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Bringing the arts to a former West Falls bakery

Carolyn and Bill Panzica know how to operate a bakery. For over 20 years, the couple created and cultivated Butterwood Desserts, which they grew in West Falls and sold for relocation to Buffalo almost 10 years ago.

But to turn their former fire hall-turned-bakery space into a rustic performing arts center? It wasn’t something they intended, but now five years since first opening up their shuttered Butterwood building to morning piano lessons, they established the Arts at the Bakery, a not-for-profit venue intent on becoming the enduring vibe center of its host region.

“We’re trying to bring the arts to our community, a rural community,” says Carolyn of her repurposed baking space. “I’m encouraged all the time from the local response, from people that I talk to, and our volunteers who help pull these concerts together.”

The collaborative concerts weren’t initially envisioned when Panzica’s two young sons — both classical pianists — began taking their daily lessons in the space in 2014, merely because it was conducive and unoccupied. The Butterwood name and concept had moved on, but the building was still owned by the Panzicas, and sitting idle without a use. That’s when the couple called an old friend with a little performance experience of his own — Buffalo Music Hall of Famer Doug Yeomans.

“We asked Doug if he wanted to help bring a little life back into the building,” says Carolyn. “We wanted to add onto our music theme, and maybe have a few concerts.”

With Yeomans’s background, experience instructing young players, and connections throughout the Western New York music community, they’ve been able to do much more. Starting with its first season in 2016, Arts at the Bakery hosted aspiring musicians, seasoned professionals and everyone in between, all playing on the same bill twice a month over a nine-month season. And whether it’s folk, jazz, blues, or an amalgamation of genres, it all hums in an idyllic, wood-hewn atmosphere made for collective participation.

“The place has a real homey feel to it, and it sounds incredible,” says Yeomans, who led the 2018 school-year finale with a fleet of multi-instrumental student musicians and fellow local guitar hero, Hayden Fogle. “And the people who walk in there respect the space. People who play are greeted with a listening audience.”

And whether local jazz great Mark Filsinger, touring banjoist Tony Trisca or an adolescent just starting to understand the blues, all are given equal billing in a place founded on and facilitating collaboration. It’s stated in the locale’s mission and vision, and it’s executed with events like Fourth Friday Jazz or its once-a-month jam session, led by Yeomans and sponsored by the mentoring capabilities of the Western New York Blues Society.

Going forward, there’s even more planned. Starting with the opening of its 2018-19 season on September 15, Arts at the Bakery will be officially rebilled as the West Falls Center for the Arts. Under this banner, they hope to bring in more aspiring artists and musicians, all while providing a place of solace to those in need. This means accommodating more forms of art, including something near and dear to the Panzicas: culinary creation, the thing that first connected the couple to the community decades ago.

Now, along with a legendary local musician and in the same space where they once made pastries and pies, they’re connecting again — all while serving up an ample helping of artistic enrichment for its rural corner of Western New York.

“The whole idea is to bring the community together,” says Yeomans. “This is a community center and an arts center, and we’re trying to pass things on to the next generation.”

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