WASHINGTON — Andy Shallal says he's "not a 'ball-type.'" He's never been to an inaugural ball, and he's never cared.
"You have to dress up and fight traffic and stand there and get a five-minute glimpse of whoever shows up," said Shallal, 53, a native of Iraq who grew up here and in Virginia and wears two hats as the owner of several area restaurants and as a prominent peace activist.
This year, however, Shallal isn't just going to an inaugural ball. He's organizing one.
His celebrity-studded, sold-out Peace Ball at the National Postal Museum on Jan. 20 is one of at least 80 unofficial gala events that are drawing people from across the country, along with the 10 coveted official balls where Barack and Michelle Obama are scheduled to appear.
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"We, the peace movement, need to be at the table, and not on the fringes as we have been for so many years," Shallal said, adding that the peace community has high hopes for Obama. "The ball is like being at someone's wedding. We wanted to be at a very important tradition of bringing in a new president."
Inauguration Day is for history and ceremony, with the oath of office, the inaugural address, the parade and maybe an official act or two by the new president.
Inauguration night, on the other hand, is all about the parties.
The balls are formal, sometimes invitation-only fetes with food, drink, music, bad dancing, high-profile guests, men in tuxes and women in gowns. Ticket prices range from free to $1,000 for some VIP receptions. Many are in the $75-$250 range.
Ladies, if you must have a new formal dress, figure another $250-$500 and up. Way up in some places.
A Versace gown at Saks Fifth Avenue runs $4,270, a Judith Leiber crystal clutch is $1,395, a pair of Rene Caovilla crystal snake sandals another $1,015, and since it's January, a Loro Piani cashmere cape runs $3,195, and a pair of cashmere-lined gloves adds $90. That comes to nearly 10 grand — if you already possess all the right jewelry.
In these tough economic times, however, few have that much to spend.
At Jewel's Formals in Smithfield, N.C., about 30 miles from Raleigh, assistant manager Shirley Betti said a middle-aged woman and her daughter came by in late December, excited because "they were going on the train to Washington" and would get to attend an inaugural ball. The woman settled on a classic, V-neck black formal dress with a wide belt and soft flowing skirt. She also bought shoes and jewelry. The total came to around $450.
Betti didn't vote for Obama, but she shared the customer's enthusiasm anyway. "Most people would be just thrilled to go to something like that!"
Cynthia Russell, 50, a homebuilder in the Gainesville, Fla., area, voted for Obama — after twice voting for President George W. Bush. She was thrilled to learn that she was one of 10 Obama supporters who were picked in an essay-writing contest to attend the swearing-in and parade.
Russell said it didn't really register that she'd also be a guest of the Obamas at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball — and would need a dress — until a television producer mentioned it.
With the housing market in tatters, however, Russell said she's cut down on her housekeeping service, dropped her local newspaper subscription and even canceled her health insurance until she can find something cheaper. She'll spring for a new dress, but probably nothing over-the-top. "No one's going to look at me," she laughed. "They're going to be looking at Oprah and Michelle Obama."
This year's 10 official balls are:
- A new Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, at which a number of free or low-priced tickets have been promised to ordinary folks from the nation's capital and beyond.
Much of the action around town, however, will be at unofficial balls where the Obamas aren't billed as guests.
These are being hosted by or in honor of children, gays, the disabled, various nations, state historical societies and other causes. Some are to be held days before the inauguration, and some will be in Maryland or Virginia rather than in Washington.
A sampling of those being advertised:
Shallal's Peace Ball will feature Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Bernice Johnson Reagon and younger and international peace musicians, as well as activist writers, comedians and commentators. More than 1,000 people have bought tickets, and Shallal said that 600 more are on a waiting list. Peace Ball tickets were $165; some VIP tickets were still available for $1,000.
"It should be a very interesting crowd," Shallal said. Like all hosts of unofficial balls, he's holding out hope that Obamas might just go off-schedule and squeeze in a visit.
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