Who dropped the ball?
January 4, 2009 6:37 PM   Subscribe

When did this ball go so wrong? As thousands of people get out their best clothes, spring for pricey tickets and head to DC for a fairy tale night of dancing at one of the 10 official Inaugural Balls, the Washington Post takes an amusing look at the decline of the once-glamorous event, which has now become a hideous, tacky ordeal complete with coat check riots, box wine (at the cash bar!) and phoned-in cameos by the exhausted First Couple. If you must go, here's some sage fashion advice. If you ignore wise counsel not to buy a fancy dress, make sure to register it to avoid the dreaded dress dupe.
posted by CunningLinguist (33 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You've got big balls, posting this.
posted by not_on_display at 7:03 PM on January 4, 2009

Thanks for this lovely, informative post. As a long ago American history student I appreciate the seemingly irrelevant anecdotal details that maybe just are important.

That said, I know my daughter, who lives in D.C. would love to attend, not the balls, but the inauguration itself. Entreaties to our local congresswoman, the venerable Barbara Lee were a dead end.
It all sounds like a night to stay home to me. And I don't even have tv.

On another note, how much money could be saved if this event were eschewed in favor of frugality? But of course we need this infusion of hopefulness to get us out there in confidence to spend, or something.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:06 PM on January 4, 2009

Oh, I forgot, how can anyone read this seriously?

"balls were just big excuses for dancing: formal, choreographed, partnered dancing."
posted by emhutchinson at 7:07 PM on January 4, 2009

I can't remember: Which circle of Hell was it again where you have to dance to the same dirge every half hour in between hustling in and out of a rented car for the longest evening of your life?
posted by kittyprecious at 7:07 PM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Thanks, CunningLinguist, this was an interesting read. As a furriner, I have always been mildly fascinated by these blowouts, mostly by the sheer number of them every four years. I am as hopeful about Obama as anyone, but ten of these shindigs? I guess it takes a lot of balls to celebrate when you haven't done anything yet.

On preview, beaten to it by not_on_display.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:08 PM on January 4, 2009

Despite it all, I'd still go if I was invited!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:11 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

A frivolous event at which One Must Simple Be Seen turns into a hideous, tacky ordeal??
posted by DU at 7:14 PM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I assume everyone else who contributed to Obama's election campaign got the email soliciting contributions for the inauguration I did.

Does it seem tacky to anyone else to solicit funds for a party from people not invited to that party? I guess in some sense it's everyone's party, but I won't be there drinking boxed wine while storming the coat check booth. I think what annoyed me most was their pitch that by donating $25 or more you could be one of 10 randomly selected donors who got to attend.

They used the same lottery style fundraising tactics in the election, where it annoyed me a little (Contribute $50 and get an infinitesimal shot at dinner with Barack) but it's more vexing when the donations won't even go to what I'd consider a particularly worthy cause.
posted by pseudonick at 7:20 PM on January 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just tonight I was thinking about going to The Hill Ball, but I have no idea what to expect there. I guess it's good that it's not an official ball.
posted by exogenous at 7:22 PM on January 4, 2009

The most spectacular venue is the National Building Museum, formerly the Pension Building. Plus it's got history. You can't go to that one though: it's the Commander-in-Chief ball and the tickets are free and given to various people affiliated with the military.
posted by smackfu at 7:28 PM on January 4, 2009

Thank you for posting this. It makes me glad to know I'm not missing anything. On the other hand, the party at The Wonderland Ballroom on inauguration day sounds like it might be worth going to, even if the first couple doesn't plan on dropping by.
posted by deanc at 8:12 PM on January 4, 2009

On May 7, 1789, one week after the Inauguration of George Washington in New York City, sponsors held a ball to honor the new President. It was not until 1809, however, after the Inauguration of James Madison at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., that the tradition of the Inaugural ball began. That night, First Lady Dolley Madison hosted the gala at Long's Hotel. Four hundred tickets sold for $4 each. In 1833 two balls were staged for President Andrew Jackson, one at Carusi's Assembly Rooms, and the other at Central Masonic Hall. William Henry Harrison attended all three of the 1841 Inaugural balls held in his honor.

The Inaugural ball quickly turned into an anticipated highlight of Washington society, and its location became a prime topic of discussion and angst. [continued]
posted by netbros at 8:42 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Considering this dress will be at one of the balls, I know it's going to be classy with a capital "K".

I moved to the DC area (read: "fake Virginia" suburb hell) in the middle of high school. Having previously only lived in the southwest, I was a semi-amused observer of east coast and Washingtonian culture. While there are several things about the area I have come to appreciate, I think I can confidently say that the predominant fashion of DC is a complete and utter lack of style. Khakis and polo shirts aren't the uniform you're forced to wear working at a Borders or Best Buy, it's what people wear voluntarily on a regular basis. It seems like a natural thing for this climate to produce balls that are an ordeal to be completed and competed at, rather than a nice event to enjoy.
posted by fontophilic at 8:44 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know, this is all caused by the serve lack of Balls in modern culture. If we had more Balls, we could vent out need for formal dancing, fancy dress, and fizzy champagne in healthy, controlled bursts rather than spewing it out all out all at once like a freshman on the third date and 5th drink.

I propose we create more Balls and use more Balls in our new, modern century. Without Balls, how can the American Male expect to function? Without the allure of Balls, how can the American Female get ready to face the day? Without Balls, our country will surely perish.

With the increased number of Balls comes the increased chance that you'll be dancing at a masquerade, under the mistletoe, and your partner will gasp "We're under the mistletoe", you'll respond "Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it."

"So can a kiss, if you mean it."

Then you kiss, on the balcony, and this fills the air.

Balls For America!
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 PM on January 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Because she said yes.
posted by netbros at 9:25 PM on January 4, 2009


Stay home and have a ball of your own. If anyone makes a speech at your ball, be sure to send it to the American Folklife Center.

Or donate a little and help send somebody else to the People's Inaugural Project.

Pseudonick--donations are not required.

emhutchinson, don't think too badly of Barbara Lee--each member of Congress was allotted something on the order of 191 tickets (to the inauguration), while ticket requests have been running into the thousands, and even the tens of thousands.
posted by halcyon_daze at 9:34 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's no end of bad things to say about Andrew Jackson, but at least he had an open inauguration ball on the White House lawn with free booze for everyone.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not here defending the Inaugural Ball tradition, since, as a cater-waiter veteran of several Inaugurations, I despise working them, but a lot of the negative stories (apart from the cost of the tickets) are part of the (largely mythical) quadrennial Washington DC lore that gets trotted out to suppress the numbers of people who turn out to them, and are largely the result of simple jealousy - we like to hear that the balls suck ass, so that we don't feel so bad that we didn't get to attend.

Yes, one guest, back in the 80s, lost her mother-in-law's $8,000 mink. It happens. When you have several thousand identical-looking coats (having worked very large coatchecks at parties with 6000+ guests, I know what I am talking about), it sometimes happens that things get mixed up. That's why coatchecks are voluntary, and why only an IDIOT would bring an $8000 mink to an event of this type and leave it in a -free- coatcheck. You also get guests insisting that a coat you just brought out is theirs, when it actually belongs to another person who has the same/similar coat. A coatcheck attendant making $10/hr (with tips!) is not going argue with a boorish/rich/drunk asshole, and people take the wrong coat home all the time, even with the most efficient use of coatcheck numbering systems. I've even had guests claim that they lost some extremely valuable piece of jewelry/priceless antique/what-have-you, only to discover in their addle-minded febrility that they left it at home on the dresser. I've had guests literally scream at me in front of their friends of family demanding that I channel Houdini and magically pull their Jaeger-LeCoultre watch out of my ass. Guests plus alcohol plus inherent sense of entitlement plus inherent mutual mistrust between wage slaves and the ruling classes leads to misunderstandings that get blown out of proportion and become the stuff of boring legend. Add to that the fact that Inauguration Day, most of the hired help is brought in from afar just to work for those few days, have very little experience, and are just trying to make a few bucks on top of their day jobs - this year, we have hired more than 1200 new waiters to staff all of our Inauguration Day events, in addition to more than 1000 we already have on our roster. Just for one day every four years. Logistically and from a human resources perspective, it is a perfect storm, and yet, largely, the events are a great success.

Which leads me to my second point: the stories about box wine at cash bars, food running out, and gymnasium-like atmospheres are truly the exception to the rule. I work for one of the best catering companies in Washington DC, and in my personal experience (three Inaugurations), these events are quite lavishly planned and executed. We set these events up beginning almost a week out, working morning til night. We've never run out of food at an event, and I've never seen box wine or ham sandwiches in cardboard boxes (although I am sure it may have happened sometime, somewhere - but most likely not at one of the official balls) These events are a reward for very rich people, after all, their $50,000 donations are what pays for them. At $500+ a ticket, I can guarantee you you are not going to paying for your drinks. Of course, if you are attending an event at the Washington Convention Center, all bets are off. That place truly sucks.

If you've never attended a dance party with 3000 other people, it will definitely feel like somewhat of a cattle call to you. And it will be crowded, since people are sheep and all want to seem to stand in exactly the same place, even though there is plenty of room to move around in most of these venues.

And no, the president doesn't mingle anymore with guests - not since the days of Sirhan Sirhan has the Secret Service let the President get anywhere near drunken guests and cater waiters. At the events I've worked, the food is usually very very good, even great (for buffet-style fare), the bands are usually awesome, and people get DRUNK. Very drunk.

Which leads to things like the Coat Check Riots described in one of the links. Look, if everyone decides to skip out of the Ball at the same time (which can happen if people are party-hopping to another non-official ball, and if the president has already come and gone), even if the entire waitstaff converges on the coat check area to help out, getting your coat is not going to be instantaneous. Particularly if you are so drunk you lost your coat check number, can't remember what it looks like, and you decide to belligerently storm into the coat check area to find it, throwing other people's coats on the floor, and in one case I witnessed (sadly, not at an Inaugural Ball) knocking over 20 rows of coat racks in a chain reaction. Try putting 1000 winter coats on temporary coat racks - give the first one a shove, and the whole thing comes down. There is no such thing as a venue with a permanent coat check that can handle thousands of coats - these things have to be assembled and organized on site by the catering staff. It's literally a ton of coats, which, thanks to Drunky McDrunken Constituent, are now scattered on the floor.

And the story about having to trudge blocks to get to your car after the ball - again, what kind of an idiot would try to drive into downtown DC on Inauguration Day? Most folks get limos, take buses from hotels, take Metro, and cab it. No one in their right mind would or should try to drive to one of these things. Besides, you'll be too drunk afterward to drive anyway...

Carry on...
posted by piedrasyluz at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2009 [95 favorites]

Thanks for the comment piedraylulz. It's nice to get some sanity in a thread over-run with tourist putdowns of "DC Culture" by people referring to the Cap Hill staffers they see in Washingtonian magazine rather than real DC natives. We exist, we have 10x the style you have on your best day, and we're going to be out in the streets having a multicultural sex orgy hi-five contest so please do stay home so I don't get your disdain all over my American Apparel tightie-whiteys.

On second thought, please do come. Go to the event, go to the balls, do whatever. But then join us. Read up on real and fun and awesome events that will be going on in real parts of DC not near the white mabley bits. Come hang out with us: We are sexy and smart and happy and we are going to hug you.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:28 PM on January 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Thank you, piedrasyluz, for the great comment. It's the stories that make it worth the five clams.
posted by seagull.apollo at 10:33 PM on January 4, 2009

As a furriner, I have always been mildly fascinated by these blowouts...

Without my glasses, I read "As a furrier..." which made me go, "Huh. The guy's a furrier. I guess rich people still wear furs sometimes." Then I realized what you really meant.

I'm glad I didn't read it "As a furrie..." because that would've just flashed me back to that horrrrrrrrible CSI episode I wish I'd never seen. Oh nevermind. Too late. Now I have an image of a bunch of Obama-loving furries in tuxedoes and ball gowns. Dammit.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:26 PM on January 4, 2009

The innauguration is going to be somethig special. I'm a little sad that I won't be in DC for it (my hometown).

The balls? Yuck. DC is a nice, kooky, small little boring city that I love. It doesn't do "grandeur" very well.
posted by bardic at 11:51 PM on January 4, 2009

pseudonick: I think what annoyed me most was their pitch that by donating $25 or more you could be one of 10 randomly selected donors who got to attend.

You do not have to donate to be selected.
posted by longdaysjourney at 1:38 AM on January 5, 2009

I've been to exactly one official ball, as Mr. Drunky McDrunken Constituent (although I didn't knock down any racks - I'm more the type to leave some ridiculously large tip at the coat check to impress whatever girl who's coat I was picking up, that I'll regret in the morning).

There certainly wasn't any boxed wine or ham sandwiches. No riots that I saw, either. Just lots of incredibly rich people getting Hammered. A really nice dinner at a table with my lobbyist friend and a couple congressmen, one of whom knew my dad from when he was in office, so I'm of course sure I made a complete ass of myself before the night was over.

Booze flowed like...booze, every which way you looked. Seriously - most events I go to here in NYC you actually have to wait to get up to an open bar, here though there were way too many bars for anyone to have to wait. Silver trays of champagne were the first thing you encountered once past the coat check, and it was all downhill from there.

It was a blur of eating and drinking dancing and photos and drinking and dancing and then I found myself in some alcove on an upper floor making out with some pretty young thing who happened to have a connection with a staffer who was involved with the event planning. By the end of the night me and the 20 or so friends my age there were all headed back to the Marriott we were staying at (cabs are a BITCH in DC), just off of Capitol Mall. Not to our rooms, though, but to the rooms of the staffers who were having all of the leftover booze from the event delivered to their hotel suites. There was something of a strategic element to it - when one suite would get raided by security we would all head to the next one on another floor. And every one of them had more bottles than people.

The last thing I remember was watching the sun rise from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, hammered out of my gourd, wearing a half-destroyed tux, with a bunch of co-eds from some southern university.

Hell if I wouldn't be up for that again just a couple more times.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:39 AM on January 5, 2009 [20 favorites]

Box wine is not change we can believe in.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:22 AM on January 5, 2009

On the other hand, the party at The Wonderland Ballroom on inauguration day sounds like it might be worth going to...

That is, if you don't mind being crushed and smothered by 100 hipsters in a tiny firetrap in the middle of a neighborhood with no other commercial establishments... then again, given their usual clientele, you may be the only person willing to shell out $69 for a night of drinking.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:58 AM on January 5, 2009

cabs are a BITCH in DC

Finally, something we can ALL agree with.
posted by inigo2 at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2009

real DC natives. We exist, we have 10x the style you have on your best day

I'm trying so hard to come up with a response that's funnier than this comment, and failing utterly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:53 AM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by exogenous at 7:34 AM on January 5, 2009

The Artists' Ball should be full of fun, funky folks.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2009

Paris: The Crazy Years

In the period between the first and second world wars, prostitution was legal in Paris and brothels flourished. Petty thieves, drug dealers and street walkers packed the all-night bars of Montmartre where cheap sex and cheap booze drew the tourists. The art students' ball took over the streets in a public orgy of alcohol and sex. Bonus content: In-depth interviews with key historians and writers; Audio commentary track by filmakers Ted Remerowski and Marrin Canell. c2006. 45 min. DVD 5391

posted by The Whelk at 11:37 AM on January 5, 2009

I'm good friends with at least one of the DJs at the Artist's Ball. It should be fun. I should probably see if they're looking for more djs.
posted by empath at 6:05 PM on January 5, 2009

Awesome comment piedrasyluz.
posted by Weebot at 4:21 PM on January 6, 2009

« Older Don't hit the books; craft with them   |   You and Your Research Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments