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Open invite Curtain Up! is a three-act celebration where everyone is invited to have a bite to eat, enjoy a party and discover the joys of theater.

If there is one thing Buffalo has learned in our rich history of theater, it is that Shakespeare was wrong. The play's not the thing.

The party is.

Curtain Up! proves that. The annual party that celebrates the opening of the theater season has been rolling and snowballing for 28 years. Now, fueled not only by word of mouth but by Facebook and Twitter, the party has taken on a life of its own.

Tonight's Curtain Up! party is the biggest Buffalo has ever seen, exults Jerry Burgin of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County.

He promises, "Next year it's going to be even huger."

Shakespeare was right, though, with that line about the method in the madness. The mission behind Curtain Up! is to make Buffalonians across the board consider discovering the joys of live theater.

"Theater is for everyone," declares Robert Brunschmid, the managing director of the Theatre of Youth and the chairman of this year's Curtain Up! party.

"The message we want to send out is that everyone can come to this theater party. It is open to everyone, from all crosswalks of the community, across Western New York. It really is a celebration for everyone. The arts are hosting you for one night. We want you to come down and participate."

No tickets for tonight? No problem. Brunschmid wants to see you anyway.

"To anyone who is just hearing about this for the first time, do yourself a favor," he invites. "If you really want to get a sense of Buffalo culture, come downtown to the 600 block of Main Street, 10 p.m. And, I promise you, you will have one of the most fantastic experiences you have ever had. It is such a glorious event.

"You see people from all over spectrum in costumes, in gala dress, in jeans -- this cross section of people all intermingling. If you get a chance to experience it, you're going to want to experience it again."

>Street party

Curtain Up! kicks off at 5 p.m. today with a cocktail party in the glittering lobby of Shea's Performing Arts Center. The party, which features a cash bar and live music, is free and open to the public. A special draw this year is the theater's carpeting, which has been expensively restored to what it looked like in 1928.

At 6 p.m., a gala dinner for 500 will be served on the Shea's stage. Reservations are required for the dinner (see sidebar). Dinnerware is designed to match this year's arresting Curtain Up! poster, designed gratis by Buffalo-based Wynne Creative Group.

Dinner on the Shea's stage became a part of Curtain Up! in 2003.

"It's amazing," says Connie Gollhardt, a Curtain Up! aficionado who has attended the dinner every year. "You walk up on stage and you feel like you're part of a show. I think that's what they aim to do, to make you feel part of it."

If Act I of Curtain Up! is the preplay party, and Act II comprises the plays themselves, Act III is the moment a lot of people are waiting for.

This is the big street bash that begins when the plays let out. It begins at 10 p.m., and rages until 1 in the morning.

"We really gave it a festival feel this year," Brunschmid says. "There's a lot of heart to it."

As befits Buffalo tradition, the number of food vendors at Curtain Up! is increasing. This year it stands at a record 13, including Sweet Melody's, Delish and Chop Chop, the Dessert Deli, Prima Pizza Pasta, the Bavarian Nut Company, Coffee Culture, Chow Chocolate and City Wine Merchants. (In keeping with Curtain Up!'s populist nature, one vendor is identified only as "Rum Cake Lady.")

"You can eat a whole meal," Burgin says. "It's good to have because there are a lot of people who can't afford to go to dinner, or don't want to. The street party gives them a chance to be out and commingle with everyone having a good time. And instead of spending a larger amount, they now can spend something like 20 bucks."

>'There is a fire eater'

More than 10 musical acts will be entertaining tonight up and down Main Street in the Theater District. Among them are Lee Ron Zydeco, the gypsy jazz band Babik, and More Than Me, a band Brunschmid points out was recently signed to Sony Records.

Tonight's bash will also play host to an increased number of visual artists. CEPA Gallery is holding a multilevel exhibit, and Buffalo artists are showing their work at five nearby locations.

Dance has a higher profile at the party this year than in past years.

Argentine Tango Society dancers are going to be dancing in the streets. Salsa dancing will liven up the Shea's Lobby, to the tune of the Latin Jazz Project. And the Market Arcade building is going to be rocking thanks to the derring-do of the Swing Buffalo Dancers.

Troupes of magicians, balloon artists and puppeteers are going to be mingling with the crowd at various locations.

"I know that there is a fire eater. We're going to have a stilt walker. There are going to be costumed characters milling about," Brunschmid promises.

Among those costumed characters could be ... you! More and more people, Brunschmid says, are coming to Curtain Up! in costume.

DC Theatricks, which caters to mostly out-of-town theaters, is costuming the Curtain Up! productions staged by the Kavinoky Theatre and the New Phoenix Theatre. They welcome the business of individuals too, and offer a 15 percent discount for people who want a costume for the Curtain Up! party.

"The people who dress up, dress up," says Christina Serio of DC Theatricks. "We have a whole bunch of, how do I say it, fancy modern-day ball gowns. Some are on the poufier side. People do all sorts of awesome stuff. One of the gentlemen from New Phoenix, he does something funky every year," she laughs. "Last year he was a butterfly."

Brunschmid admits that he wears costumes, too. "I went last year as Captain Morgan."

He and his fellow organizers clearly get a kick out of fine-tuning their party. This year, Brunschmid says, they have even conquered the threat of rain.

"We really think we've weatherproofed the festivities," he says. "All the musicians and artists are strategically placed in front of venues. So if it rains, you can bounce about from place to place and still continue the fun."

Already, Brunschmid is looking to the future.

"We're looking already at party for next year," says Brunschmid. "We have realized that Curtain Up! has grown to the place where it needs year-round attention.

"We can work right now, starting in October, to reach out to the outer market media and really start to focus on Ohio, northern Pennsylvania, and the surrounding region. Tell them look what's up -- we have this great event happening in Buffalo."

-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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