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Boogie Wonderland: For many WNYers, nothing says holidays like the disco

In 1979, disco music was at its peak. Bell bottom jeans, afros, tight shirts with eye-popping patterns, platform shoes, and lots of gaudy gold jewelry were in. And dancing — lots and lots of dancing — was the best way to spend an evening.

That same year, the Buffalo Convention Center first opened its doors. They needed a larger-than-life event to help mark the occasion, something that would leave a lasting impression on Western New York long after it was over.

The answer was obvious. They needed a disco party.

"The World’s Largest Disco" was born. Disco queen Gloria Gaynor, the Trammps and other musical acts performed. A preview of the upcoming event was featured in the September 1979 issue of Billboard magazine. With 13,000 people in attendance from all corners of the world, The World’s Largest Disco became just that — and it is now listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Fourteen years later, disco was a thing of the past. Grunge music and gangsta rap were taking over the airwaves. As for bell bottom jeans, they were mostly found in the back of someone’s closet. And although dancing was still something people loved to do, there weren’t many places to go downtown.

"I was driving around on the Saturday after Thanksgiving," said David Pietrowski, president of an insurance brokerage firm and also the brainchild behind the revival of the World’s Largest Disco. "All these people were in town and there was literally nothing going on. I said to myself, next year I’m going to throw a party."

Pietrowski, 54, figured he’d use the World’s Largest Disco as the party’s theme, as it happened to be the 15th anniversary of the event. He even called up the event’s originators to ask if he could use the name. They gave him their blessing. Just like that, the World’s Largest Disco was reborn.

"The first year, we had 1,800 people and just sold tickets at the door," Pietrowski said. "Then it grew to 4,000 the next year, and 6,000 the year after that. By 1997, we had over 11,000 people and had to turn more than 3,000 away at the door."

As a result of overcrowding and an attempt to keep planning manageable, in 1998 Pietrowski and his staff decided to cap the attendance at 7,000. They’ve stuck to that number since. Pre-sale tickets for the public usually go on sale at the end of August. If you’ve gone to the disco before, you get first crack at tickets for the following year. VIP tickets, which include a special pre-party, a VIP lounge, VIP bathrooms, top-shelf liquor, and a VIP dance floor are also available (this year they sold out in mid-August). In fact, the entire event continues to sell out every year.

Mary Hermans, 40, has been going to the Disco since she was in her twenties. "Back then it was with a big group of friends that treated ‘Disco Day’ like it was its own holiday. We’d plan our outfits months in advance and usually have a pre-party, and get a limo or hotel room — the whole nine. It’s just such a fun event.  It’s like everyone attending collectively decides to forget their troubles and dance the night away."

"Part of the appeal is tradition, I think," Pietrowski mused. "People come back to Buffalo for the Thanksgiving holiday and they want to do something fun with their friends, and this is the perfect event for that. As for the younger generation, I think they are interested in it because they probably heard their parents talk about it and saw them getting dressed up for it. Also, everyone still loves to dance."

There’s also the lure of disco-era celebrities who mingle with guests, take photos, and serve as honorary hosts. David Cassidy, Henry Winkler, the entire cast of the Brady Bunch, Eric Estrada, Danny Bonaduce, and many others have come to Buffalo to bask in the glory of the disco ball. It has also raised a lot of money for Camp Good Days and Special Times, a Western New York-based camp for kids with cancer — about five million dollars over the past 23 years, said Pietrowski.

"I’ll keep doing it as long as people keep wanting to come," he said. "When I first started it, I told my wife it was only going to last a few years and then the fad would be done. And she reminds me of that every year. It’s fun now because my children help out at the event and they weren’t even born when we first started it. It makes me feel old, that’s what it does."

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