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Spilling off the stage With outdoor bands and street performers, Curtain Up! is a party for the people

All it takes is a little imagination to turn Main Street into a party. Start with a fire-eater or two. Toss in a juggler, maybe a stilt-walker for good measure. And don't forget 2,500 stalks of asparagus.

Tonight will mark the 24th year that Curtain Up! has launched Buffalo's theater season, and this year those who attend will have more time to party. The street scene -- most of the action takes place on Main Street between Chippewa and Tupper streets -- just got bigger, with two hours of free community entertainment starting at 5 p.m.

"There will be little surprises everywhere you turn," said Rich Wall, who is coordinating the street performers. "We're looking for spontaneous sights and sounds. We're turning the whole Main Street area into one big party."

When conceived in 1982 by Studio Arena Theatre's managing director, Michael Pitek III, Curtain Up! was hailed as a testimony to live theater and as a catalyst for change along the Main Street corridor. Blossom Cohan, former publicity director for Studio Arena, recalled planning the inaugural event.

"The first year the dinner was under a tent in the street," Cohan said. "An empty bank building was headquarters for the kitchen, and it rained. All the street people were helping themselves to the champagne."

If only they could have sampled the dinner. In 1982 -- when the dinner cost $30 -- caterer Maurice Clark featured beef tenderloin, surrounding it with Belgian Carrots Napoleon, Green Beans Almondine and Pommes de Terre Chateau.

Today the philosophy remains the same. Sliced tenderloin -- 250 pounds of it -- will anchor the dinner prepared by So's World Catering and served on 3,100 pieces of china, according to So Kimura. At $80 a plate, the dinner will be served by 50 servers from 6:30 p.m. to 8:10 p.m. on the Shea's stage.

For a brief time in the late '80s, Curtain Up! was expanded from a single evening to a weekend to accommodate a family day. That's when Theatre of Youth, Studio Arena Theatre Young Company and the Wondermakers of Young Audiences of Western New York staged productions for the younger set.

As for the celebrity factor, one year Milton Berle took a break from his show at Shea's to offer a string of one-liners. Another year, John Lindsay, former mayor of New York, showed up.

Cohan defined the Curtain Up! philosophy on celebrities best:

"If there was some kind of well-known person, a semi-star or soon to be a star or a past faded star in town for any reason at any theater, we had them as a guest," she said.

Not to mention the bands. In addition to Buffalo Swing Band's postshow performance in the Shea's lobby, Lee Ron Zydeco will perform at 9 p.m. outside the Bijou Grille, 643 Main St. Be Arthur, described as a cross between the Average White Band and Maroon 5, will play at 10:15 p.m. outside the Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.

And, for those who want to walk on the wild side, Club Marcella will stage an outdoor free performance of "My Fair Lady" featuring Buffalo's finest female impersonators. The show starts at 10:30 p.m. with an encore performance inside the club set for 1:30 a.m.

The beauty of Curtain Up! is that patrons can go black tie or blue collar, spring for the $80 dinner or buy a slice of pizza on the corner. Rock band, swing band, beer or champagne, Curtain Up! is equal opportunity entertainment.

"It has become a different crowd," said Cohan, "not necessarily opening-night theater goers. It's people coming downtown to have a good time and hang out."

Volunteers at various theaters throughout the district will collect cash contributions immediately following Curtain Up! performances to help in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. The Food Bank of Western New York is coordinating the effort.

-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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