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Chicago, New York, L.A., eat your hearts out.

Downtown Buffalo was the place to be Friday night as the 19th annual Curtain Up! festivities kicked off another season of theater in Western New York.

"It really signifies that we have our act together," said Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, who attended the event with his wife, Kate. "I consider the theater and the arts one of the real assets of our community. Theater and tourism and our renaissance is all inextricably bound to one another," the mayor said.

Buffalo is the only city in the country that plays host to an event of this kind, organizers said. And, the event has grown larger and stronger with each year.

"This event is unique to Buffalo. We're the only city in the country where 14 theaters raise their curtains simultaneously to mark the beginning of the new theater season," said Thomas Burrows, chairman for Curtain Up! 2000 and director of the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts.

This year, the 14 participating theaters is up from a dozen last year. Buffalo United Artists and O'Connell & Company joined for the 2000 season.

And, regardless of the venue, each show at all 14 theaters were sold out.

"It's a gala. It's fun. It's an opening. It's a show. It's a celebration of the beginning of autumn and the opening of the theater season," said Gavin Cameron-Webb, art director at Studio Arena Theatre.

The evening event began early in Fountain Plaza, with a 5:30 p.m. cocktail reception followed by a $100 per seat black-tie dinner. About 700 people packed together at candle-lit tables under a large tent atop what is better known in the winter as Rotary Rink. The dinner was catered by the Hyatt Regency.

In all, more than 5,000 theatergoers traveled downtown to the various venues Friday evening, according to Kelli Bocock-Natale, chairwoman for the marketing committee of Curtain Up! and director of marketing for UB's Center for the Arts.

After the performances, the celebration moved to the streets of the Theater District for a variety of outdoor entertainment along Main Street and continued into the night.

What makes the event special, organizers said, is the help the event gets from corporate sponsorship, led by M&T Bank, which has been the lead sponsor of Curtain Up! for its entire 19-year history, Bocock-Natale said.

"The idea that 14 theaters work together is unique, and the idea that it's arts and business collaborating and working together to make this successful," she said.

"In this town -- it's thought of as a sports town -- and people don't realize that there is definitely a sizable audience for theater and cultural events as well."

And Curtain Up! is just the beginning of a season of Buffalo theater that will culminate in late spring, she said.

Planning for Curtain Up! began in February and continued until Friday, Bocock-Natale said. Organizers passed the torch to a new event producer this year, Don Elick of Excellent Events of Buffalo.

Coming from Los Angeles, Elick knows about gala events. He headed food operations at a prominent arts and cultural institution in Brentwood, Calif., before coming to Buffalo two years ago.

"It's just amazing and it's truly unique that the theater community can unite and come together and celebrate the vitality of Buffalo and the opening of their productions all on one evening," Elick said.

"The challenges (for us) are making sure we pay attention to all the details and to make sure all the guests have a wonderful evening."

Next on Elick's plate is planning an even larger gala for the 20th anniversary of Curtain Up! in 2001. If he has anything special in mind, he wasn't revealing that secret just yet.

"We're trying to come up with something new and exciting to commemorate the 20th anniversary," he said.

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