The 32nd Curtain Up! celebration opened Buffalo’s dynamic and varied theater season in typically grand fashion Friday on a night that also honored Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney.
Theater leaders and arts supporters – many adorned in black tuxes and glitzy gowns – gathered under a big tent on the 700 block of Main Street to attend a gala dinner before heading off to one of the 20 theatrical productions that awaited and a street party for after-hours fun.
They were there, first and foremost, to celebrate something special to Buffalo – the sheer diversity and quantity, as well as quality, of Buffalo theater.
“I think we have always had in Buffalo a sense of place. I think the buildings that exist here give us a sense of history, a sense of something that was once great, and I think theater is about storytelling and sharing these things in community,” said Randall Kramer, artistic and executive director of MusicalFare Theatre.
Kramer said he has visited larger cities that don’t begin to compare to Buffalo’s theater community.
“Nothing like it. Nothing. Even on their best day they don’t get this kind of activity,” he said.
Champagne was handed out by masked women in sequined, feathery costumes, and attendees feasted on Asian pear salad, garlic-infused bread sticks and Asian beef short ribs and marinated tiger shrimp, with chocolate truffles and red velvet cake pops for dessert.
Curtain Up!, which was coordinated this year by Joseph Demerly, managing director of Kavinoky Theatre, began with a new feature – and a celebrated Buffalo native to kick it off.
Gurney who served as this year’s honorary chairman, was named the first star of what will soon be “the Plaza of Stars,” an outdoor tribute to theater professionals with Buffalo ties who have left their mark.
The area, now under construction across from the 710 Main Street theater, will feature bronze plaques whose ranks are added to each year during Curtain Up! and a lit sign announcing the Theatre District.
Gurney also received a proclamation from Mayor Byron W. Brown declaring “A.R. Gurney Day,” and another honoring him from the House of Representatives at Rep. Brian Higgins’ initiative.
“It’s a great pleasure to be here, and I congratulate everyone here who’s involved in this renaissance that seems to be going on in this lovely old city,” Gurney told the assembled crowd in brief remarks.
The playwright grew up on Lincoln Parkway, left Buffalo at the time of the Korean War but has returned over the years to visit family. He told The Buffalo News: “I love Buffalo, I can’t write about anything but Buffalo, so to be honored in Buffalo is a particular pleasure.”
Gurney’s “Love Letters” is being performed by Red Thread Theatre in Canisius College’s Marie Maday Theatre.
The night’s theatrical fare ranged from “La Cage aux Folles” at MusicalFare Theatre and “Venus in Fur” at New Phoenix Theatre, to “Buffalo Rises” at Road Less Traveled Theatre and “The Gospel at Colonus,” presented by Ujima Theatre. Shea’s Performing Arts Center gave a nod to its movie palace past by offering a free screening of “Chicago” and the first look at its newly restored front of the house.
The Irish Classical Theatre’s “School for Husbands,” Subversive Theater Collective’s “The Love Song of Robert J. Oppenheimer,” “Love, Sex and the IRS,” presented by the Lancaster Opera House, and a reprise of Paul Robeson Theatre’s “The Three Sistahs” were also among the plays performed.
“It’s a wonderful night. Why wouldn’t you want to come? Where else would you want to be?” said Darlene Sikorski-Petritz.
Edward Hoefler, who accompanied her, brought the enthusiasm down a notch. “She loves plays so I came,” he deadpanned.
For Tod Kniazuk, executive director of Arts Services Initiative, who was accompanied by Tysha Martin, the event was a chance to glory in Buffalo’s cultural life.
“I’ve been coming to Curtain Up! for years, and it’s great in one evening to celebrate the opening of the theater season and remind ourselves about all the great arts and culture we have in this community,” Kniazuk said.
“It’s wonderful that by the end of the night, you have the people from the dinner and the tuxes and gowns, the people from the plays and the suits and cocktail dresses, and the people who just came out for the street party in their T-shirts and jeans. That’s so Buffalo.”
The first Curtain Up! was also held on the same block, before the street – now being torn up to return cars to Main Street – was ripped up to put in rail tracks, according to Joyce Stilson, the event’s marketing chair. Curtain Up! was held inside Shea’s in recent years.
“I get to eat dinner real fast, and then put on a 1917 dress,” Stilson, who is acting in Alleyway Theatre’s “Night Work,” said with a laugh.