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100 Things Plus: Celebrate theater at Curtain Up!

To Shakespeare, the play's the thing.

In Buffalo, the party is.

Buffalo is a theater town second to none. We are famous for our wealth of theaters -- probably more per capita than any other burg our size. Live theater in Buffalo has a devoted, passionate audience.

But for one evening, reality eclipses the stage.

Curtain Up!, which takes place this year Sept. 15, is a three-act public toast to the start of the theater season. The big bash is, by all accounts, unique.

Act 1, which begins around 5 p.m., is dining. People of all stripes flock downtown to dine at restaurants. Committed patrons spring $100 for a formal dinner, a black-tie event that is a marvel to behold. For many years this dinner took place on the stage at Shea's Performing Arts Center. This year, the formal dinner is at Fountain Plaza.

Act 2, at 8 p.m., is a live performance. The curtain rises on opening-night productions at theaters all over town.

Reservations are strongly suggested for Acts 1 and 2. But Act 3, which starts around 10 p.m. and lasts until 1 a.m., is the highlight in that it is free. This late-night party features fireworks, street performers, bands, fashion shows and all manner of general revelry. It is a street party, open to all, up and down Main Street in downtown Buffalo.

Happy with their tickets, from left, are Shannon C. Krause of Buffalo, sister-in-law Shannon J. Krause of Orchard Park, Maureen Krause and Gia Krause of Buffalo. They are going to see a play on Curtain Up night in 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Actor David Lundy, known for treading the boards at a variety of venues, likens the street party to homecoming weekend.

"Most actors don't attend the dinner, as they have shows to do. We all get dressed up and hang out, usually around Irish Classical Theatre, because they have a bar," he joked.

Raising the curtain on the 2017-18 theater season

"I love seeing my friends all dressed up," he added. "Nobody dresses up like theater people. Sometimes people in the theater community go months without seeing each other. It really is a homecoming."

You could wear cutoffs to Curtain Up!, and you wouldn't be alone. But if you're tempted to go that route, ask yourself: Do I want to waste this chance? This is one of the few occasions in Buffalo where you can really shine.

"There's no place else I would want to dress up all fancy with a gold sparkly sequined peacock formal dress coupled with a petticoat, feather boa, gold lame fascinator and fishnet stockings---while supporting local theater, of course," laughed Jennifer Weber, of Springville's Chamber of Commerce.

Curtain Up! celebration at Shea's and on the stage of Shea's on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

People mix and match at the party with abandon. Dick Bauerle of Joyryde remembers one Curtain Up! when his band played across from the late lounge kingpin Lance Diamond. Barney and Charlene Aronson, who own the wedding event venue Rosebud Estate in Arcade, attended the formal dinner years ago and were delighted to find themselves seated with television's Irv Weinstein and his wife.

The atmosphere can grow magical.

"My wife, Terry, and I had our second date -- and first kiss -- at Curtain Up in 1995," recalled Chris Van Vessem, a University at Buffalo grad who now lives in Pennsylvania. "I proposed to her at Curtain Up! a few years later." In 2003, they were married, on the landing of the grand staircase at Shea's.

To a newcomer, it could sound crazy. But there's a method to the madness.

Launched in 1982 by Michael Pitek, who at the time was managing director for Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre, Curtain Up! began as a way to beat the drum for area theaters. It has evolved into a tribute to triumph.

The night of the party, Main Street downtown shines the way it does in old photographs. As you sip champagne beneath the glittering marquee of Shea's, you can't help but revel in the theater's long-ago escape from the wrecking ball. The sparkle of the neighboring theaters reminds you of the resurgence and resilience of our region.

"It's a celebration unlike any other city's opening of the theater season," Lundy pointed out.

Late to the party? Lundy offers practical advice to newcomers.

For starters, there's no need to shell out for the official dinner. Make reservations at any one of a host of restaurants, both new and long-established. Consider taking Metro Rail, so parking won't be a problem. The trolley, running direct to the festivities, adds a jingling, nostalgic touch.

When shopping for a play, consider all your options.

"Every theater in the Buffalo Theatre Alliance is less than 25 minutes from downtown," Lundy said. "So attending Curtain Up! doesn't mean you have to see a show in the Theatre District. You can go to Jewish Repertory Theatre, the Kavinoky Theatre, or MusicalFare -- and still get downtown after for the party."

It's hard to go wrong, he added.

"All the theaters try to make sure the first show of their season is really special," Lundy said. "As a result, we have seen some terrific plays."

Need he say more? Friends, Western New Yorkers, countrymen, lend us your ears.

Summer is ending.

The party can start.

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