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Hurting From Showroom to Ballroom

Mandell Ourisman (right) presents the Benjamin Ourisman Trophy to Dr. Blaine Eig, at a 1957 golf tournament at the Woodmont Country Club. (Washington Post File Photo)

For more than half a century, Washington area society was dominated by three major species: the politician, the anchorman -- and the auto dealer.

In a city with few big industrialists to run the show, the car guys filled the void. While our other rich guys -- bankers, real-estate folks -- ruled largely anonymously, it was the dealership people who became household names, thanks to catchy jingles ("You'll always get your way-ay, at Ourisman Chevrolet!") and roles in their own TV ads (most recently, Krystal Koons).

Then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Donald and Megan Beyer at the inaugural ball on Jan. 18, 1990. (Washington Post File Photo)Enlarge Image

They chaired the galas, sat on the boards, made the big donations to local charities -- and occasionally crossed over to other power bases. Mandy Ourisman's father opened their first dealership in 1921; Mandy's wife, Mary, became ambassador to Barbados. Don Beyer joined his dad's Volvo business in the mid-'70s; in 1989, he was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia.

But with GM and Chrysler closing hundreds of dealerships across the country, the role of auto dealer has lost some of its stature. Will they now shrink from the social-philanthropic scene?

"If we go to a lower profile, too many people in Washington will suffer," a sad but defiant Tammy Darvish told us. "We don't have a party just to have a party."

You know her from the commercials. Darvish, vice president of the Darcars empire founded by her father, learned last week that Chrysler has "rejected" two of Darcars' 30 local dealerships; the company is still waiting to hear from GM. The big local car families -- Beyer, Ourisman, Koons, Fitzgerald, Rosenthal -- were typically called upon to fund everything from Little League teams to the Kennedy Center. The expectations were higher because people felt a more personal connection to dealers than other business types.

Darvish's big cause: The Bobby Mitchell Toyota Hall of Fame Classic, a golf tournament fundraiser for kids with leukemia that she's chaired since 2000, raising more than $6 million -- much of it from her fellow dealers. This year she's planning a softer approach to the fundraising, inviting past donors without pushing the high-end tickets too hard. "We're still going to make our money this year," she maintained.

Is it the end of an era for the dealers? Darvish thinks not, and hopes to get a lot of the founders together for a dinner: "It would really be great to get them all in a room and hear their stories about the good old days."

By The Reliable Source  |  May 18, 2009; 1:03 AM ET
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