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Theatergoers pack opening of "Phantom'

Women in velvet sheaths glided down a carpeted walk. Spangled gowns threw sparks of light into the night. Men in tuxedos sucked in their guts and threw out their chests as they headed toward a large tent replete with chandeliers, a pipe organ and a sumptuous buffet.

This was a night that had been hyped for months: The opening of The Phantom of the Opera at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"It is like the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous of south Tampa," said Debbie Goodwin, gesturing at the crowd. "Look around you. It's true."

Like many of the sharply dressed theatergoers, Bunnie Hill of Tampa had as much fun getting ready for the gala as she did savoring it.

"This is one of those nights that won't end until 2 a.m.," Hill said, standing in the tent and poking shrimp with a fork held in her black-gloved hand.

Hill spent two weeks shopping for a dress with blue beads woven into a royal blue chiffon top and a black skirt. On Friday, she had her hair and makeup done at Glamour Shots and had photos taken of her most elegant self.

"It's like going to the prom," said a friend of Hill's before disappearing into the crowd.

Theatergoers packed the center's Festival Hall for the first night of Phantom's 6{-week run. About 440 of them paid $220 each for special benefit tickets that were expected to raise $40,000 to $50,000 for the Performing Arts Center. The tickets included a pre-performance gala with a buffet and seating in the orchestra.

"I thought I would never live to see it," said usher Carmen Morales, who started volunteering with the arts center when it opened seven years ago. "It is magnificent," she said of the community's support for the center and the show.

"I don't think it is a great drama," said lawyer John Dixon Wall, "but the staging is so spectacular, it just takes your breath away."

At a table outside the performing hall, mugs, watches and T-shirts that glow with the half-mask of the phantom were for sale, along with an array of key chains, match books and a baseball cap.

As he hurried into the hall, Ross Elsberry quickly paid for a silver pin with the mask on it for his daughter and a full-size plastic mask. His daughter Tara had seen a rehearsal performance of the show Thursday night. Afterward, she had to have a memento:

"Dad, I need a silver pin," Elsberry recalled her saying. "And this?" he said looking at the mask. "That was an impulse."