of the stars, Rose La Rose, as historian Tom Banchich notes, ended up retiring in Toledo.
On one rather humorous occasion, Shoes, Fring, Zuke and myself made the trek downtown. Outside of Foody’s, we met a colorful character in a bright Panama suit and broad brimmed white hat who claimed to be “Pete off the Pickle Boat.” He followed us into the Palace. We sat near the front; Pete was nearby. As usual, the crowd was silent when the star was performing. However, in front of us, an inebriated fellow started to yell for more action. Suddenly, Pete stood up and hollered, “Shut up, you damn nut!” Everyone started to laugh; it was just plain funny. It became part of our repertoire for years thereafter. One of us would blurt it out occasionally. To us, it remained just plain funny.
The fame of the Palace Burlesk spread beyond Buffalo. Back about 1980, I was attending an NCAA convention and happened to be sitting with Chuck Neinas, the Commissioner of the College Football Association. When he learned I was from Buffalo, he smiled wryly and related his only trip to Buffalo that was in 1960. He played basketball for the University of Wisconsin; his team was there to play in the Canisius sponsored Queen City Tournament that also included the University of Pittsburgh. Legendary football coach Mike Ditka was a member of Pitt’s basketball team then. They stayed at the Statler on New Year’s Eve Neinas recalls that the only other hotel guests on their floor were the girls from the Palace. They celebrated New Year’s Eve as a group. No wonder Neinas remembered.
The Palace closed in 1967. Dewey Michaels tried a new location but the Burlesque era had come to an end. Hugh Hefner and his porn show had ushered in a new era. Playboy and its despicable offshoots permeated America. As a wise Tony Illos commented, “Current TV shows and films show more skin than the burlesque ever did.” Certainly, the long-legged types who parade down the runways wearing a few inches of Victoria Secret lingerie make the costumes of Blaze, Gypsy and Rose look tame. So does the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.