There are a few inaugural balls that are guaranteed to deliver elegance, good food, and powerful company. The Texas State Society’s Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball is still the Super Bowl of balls. It will draw more than 10,000 attendees. It will have Kelly Willis and Asleep at the Wheel. The sold-out Illinois State Society’s gala will be appropriately big and first-class. The Creative Coalition’s shindig will have Spike Lee and Susan Sarandon.
Those events will have little problem complying with the dictionary definition of a ball—“a lavish dance requiring formal attire.” In recent inaugural years, however, Washington’s culture of celebration and self-promotion has spawned a growing number of celebrations—celebrations that appropriate the term “ball” but stretch its common conception beyond all recognition. On this front, there’s a lot to choose from:
“We’re all Delawareans.”
To outsiders, Delaware is a place that collects tolls and credit-card payments. It seems not to register on any of the scales that distinguish states—population, size, majesty, history, culinary tradition.
All of which makes Nancy Aiken’s job a tough one. She is the president of the Delaware State Society—and an unlikely advocate for the First State. She did not grow up in Delaware, nor does she spend most of the year in the state. Her only Delaware connection is a second home in Bethany Beach.
The beach place was more than enough of a qualification for Aiken to take the helm of the Delaware State Society. After all, the group ceased operations about 12 years ago thanks to indifference. Last year, Aiken restarted it, with a membership requirement geared toward swelling the group’s ranks. “If you have had dinner in Delaware, you can be a member,” Aiken says.
If you don’t think you have that kind of commitment to the first state, you could at least consider attending the Delaware State Society Inaugural Ball at the Willard InterContinental on Jan. 19. There are still plenty of tickets, although Aiken insists the ball will be a sellout.
That would be a tougher goal if not for Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who gives the first state a bigger-than-usual inaugural presence. Biden’s Scranton, Pa., roots have also been a boon, Aiken says. Pennsylvania residents have come on strong, buying up roughly two dozen tickets.
Chances are few will think of Delaware when they walk into the Willard. There was no time to dress up the historic hotel with a boardwalk or other Delaware ephemera. “I wish I could say there was,” Aiken says. “There will be Delaware flags and things that make you think you’re at a Delaware party. We were thinking salt-water candy. When I think of Delaware, I think of the beach. I doubt we’ll be able to do that.”
An appearance by Biden is “still under consideration,” Aiken says. The missing taffy or a missing Biden won’t matter. Aiken says loving Delaware, feeling Delaware pride is almost universal whether you’ve ever
eaten dinner in Rehoboth or not. “We all have a little Delawarean in us,” she says. “We’re all Delawareans.”
Secret Service to Rule on Obama Lei
President-Elect Barack Obama’s roots dictate a huge Hawaiian presence the week of the inauguration. Micah Mossman, the chair for the Hawaii State Society Ball being held on Jan. 20, says there were several discussions about how best to represent the state. Or how best not to represent the state—don’t expect any Hawaii Five-O references. “We want to do everything we can to have authentic Hawaii—not the kind you see in Hollywood,” Mossman says.
Volcanoes were considered for the state ball’s Mandarin Oriental hotel space. And then dismissed. “We didn’t picture anything spewing out of a volcano—either a beautiful picture of one, like a mural of one or a painting of one,” Mossman says. “We probably couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate it into the event appropriately. As we pursued it further, we figured it probably wasn’t the best route to go down.”
But Mossman and his crew have figured out how to produce a waterfall effect for the escalator. “It will be water lights above you and around you as you come down there,” Mossman says. “I had nothing to do with that. That’s totally the audiovisual team.”
Flowers are being imported from Hawaii. Palm trees, Mossman says, he can get from here. All that’s left is an answer on whether or not the new president will experience the audiovisual waterfall.
Obama, Mossman says, has “absolutely not confirmed.” But that hasn’t stopped Mossman and his team from entering into serious talks with Secret Service on one important security question: Can they place a special lei over the new president’s head?
“We’ve gotten sort of a mixed reaction,” Mossman says of the talks with Secret Service personnel. “It depends on who we talk to from Secret Service. Sometimes, it’s absolutely not. Sometimes it’s passing [the request on]. We’re planning for the worst but hoping for the best.…When the Secret Service shows up, it’s out of our hands.”
It’s Jesse’s Night
At some point during Jan. 19’s History in the Making: “A Dream & A Change” Inaugural Ball, hundreds of guests (who’ve paid $199 per ticket) will gather inside a room at the Sheraton in Crystal City. They will be told to quiet down. Then a series of awards will be presented.
The guests may have come for the food and dancing and live entertainment. But the theme of the ball is to honor past civil rights leaders. The organizers of the ball, a Woodbridge-based organization called the Babyboomer Professionals, have extended invites to John Lewis and Jesse Jackson Sr., among others.
“We have an award that we’d like to present to them,” says Antoinette Carr, executive director. “So often they get overlooked. We remember. We do remember.”
Carr says she thinks the award is a plaque. She is sure that Jackson is one of the honorees. She’s just not sure if he will make it to Crystal City. “We’re trying to find out what’s going on,” Carr admits. “We haven’t heard anything. We noticed that they’ve been invited to numerous balls.”
Carr has competition with the Dream Makers Inaugural Ball being held that same night at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in the District.
Dream Makers organizer Captain Smith—“My full name is Captain John Smith Jr. That’s actually my name”—says that they plan on giving special awards to Jackson and Lewis, as well as Al Sharpton. They have sold 225 of the 700 tickets so far. But Smith is confident about his three honorees.
“We’re asking they provide a speech,” says the 35-year-old Smith. “The three honorees—they have confirmed that they are going to be there. All I can say is they confirmed with us. But you know how that goes. We’re prepared to give them a donation and an award. That’s how it is right now.”
The crystal quartz resembles the Washington Monument. Caroline Kenner, a witch doctor, Pagan shamanic healer, and organizer for the Sacred Space Foundation, found it in a Takoma Park shop called Mahalo Minerals. She says it called to her. “It’s a wonderful crystal piece,” she says. “I picked it up, and I almost fell over backwards because it was so urging me to buy it.”
Kenner says the crystal will be playing a major part in a ritual of unity and blessing beginning at 2 p.m. on Jan. 19 at the Jefferson Memorial. She expects at least 200 pagans of all denominations to show up. It is the pagan’s version of an inaugural ball: an intentionally hokey “witch’s broom dance,” prayer, and (of course) a drum circle. But the star will be Kenner’s crystal.
The rituals are meant to cleanse D.C. of all the ills of the Bush years and to protect Obama before his swearing-in. “We’re worried about his safety,” she explains. “We believe in magic and we believe that the magical protection that we are going to convey to the Obama and Biden families will have an actual effect on this world….We know it works.”
At the end of the ceremony, “all of us will focus on the crystal,” Kenner goes on. “We are going to sing out a tone three times” before sacrificing the object by throwing it in the water. “It’s looking forward to being in the Tidal Basin,” she says.
“I’m just going to toss it in….Everything has to be tightly kept on time—otherwise we won’t have time for the drumming.”
Part of this plan is in danger of being sunk by the National Park Service. “The Tidal Basin is not for people to throw objects into,” says Bill Line, an NPS communications officer.
Not even ceremonial objects infused with positive energy? Says Line: “The Park Service could easily look at it as refuse.”
Kenner says she is coming prepared for anything. Just in case, she is bringing along a backup crystal and is willing to make the sacrifice offsite.
A Live Band and a Lecture
At the Historic Inaugural Ball on Jan. 19, guests at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., will eat, drink, and listen to a couple of live bands. They’ll also get a lecture—the only lecture, as far as we can determine, scheduled at any of the 100-plus balls.
The lecturer, Anthony Browder, has spent the last 28 years of his life as a historian and researcher of African history with a focus on ancient Egypt. He has made 41 trips to Egypt, authored four books, and co-authored another four. He works as the director of the IKG Cultural Resource Center at 1816 12th St. NW.
Browder, 57, has 15 minutes to present his talk at the ball. He says he will be using no audiovisual aids and will focus on the contrasts and similarities between Martin Luther King Jr. and President-elect Obama. “Both men were exceptionally bright and talented men whose lives were shaped by their fathers,” he says. “There are some interesting parallels, particularly in the roles of fathers, in the lives of African-American men.”
Browder says he is not feeling any pressure. “I feel a responsibility to not get caught up in all the celebration going on,” he explains. “When the balls are over, when people have recovered from their hangovers, they are still going to have to confront the most serious economic challenge we’ve ever faced and two wars and other problems that we don’t even know about now.”
Six months before the election, Nancy Judd became a committed Obama volunteer. She organized her Santa Fe, N.M., neighborhood. The day after Obama’s victory, she says, she was inspired to visit the campaign’s headquarters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and pick up its leftover campaign materials like yard signs and leaflets. She soon decided what she wanted to do with the leftovers: make dresses.
Judd, 40, works as an environmental educator and as the proprietor of Recycle Runway, which turns other people’s landfill materials into high fashion. She has been making garments out of melted plastic and broken glass for 10 years. Judd’s Obama-themed creations will be making their D.C. debut at the Green Inaugural Ball being held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Jan. 17. Judd, along with two live models, will be on hand to work the ball in their repurposed campaign materials.
Judd says it took her 25 hours to make her Obama dress out of old yard signs. An Obama-themed men’s knee-length winter coat made from campaign pamphlets proved more difficult. Judd says it took more than 200 hours to complete.
She first purchased a vintage coat and then set about trying to apply the campaign literature to it. “It’s not easy to make paper fluid and not feel robotic,” Judd says. She ended up sewing the Obama material onto layers of canvas and then applied the canvas to the vintage coat. “I redesigned the arm,” she explains. “It’s in five-piece sections that overlap so that the arm can bend enough to shake a hand.”
One of Judd’s dreams is for Obama to model the coat. “I was able to find a coat that was close to his size,” she says. “I think he’d look great. He’d look wonderful in the coat. I can see it in my mind’s eye. Just posing for a photo maybe with some children.”
Stressing the Moment
Belinda Fraley-Huesman has been charged with writing a song that will premiere at HBC’s New Leaf Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20. With 10 days to go, she set aside a Saturday to tackle rewrite No. 13 or 14. She lit some candles, paced the rooms of her Baltimore home, and worried over her verses. The song has a title, “This Moment is Bigger Than Me.” Everything else is up for a rewrite.
Fraley-Huesman, 49, says she has been writing songs since she was 17. She has three children and three grandchildren. She works full time running her own business in construction management, expediting building permits and consulting on projects. She didn’t produce her first demo until she was 30 years old. A few years ago, she started up a country-rock band called Jump Da Croc.
She’s big in Salisbury, Md. A station there—Froggy 99—picked up her song “Mardella Springs,” which was inspired by local parents losing their son in Afghanistan. She’s heard the song still gets played.
It was another one of Fraley-Huesman’s songs that got the attention of one of the ball’s organizers. It’s called “I Want to Be Bigger Than Me.” The organizer thought she could easily change the lyrics around to fit this historic moment. He told her the song should be big, “We Are the World” big.
But Fraley-Huesman didn’t vote for Obama. “I’m more of a conservative than he is,” she says. “I don’t share some of his beliefs….I admired the fact of what McCain did for our country. I think that he has integrity. I don’t know much about Obama.”
On a lobbying tour through Congress on behalf of musicians worried about illegal downloads, Fraley-Huesman got some face time with the then Sen. Obama. He left her cold. “Maybe it was just that day, but he really didn’t have any time for us,” she says. “He wasn’t interested.”
Fraley-Huesman ignored or scrapped any idea of cribbing from Obama’s campaign themes or slogans. She cut out lines like “It’s a brand new day/Time for a change” and ruled out quoting the National Anthem. Nine or 10 drafts ago, she had this over-the-top phrase: “Heaven on earth on the wings of a dove.” There are no more doves.
“Presidents come and go,” Fraley-Huesman says. “I want to write a song that’s going to play in a elevator in 20 years. I wanted a song that’s going to be universal. I’ve been really struggling with it. It’s easy to throw just a bunch of lines down on a piece of paper. I want it to be where every line says something….It has to be something I totally believe in or the song’s not going to go out there. I’m actually writing and rewriting. I’m not happy with the thing.”
By Sunday, with nine days to go, Fraley-Huesman finished draft No. 15. She thinks she has her chorus:
I want it be bigger than me
Love is all I can take into eternity
This moment is alive with possibility
This moment is bigger than me
I do believe love is all we need.
Cleared-up misconceptions, food
In addition to being a great prelude to the Freemasons’ 200th D.C. anniversary in 2011, Garrison Courtney, junior warden of the William R. Singleton chapter, sees an inaugural ball as an opportunity to address some of the untruths floating around about his organization.
“We’ve been attempting to address conspiracy theories for a very long time,” he says. “And we love clearing up rumors. We’ll be very up front with our answers.”
Is Biden a Mason? “No.” Is Obama a Mason? “If Obama’s a Mason or a non-Mason, it doesn’t really matter. But no, he’s not a Mason.” Have you read anything by Dan Brown? “Yes.”
Courtney is almost disappointingly congenial. Expect the Jan. 20 ball at the Stars Bistro on P Street NW to be the same—plus, it’s sort of cheap.
The chapter’s Web site claims that “[w]hile other inauguration balls are costing $125-$500 or more per ticket, we’ve arranged for an evening with some amazing food, a great DJ, and brotherhood, all for $65 per ticket, we’ve also included an incentive to help pay the baby sitter, couples may go for just $120 apiece.”
“This is the first time that any kind of Masonic lodge has held a ball in tribute to presidential elections and the inauguration,” Courtney says. “We’re an apolitical association, and what you’re seeing is a revitalization of a lodge that’s looking to celebrate the things we’ve done in our community over the last 200 years.”
(Free) Inaugural Coffee and Snacks
Nearly every state society in D.C. will be serving alcohol at its inauguration party. Except Minnesota, which—for reasons unbeknownst to Doug Zabransky, the vice president for communications of the Minnesota State Society—
has opted for another beverage at its Jan. 20 Minnesota State Society Inaugural Hospitality Reception.
“I don’t know why we’re only serving coffee at our inauguration get-together,” says Zabransky. He bristles at the suggestion that Minnesotans are prudes. “What? No, we’ve had alcohol at plenty of our affairs. Maybe the Rayburn House Office Building has some restrictions or something, or maybe we’re trying to save some money. Other than that, there’s no reason not to have booze. It’s not a Minnesota thing to just drink coffee.”
According to Kevin Hanley, U.S. House of Representatives sergeant-at-arms, “There is no prohibition of serving alcohol in the House office building.”
For coffee, the society expects between 50 and 100 people to show up. Zabransky notes that’s a good turnout, due both to the society’s membership base, which Zabransky described as “pretty big” (between “500 and 750 Minnesotans”) and because the event is free. Many other inauguration events are charging upward of $100 per head. “Unless you’ve been working on the campaign, you’re not going to get into these really expensive balls,” Zabransky says. He also dismissed concerns that the Minnesota event’s early start time of 9 a.m. means that it could fizzle out before inauguration festivities are in full swing. Turns out the society will be serving coffee until 4 p.m. “So we will be partying all day,” Zabransky says.
What Happens When You Mix Blue and Red?
Salt-of-the-earth types can catch a special deal at the Jan. 20 Inaugural Purple Ball, according to Asal Masomi, the ball’s chair: “We’re going to have discounted VIP tickets reduced from $1,000 to $500 for members of the armed forces and labor unions”—a real steal, apparently. (The top ticket at the Purple Ball is $5,000.) Masomi contends “it’s an evening to celebrate the new administration and not for making a profit.”
She is not forthcoming with just how many Teamsters or AFL-CIO types she’s expecting but promises there will be at least one member from each branch of the armed forces who will get to attend the ball for free. With that, she moves quickly to the subject of the purple trappings, which draw their hue from a merging of the electoral-map colors of the country’s two major parties. It’s a “metaphor for bipartisanship,” says Masomi, and it’s also the reason why the Inaugural Purple Ball can charge more than most of the District’s inauguration parties and still claim (without a shred of irony) that it’s not in it for the money.
“We’re going to drape the whole ballroom with purple velvet and crystals everywhere,” Masomi says. “It’s going to be very frosty—all you’ll see when you walk in are reflections, because there will be crystals everywhere. The flowers will be made of ivory and red crystal, and all the Champagne glasses will be overflowing with crystals. There will be crystal chandeliers.”
Confirmed guests for the Inaugural Purple Ball include actors Kate Walsh, Josh Lucas, Ed Harris, Ashley Judd, and Louis Gossett Jr. (who are on the planning committee), as well as John Cusack, Angela Bassett, and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. Masomi insists that the “intimate” list includes only 600 people, which means “everyone on the committee will be available to our guests for interactions.”
For those who want to peel off from a crowd of more than 11,000 at the Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland, there’s essentially only one option: the “Texas State Fair.”
The re-created fair will feature Texas-based and Texas-inspired vendors selling belt buckles and the like or passing out literature that will be immediately thrown away. The American Gas Association is a vendor. NASA is a vendor. And so is Di Manning, who will be there to sell her designer flip-flops.
Manning, 50, started her company in 2001 after buying a pair of high-end flip-flops on vacation in Laguna Beach. The beach shoes wrecked her feet and she vowed to come up with a better flop. She named the company Funké Flopz (pronounced fun-kay flops) for her Louisiana heritage (her maiden name is Fuqua) and her love of z’s.
What makes a flopz? Manning accessorizes Havaianas with feathers, rhinestones, fake pearls, and bead trims. “I get calls from all the Junior Leagues in the South,” Manning says. She also does trunk shows and charity events in Kingwood, Texas. “The shoes sell themselves.”
Just in case, Manning is hoping for a lot of sore feet at the Texas ball. “My shoes are dressy enough that they can wear them with a ball gown and get away with it,” she says, adding: “The rhinestones are my biggest sellers. The ladies love glitz.”
States of Mind
Mario Montoya, president of the New Mexico State Society, denies the existence of a rift between his group and the Arizona State Society. The two groups co-hosted an inaugural ball in 2005 but decided to host separate ones this year, “because,” Montoya says, “we realized we could handle it on our own. Last time we weren’t sure we could raise enough funds.” The gamble has paid off, insofar as the society managed to sell all 600 of the tickets it printed for its Land of Enchantment Inaugural Ball at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian on Jan. 19.
Though Montoya doesn’t tie the two together, the decision to fly solo may be a point of pride, seeing as Democrats now comprise New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation, while Arizona is still represented by the guy who lost to Barack Obama. Montoya hastens to add that the society “is nonpartisan,” and will be counting among its honored guests Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who retires from the Senate this month at the end of his sixth consecutive term.
Martin Chavez, whom Montoya refers to as “the mayor of our largest town, which is called Albuquerque,” will also be in attendance. Sadly, there will be an empty place at the table where Gov. Bill Richardson would have sat if a scandal hadn’t chased him out of the Obama cabinet.
And what’s going to happen to Gov. Richardson’s ticket?
“Tickets?” Montoya asks incredulously, “We didn’t give out tickets to the honored guests.”
Patriotic Pasties for Anti-Hillites
Cabaret dancer L’il Dutch (her real identity is a close-kept secret) has been selling the Jan. 18 Obama Wonderama at the Warehouse Theater as an alternative inaugural celebration for people who itch and sweat at the idea of hanging around “the Capitol Hill set.” If the capacity for the Wonderama is any indication, the ranks of such power-hating alternatypes max out at around 200 people.
“We wanted to put together a fun, edgy, and inexpensive celebration,” Dutch says in defense of the small crowd and $25 ticket price. The goings-on, according to Dutch, include tribal belly dancers, classic burlesque performances, “patriotic pasties,” and even a chance to win a Chris Bishop T-shirt depicting Barack Obama seated triumphantly atop a pure-white unicorn with a golden horn. “Everybody is ecstatic over the victory and how the city is going to change after this. This is a huge event for people.”
The Wonderama isn’t the only place in town that’s going to be flying its freak flag—there’s also the Netroots Nation Inaugural Ball, which will feature an all-star roster of nerdy leftist bloggers, and the 911truth.org “Inaugurate Yourself” Nationwide Caravan of Peace & Truth, which will end its 10-day nationwide protest of President George W. Bush in D.C. on Inauguration Day—but L’il Dutch isn’t worried about the competition. Her party, after all, will have boobs. And fire. And certain combinations of the two. “We’re throwing a party that we thought our friends would want to attend, people who aren’t part of the norm,” she says.
When asked what kind of treatment Obama would receive if he showed up at the Warehouse, Dutch answered reverently: “The utmost respect and celebration—because of him, people finally wanna be in D.C. again.”