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The play's the thing.

But for theater lovers in Buffalo and Western New York Friday night, there was so much more.

As the sound of bagpipes filled the air, thousands of theater-goers, many in formal wear, came together to help kick off the 18th annual Curtain Up! celebration.

A dinner gala, retro party, music, dancing and, of course, opening night for 14 theater companies, were just part of the festivities that spilled out over the Theater District in an event organizers call "the only event of its kind in the country."

"No other theater community comes together in this way," said Thomas B. Burrows, director of the UB Center for the Arts and Chairman of Curtain Up!

"I think it's wonderful," Debbie Reger of Buffalo said. "It's a great opportunity to get people downtown, and we have great theater."

Just back from a trip to New York City, Ms. Reger said Buffalo has a lot to offer.

"We saw two plays and our theaters are comparable," she said.

"This is a real good boost," Annmarie Pignatora agreed. "I just absolutely love it."

Terry Schoenich, a retired teacher who is referred to by his friends as the "ambassador from North Buffalo," also gave Buffalo theater high marks. And he should know. He said he sees about 48 plays a year, and has attended all 18 Curtain Up! celebrations.

Bill Pignatora, who said he was not normally a theater person, called the festivities "absolutely wonderful. It's a great way to experience theater."

Anthony Caldiero of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation said, "It's the best evening downtown. It looks like New York City."

During opening ceremonies in the Market Arcade, Mayor Masiello called the Theater District one of the area's strongest assets.

"You have to believe in Buffalo," he said. "We're getting better. It's getting better because people believe in our community."

Noting the area's cultural and architectural treasures, Masiello lauded "significant achievements" in the Theater District.

"Teamwork makes this city work," he said.

In addition to the opening ceremonies and a ribbon cutting at the new courtyard at Shea's Performing Arts Center, Masiello unveiled "Main Street Art Street," a window art project at police Precinct 3 in the Theater District.

He also awarded the 10th annual David Fendrick Fund Award, a $1,250 check, to Susan Hodge Anner for her new full-length play, "Searching for Cindy Crawford."

"Most of the time I'd have been out in the street with walkie-talkies," Ms. Anner said of her participation in Curtain Up! as she accepted her award. "Or working as a stage manager."

Curtain Up! also honored Margaret L. Wendt and the foundation that bears her name with a special award for the significant impact their philanthropy has had on the Buffalo performing arts community.

Curtain Up! 1999 was presented by the Theater District Association and M&T Bank.

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