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Washington's "social season": Too many parties, but not enough "fun" in all those fundraisers

Dancers hit the floor at Saturday's NSO Opening night gala at the Kennedy Center. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post.) See more: A gallery of Washington party pictures.

Every fall, there's always someone nattering on about "the social season" in a slightly breathless tone meant to convey (a) how important he/she is and (b) how exhausting it all is.

Don't believe a word of it.

Invitations are indeed flooding in for galas, receptions and dinners -- a string of soirees that stretches into December. But only a handful are intimate, private parties with Washington's elite (not that any true insiders would describe themselves that way). Ninety percent of the parties are actually fundraisers vying for boldface names and cold, hard cash. Exclusive? Not terribly. Anyone willing to cough up $500 or $1,000 per ticket and throw on a tux can rub elbows with someone famous, or at least famous-for-D.C.

Saturday's National Symphony Orchestra glittery opening night ball, for example, was loaded with big money (Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein, who just donated $10 million to the center; Adrienne Arsht, who gave $5 million last fall; Roger and Vicki Sant, who have given $20 million to the orchestra, to name just a few), big names (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Vernon Jordan, Queen Noor), and big stars (soprano Renée Fleming, pianist Lang Lang and the NSO's new music director, Christoph Eschenbach).

The president and first lady at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner Sept. 18 at the Convention Center. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Friday's Wolf Trap ball turned out to be a hot ticket, too -- unfortunately, in the literal sense of the term. The black-tie crowd sweltered in 100-degree temperatures in the Filene Center.

Guests dabbed their brows with water dripping from melting ice sculptures; even the table water was tepid. Waiters couldn't fill glasses fast enough from frosty bottles of champagne, which gave the party a different sort of buzz.

Win a few, lose a few. Some galas are thought-provoking or entertaining, and a handful are truly glamorous or genuinely inspiring. Too many, however, are earnest, overcrowded and endless; full-bore "goat rodeos," to quote "Real Housewives of D.C." co-star Lynda Erkiletian. Truth is, most of the guests would rather be home watching TV, but they show up to support the cause, to support a friend's cause, or just to network. Caveat emptor!

There's no one perfect party this fall that combines power, glamour and buzz (December's Kennedy Center Honors shindig with President Obama, Oprah and Paul McCartney comes closest). As a public service to you and your checkbook, we sifted through the "in" pile for galas that got something right, and broke down how they did it:

Attract political powerhouses

Scored an invite to an exclusive night at the White House? Lucky you, because there won't be another state dinner until early next year. A few partygoers had the thrill of seeing the president and first lady in person at this month's Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's gala (bonus glam couple: Eva Longoria and Tony Parker) or the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner. These mega-parties were held in huge ballrooms with thousands of people, but guests did get to be in the same room with the president, which is still a very big deal for most people. (There's always some blowhard there who later brags he "had dinner with the president." Don't be that guy.)

This is, of course, the wrong season for political groupies on the social circuit. Every two years, the upcoming elections siphon some of the energy from Washington galas because senators and congressmen are either campaigning or avoiding Inside-the-Beltway parties. One exception: the bipartisan Children's Inn gala Sept. 29, which used the time-honored trick of saluting a big name on the Hill. This year the guest of honor is Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving member in the history of the House. The place will be crawling with Democratic leaders, a contingent of Republicans and -- who knows? -- maybe a lobbyist or two. (C'mon, who do you think buys tables at these things?)

Snag a Hollywood celebrity

There's a movie or TV star somewhere in D.C. almost every day lobbying for every imaginable cause -- and some you would never imagine. Some really and truly care. Some are burnishing their PR image. Most aren't very interesting. (Sorry, kids. But you look mah-velous.)

There's a delicate balance to inviting Hollywood stars to Washington parties: One or two can generate some sex appeal without changing the essential nature of the event; too many and the balance of power tips to a B-list nightmare. Case in point: the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, now so overrun by celebrities and their presumptuous entourages that actual reporters and their sources can no longer score a ticket. Not that anyone cares about the press and their dress-up night, but it's a slippery slope. Don't say we didn't warn you.

The Harman Center for the Arts gala on Oct. 3 is giving an award to Annette Bening, who has a roster of critic-friendly movies, enough stage work to qualify as a "real" actress, and naughty local-boy-made-good husband Warren Beatty (who still is a much bigger draw than his wife, although we're not supposed to say that). Now as ever, folks are curious about this marriage, and word is out that Beatty will walk the red carpet with his wife.

Honor an ex-president

This gambit is a winner in Washington, even if the former president is a tad self-satisfied with his good works relative to, say, other former presidents. Habitat for Humanity will honor Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for their "lifetime commitment to strengthening democracy and alleviating poverty" on Oct. 4 at the Mellon Auditorium. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood are co-chairs. You know exactly how it's going to go down: Hundreds of former staffers and volunteers, dozens of standing ovations, soaring videos, long tributes. No cynics allowed.

Recruit top co-chairs

Some galas get the lion's share of attention, headlines, big names. To wit: The 30th anniversary celebration Oct. 16 at the Kennedy Center for Nancy Brinker's global breast cancer foundation. Brinker, a GOP fundraiser and former ambassador, got Adrian and Michelle Fenty, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont and Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima, to lend their names (and therefore their clout) for the party. She's connected, they're connected and together they'll attract an enviable roster of the usual suspects.

A note to everybody with a good cause: The competition is brutal, the parties shouldn't be. There's a world of need out there, and thousands of caring people who donate untold hours, write checks and show up at galas like these because they want to make a difference. So say thanks and leave it at that: Enough with the long speeches, the parade of egos demanding time on the podium, the arguments about why your cause deserves oodles more in federal funding, and the awkward, mood-killing live auctions designed to squeeze a few more bucks from donors. Passion for a cause is not an excuse to bore or harangue faithful donors.

Go old-school grand

There's a Washington trope that men hate to put on tuxedos but women love to dress up. What's probably true is that national politicians hate to see pictures of themselves wearing a tux in campaign ads smearing them as "elitists." (Grow up, people! There really ought to be a law against this kind of party politics.)

Nonetheless, a few parties go all out: Black tie, sweeping ball gowns, flashy (D.C. flashy, not Dallas flashy) jewels. The Meridian International Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1 with dinners at embassies, followed by an elegant black-tie ball at the historic mansion. The gala boasts a mix of politicians, diplomats, business leaders -- you know, the kind of party that directors stage in fictional movies about Washington. This year's standout: hottie Sen. Scott Brown, making a rare social turn because his wife, reporter Gail Huff, agreed to serve as the night's congressional co-chair.

Do something fun

Sad but true: People don't really expect to have any fun at Washington galas. They eat, they drink, they applaud politely, they exchange business cards -- all the while hoping to make it home in time for the 10 o'clock news. Sigh.

Smart organizers will add at least one element to enliven the atmosphere. Dancing is the go-to pick-me-up, so a good many of the top galas spring for a band or a DJ. Others parties try whimsy (the Washington National Opera's masked ball that kicked off the "season" -- extra points for custom-made Venetian-style masks!) or wit (PEN/Faulkner's dinner last week featured clever readings by authors Jane Hamilton, Laura Lippman, Howard Norman and Audrey Niffenegger).

Go over-the-top

For 20 years, Fight Night and its sister event, Knock Out Abuse, have thrived by substituting unabashed, outsized rowdiness for low-key political correctness. The Nov. 11 events are poised to once again do what they do so well: 2,000 guys at the all-male fundraiser will smoke cigars, watch boxing matches and ogle models half their ages. Their wives and girlfriends will drape themselves in the latest designer duds, hoot and holler and raise a ton of money. Then they all gather for drinking, dancing and flirting. Shocking, really.

Speaking of over the top, one party can barely contain itself: the annual Human Rights Campaign national dinner. This gay-rights fundraiser walks that fine line between on-your-best-behavior and gasp-inducing-funny; this year's Oct. 9 lineup includes Pink and Bette Midler.

Make a little history

Every once in a while, Washington offers a unique, one-off event. Arena Stage, one of the country's most influential regional theaters, is unveiling its new space-age superstructure at a black-tie gala Oct. 25. Local theater and arts patrons will be out in force for a first peek at the shiny new building; if they needed any further lure, Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will perform.

Serious food and drink

The average Washington gala will serve decent wines and, occasionally, a really sumptuous meal. But not so very often. And that's not the point of the evening, so no reason to get all foodie-snobby about it.

There's an exception to this rule: Galas featuring the increasing number of accomplished chefs in D.C. The standard fundraiser dinner is a sit-down affair with three courses. Chef's parties tend to be movable feasts, with guests roaming the room and sampling bite-size jewels of seriously good food -- and plenty of wine.

The party Sept. 30 at the Ritz-9Carlton with 25 chefs (Michel Richard, José Andrés, Robert Wiedmaier and a number of the nation's top pastry chefs) is a fundraiser for the kids of Jerome Girardot, the Ritz pastry chef who died last year.

Mount Vernon got in the spirit a few years ago when it launched a night of drinking rare whiskeys, including one from George Washington's own distillery. Its Oct. 6 gala throws in dinner, fireworks and Olympian Apolo Ohno.

Speaking of spirits: Can we ask why the Catholic Charities fundraiser Sept. 28 boasts a concert with Patti LaBelle and Denyce Graves but a cash bar? Really? It's listed right there on the invite. Seriously, there must be smarter ways to save money.

Make it painless

After a long night of do-gooding, the last thing you want to do is hoof it for blocks to your car or wait endlessly on the curb. Especially in cold or wet weather. Look for "valet parking" on the invitation. The best party planners invest in enough valets so guests can swiftly drop off their cars and retrieve them without waiting for Godot or resetting the car radio. Trust us on this.

And you partygoers: Tip those kids generously. They're running around in the rotten weather so you don't have to.

And above all, try to have some fun, people.

Get your gala on: A gallery of Washington party pictures.

By The Reliable Source  | September 27, 2010; 1:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parties  
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Next: Quoted: Shepard Fairey, disappointed by that "Hope" guy


Outstanding work on this! You mention the most important piece about events such as this...keep the talk minimal, unless it has been billed as a tribute/recognition for someone specific. This is good advice for events from the national level to the local level! This article is a great public service.

Posted by: lydandy | September 27, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Excellent piece that says it like it is. Having worked many such functions, they mostly are an orgy of boring speeches that interferes with the real socializing at the tables during dinner.

1. Can most of the speeches. Way too many speakers, way too little to say.
2. Ditto most of the tribute videos or ,worse, the attempts at corporate "humor"
2. Serve truly good food.
3. Don't overload the room. Leave space between tables.
4. Good live music is the only way to get people out of their seats and to get them to stop talking shop or heading for the exit as soon as dessert has been eaten.

And most likely nothing will change.


Posted by: BaronEmpain | September 27, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Aw, my poor sister works at those Wolf Trap galas.

She must've spent the weekend prostrate with a cold glass at hand.

Posted by: dadada | September 27, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Can't you find a gunshot victim who can't pay his mortgage or something?

Posted by: bs2004 | September 27, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Ronald Reagan gave us “morning in America.”

Meanwhile, Barack Obama has inflicted “mourning in America.”

Posted by: Jerzy | September 27, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

About tuxes:
My mother-in-law says that the nicest thing a man can do for a woman is to wear a tux to go out with her. (She also says that this obligates the woman to dress up to go out with him.)

Posted by: amstphd | September 27, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

gaga for gala's and fun times - must be nice all these d.c. folks have discretionary income to put on the ritz - while the rest of what's left of the american workforce is slugg'n thru high taxes and doing the unemployment 2 step.

Posted by: corp21 | September 27, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

And you wonder why the rest of the country hates Washington...

Posted by: Aerowaz | September 27, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent round-up of the highlights and pitfalls of the DC gala scene. For those of us organizing the Melanoma Research Foundation’s “Wings of Hope” Gala, we’ve found that you get “fun factor” when you add up the right balance of good music, top caliber food, and fantastic auction items. We’ve seen guests who are there just to have a good time. Others are there because they see melanoma researchers so close to meaningful breakthrough and they want to be part of that breakthrough. Either way, we’re excited to see new faces and familiar ones coming out to Trump National on Nov. 6 for a great evening. visit for more details regarding the 2010 Wings of Hope Gala and to purchase tickets and sponsorship opportunities!

Posted by: natasha6 | September 27, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm guessing Wolf Trap just got unlucky with the weather, but I'm second guessing my buying a lot of tickets to the place during the summer, It really does get hot ... and humid and frankly unpleasant. There is something to be said about air-conditioning at places like the Strathmore, they must have suffered in the tuxes at Wolf Trap.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | September 27, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Good God, Jerzy, you practically advertise yourself as a Republican operative in these forums. WTF does Obama/Reagan have to do with this article? Go get a real job, loser!

Posted by: rhalter3633 | September 27, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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