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Despite aging of participants, World’s Largest Disco boogies on

Ever since he presided over the student council at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, David Pietrowski has been known for his parties. Through high school and college, while Pietrowski majored in biology and psychology, he minored in parties, leasing hot tubs, porta-johns and finally a lakefront beach club called the Pier to hold his events.

When the Amherst businessman went searching for a party to throw as a fundraiser for Camp Good Days, he settled on a disco theme – and Thanksgiving weekends have never been the same.

Saturday will mark the 21st edition of the World’s Largest Disco at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. It will draw a sellout crowd of 7,000 people, many of whom return year after year to lock into an era marked by mirror balls, platform heels and Bee Gees-style, blow-dried hair.

More importantly, this year the World’s Largest Disco sponsored by Pietrowski’s Conesus Fest for Charity will pass the $4 million mark in funds raised for Camp Good Days and Special Times, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for families touched by cancer.

“There are a lot of successful fundraisers in town,” Pietrowski admitted. “I didn’t want to throw a black-tie dinner gala or a walk. I wanted something fun and different.

“The first year in 1994 we had 1,800 people,” he said. “The next year 4,000. The year after that we had 11,000, but you couldn’t move and it was uncomfortable. There were lines for drinks and lines for the bathrooms.”

Since then, ticket sales have been limited to 7,000, and each year the event hailed as one of the city’s better parties that sells out.

Dressing for the Disco

In 2009 the World’s Largest Disco made it into “Party Across America,” a paperback bible for partygoers. The local event took its place next to the Flora-Bama Mullet Toss held every June in Perdido Key on the Gulf Coast. The beach event attracts hundreds of frolicking fish-flingers to the Florida-Alabama border. “Party Across America” also gives a nod to “Rehab,” the name given the weekly pool parties at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas that make sleepy Sundays the go-to weekend play day.

The costumes put together by those who attend the disco are purchased or rented from a handful of costume shops in the area. One shop called Divine Finds specializes in ’70s apparel.

This year it is open only from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15 to attract Halloween and disco customers seeking polyester jumpsuits, midriff blouses, platform shoes and anything that sparkles.

Owner Danielle Suppa of Kenmore set up her shop in leased space at 3108 Delaware Ave. in Kenmore. She calls her store, which features a rental section of authentic vintage attire, a pop-up shop.

“We pop up for three months for what we call the disco season,” said Suppa. “Customers rent the clothing and they return it after the disco.”

Compounding the challenge for those in search of polyester are the trim 18-year-old waistlines of the original wearers, said Suppa.

“These guys come in today and their shoulders are huge,” Suppa said. “Plus the 18-year-olds were out discoing in high-waisted, fitted, flared pants. It’s a whole new feel for everyone.”

Women and men match berets with side-parted hair, or hip-hugging slacks with turbans. Suppa’s favorite vintage find this year is her “Have It Your Way” Burger King suit in bright orange and yellow.

Across the border in Fort Erie, Ont., the doors of Weirdorama have been closed to customers for three years. The emporium was a longtime stop on the road for shoppers attending the November disco.

Owner Chrystal Haverstock still sells her stock of vintage and reproduction apparel through the online business Etsy. When she first opened Weirdorama in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 1993, Haverstock recalled customers looking for disco garments before she had heard of the World’s Largest Disco.

“In 1995 I started getting people looking for disco stuff in November and I didn’t know what was going on,” Haverstock said. “But I soon began to stock for the disco. There seemed to be a shortage of men’s gear, specifically platform shoes.”

Half the fun in attending the party is putting together an outfit – even for men, she said.

“Once I put a man in an Afro or Bee Gees blow-dry wig, they strut like a rooster,” Haverstock said.”

Accessories add up, said the Fort Erie shop owner. A decent polyester dress could run from $35 to $45.

Her favorite outfit so far this year was purchased by a man from Norway, who ordered a $200 lemon yellow polyester leisure suit.

Unending music

Pietrowski was a student leader when he graduated from St. Joe’s in 1981. Already he had turned around the high school dances by adding a second band to the lineup.

“If you really want to make money you have to spend money,” Pietrowski said, sitting at a conference table at LoVullo Associates, an insurance company where he is president.

“We started having two bands – one at each end of the gym – so there was never a break in music,” he said. “When Talas went on tour with Van Halen, that was probably the biggest one we ever did. Their first date back in Buffalo was at St. Joe’s High School. We had 2,200 people at that dance. We started averaging 1,800. When we started, we drew an average of 800.”

When Pietrowski started the disco he thought it would last two or three years. The key to his event’s longevity is not the music – Pietrowski’s favorite band is Led Zeppelin, hardly a disco group. Organization, he said, is critical.

“You have to have enough of everything,” he said. “If you don’t take constructive criticism, there is no way your event will last.”

This year Pietrowski is flushing the porta-johns in favor of luxury bathroom trailers. His $2 million worth of sound and light equipment fills six tractor-trailers.

As for songs, “Brick House” and “Shake Your Groove Thing” are sure to fill the dance floor. Pietrowski and his staff of more than 100 volunteers do not take requests for songs, but they encourage song sponsorship. For a donation of $200, your name will be shown on a 15 by 20 foot screen – located next to the main stage – as a sponsor of one of the songs played at random throughout the night.

Each year the disco features ’70s-era celebrities. Last year, Gloria Gaynor headlined the show. Past years have seen Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, who appeared as Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Washington on “Welcome Back, Kotter;” Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie on “Happy Days;” and Danny Bonaduce from “The Partridge Family.”

The aging of celebrities as well as disco patrons has been a continuing concern for Pietrowski, who is determined to keep his event relevant.

“It is a struggle. Potentially some of our audience is aging out, which means they just don’t go out anymore,” he said. “Celebrity guests are becoming extremely difficult to find because they are in their 70s or 80s.”

“It’s not necessarily a party for people who like disco music,” Pietrowski said. “I would say half the people probably don’t like it. It’s a party that is memorable.”