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What's being billed as the "largest birthday party in North America" begins this weekend as Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., join hands in celebration of the births of two nations.

"Friendship Festival '90," the fourth annual summer festival observed on both sides of the border, begins Friday and continues through the Fourth of July.

The Mather Arch in Fort Erie and Buffalo's LaSalle Park are the primary festival sites. Most events are free.

"The festival takes place in a unique period of time -- with July 1 the national Canadian birthday and July 4 the U.S. national birthday," said Erland E. Kailbourne, chairman and chief executive officer of Norstar Bank and the U.S. chairman of Friendship Festival '90.

Ronald B. Watson of the accounting firm of Watson and Henning is president of Fort Erie Festivals Inc.

Headliners like Natalie Cole, who will perform in a free concert at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Performing Arts Pavilion in LaSalle Park, and an expanded Friendship Festival International Airshow from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday over the Niagara River are but two of this year's expanded festival offerings, Kailbourne said.

"The festival was founded on the premise of 175 years of friendship and peace between our two great nations," he added, "and, obviously, the friendship and the festival are growing."

With that in mind, organizers on both sides of the border are sponsoring "Official Friendship Buttons" to help keep revenue flowing for future festival programs.

That's why there's a sleek white 1990 Pontiac Grand Prix, with special striping, parked in front of the Norstar Bank downtown. It's the grand prize one lucky button owner will win in a July 10 drawing on Channel 7's "AM-Buffalo."

All button buyers -- at $2 per button before the festival and $3 during -- also will get $7.50 worth of food coupons and free rides on the new Can-Am shuttle bus to run between Mather Arch and Buffalo's Front Park, expediting the Peace Bridge crossing.

Buttons are available at Tops supermarkets and Norstar branches in Erie and Niagara counties as well as Shoppers Drug Marts in Canada. They will also be sold Friday through July 4 at festival events.

Friendship Festival '90 buttons also are being sold on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge, but they differ in design and purpose, costing $1 each and created to be purely commemorative. They're available in Fort Erie at Shoppers Drug Marts, Old Ford's Food Market, IDA drugstores, the County Fair Mall and at Friendship Festival '90 events.

The international air event, this year "A Salute to the Men and Women of the Aerospace Industry," begins at 1 p.m. Sunday and will feature "Zar" and his starship "Pride," wing-walker Johnny Kazian, the Coors Light Silver Bullet Jet Team, a variety of military aircraft and more -- including the French Fonga Jets and "the world's smallest man-carrying aircraft." Narration will be simulcast on both sides of the border during the show.

It will be followed, at dusk and for the second time, by a "Fireworks Extravaganza" that Fort Erie's Anthony W. O'Donnell believes will be "the finest fireworks display ever seen on the Niagara Frontier."

No boats will be allowed up-river from the Peace Bridge on the Canadian side of the Niagara during the show, O'Donnell said.

Although the official opening of the festival is 6 p.m. Saturday at the Mather Arch stage, the festival will get under way at 4:30 p.m. Friday when the Friendship Food Court opens in LaSalle Park. Warm-up music and entertainment, before Natalie Cole's concert, begins at 5:30 p.m.

The Commodores will perform in a free concert at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in LaSalle Park. Canadian rockers Colin James and the Tragically Hip will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mather Arch.

Niagara Parkway/Mather Arch activities Saturday begin at 8 a.m. with Highland bands, bagpipers and a Highland dance competition at Old Fort Erie and the first of the festival's all-day Food Fests at Mather Arch, featuring ethnic foods -- plus children's rides sponsored by the Fort Erie Fire Company No. 1

Kidspace '90 -- for children and the young at heart -- will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at LaSalle Park and will include eight circus-like exhibition tents under which festivalgoers will find the Funland Band, the Big Top metal kazoo band, the Without Words Mime Troupe and the Young Vaudevillians, jugglers and unicyclists from Canada and more.

A 9:30 a.m. children's festival -- with entertainment, games and stories -- will take place Sunday at Mather Arch.

Country legend Conway Twitty and Canada's Ronnie Prophet & Glory-Ann will provide the festival's country-western entertainment at 6 p.m. Monday at Mather Arch stage.

"The Can-Am Concert Stage," patriotic and ethnic entertainment by top local musicians from both sides of the border, will be performed from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at LaSalle Park.

The six-day festival will end with the annual "We're 4 Buffalo" Waterfront Festival presented by Channel 4. It will start at 7 p.m. with a concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra followed by Bobby Rydell and the Shangri-las -- and a fireworks show choreographed to music.

More than 1 million people are expected to attend the international festival to commemorate nearly 200 years of peaceful relations along the world's largest undefended border.

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