Inauguration Balls Feature A-List Performers, High-Tech Touches, and High- and Low-End Decor

After months of speculation and preparations—and a weekend of parties—the inauguration night balls offered up big-name talent, decor schemes both high-end and low, and lots of buffets and open bars.

By Courtney Thompson, with additional reporting by Adele Chapin, Walter Nicholls & Brendan Spiegel January 21, 2009, 2:30 PM EST

The Obamas at the Neighborhood Ball

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a day of inaugural festivities held outside amid biting winds and clamoring crowds, last night the masses descended onto a slew of balls celebrating President Barack Obama's swearing in. The 10 Presidential Inauguration Committee-sanctioned parties—the official bashes graced with planned appearances by the new president and first lady—were the tickets to land, with most going to politicians, Hill staffers, and donors. Private functions also dotted the event landscape, with first-ever parties from BET at the Mandarin Oriental and Google at the Mellon Auditorium.

Obama's popularity among the Hollywood set was more evident than ever before, as an award show-worthy roster of performers entertained around town. On the slate at the televised Neighborhood Ball were Faith Hill, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Alicia Keys. Other rosters included Sting and Elvis Costello at the Creative Coalition fete at the Harman Center, Wyclef Jean for BET, and Patti LaBelle at the Africa Ball at the Gaylord.

Street closures, freezing temperatures, and the ongoing taxi shortage made ball hopping a challenge, but as revelers showed throughout the weekend, little could dampen the spirits of those in town for the celebration.

Here are some highlights from the evening's biggest events.

Neighborhood Ball: Of the 10 official inaugural balls sanctioned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the first to enjoy the pleasure of the new president's company was the Neighborhood Ball, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Incorporating the Obamas' idea of community, the Neighborhood Ball had the distinction of being networked to other events across the country, allowing guests to communicate through texting stations and Web video. When the first couple made their appearance, the president spoke briefly to the crowd, and then the Obamas enjoyed their first dance, to Beyoncé singing Etta James's classic “At Last” in front of a sea of people holding up phones and cameras.

Beyoncé was just one of the many performers to take the ball's stage: The list included, Mary J. Blige, Maroon 5, Mariah Carey, Shakira, and Sting. The second largest barrage of musicians was at the “Be the Change” Youth Ball at the Hilton, which MTV sponsored, after canceling plans for its own event. Young guests, who paid as little as $75 for the hot ticket, got to see performances by Kid Rock, Fall Out Boy, and Kanye West. Other events on the Obamas' rigorous agenda included the Commander-in-Chief Ball, the Home State Ball, and several regional balls.

Google: The tech firm's first-ever inaugural event capped the evening with a hip, casual affair, where 2,000 guests danced to the sounds of DJ Tilt and mingled with celebs like Ben Affleck, John Cusack, and Sarah Silverman. Lorin Pollack, Google's group marketing events manager, worked with local firm Sygyzy Events to drape the stately Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in sleek all-white decor inspired by President Obama's promise of a fresh start and transparency in government. The event combined high-tech and low-tech touches, with laptops set up for guests to make direct donations to nonprofit cohost Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, whiteboards erected for partiers to write out their hopes for the new administration, and campaign buzzwords projected on the auditorium's ceiling. Once off the dance floor, guests grabbed hors d'oeuvres provided by Occasions Caterers and lounged in semiprivate white plastic igloos or took to the game room, playing Guitar Hero on Wii or just getting in a game of backgammon.

BETSylvia Weinstock’s five-foot-high chocolate cake, iced in red, white, and blue butter cream, created a sweet focal point at BET's inaugural ball in the grand ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental. The packed event started at 9 p.m. and went until 3 a.m. “I wanted something tall and grand to show that Obama had arrived,” said the New York-based cake designer. Produced by Events by André Wells, BET's first inaugural party drew more than 1,200 people at $500 per ticket (up from a 700-guest tally days before, when several other balls were canceled) and was held in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit youth organization founded by General Colin Powell and Alma Powell, who gave brief remarks. Guests included Mary J. Blige, MC Lyte, Jay-Z, Ashanti, and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as local and national business and nonprofit leaders. Wells’s 40- by 60-foot red reveal curtain, composed of iridescent string, opened for musical guest Wyclef Jean at midnight.

Pennsylvania State Society: One of many state-hosted balls, the Pennsylvania State Society’s fete, dubbed “A Night of Stars,” took over the lower level of the Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C., washing the main ballroom with star-filled gobos. Produced by J Street Group, the party kicked off at 8 p.m. with cocktails and a heavy buffet (think roasted vegetables, hummus and pita, and New York strip steak slices) for a crowd of 1,500, while some 300 V.I.P.s—Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell among them—mixed in a separate room with upgraded eats (think mini lamb chops and sushi). When the V.I.P.s entered the main room to check out the Mark Rivera Entertainment band, a crew of musicians who have toured with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Elton John, they could watch from an area cleverly sequestered by faux shrubs. Later in the evening, mini burgers and cheese steak subs came out, alongside ice cream flavors Biden Berry and Baracky Road.

Hawaii State Society: 
A striking, two-panel projected image of a tropical waterfall paired with a recorded gurgle greeted the 1,000 guests at the Hawaii State Society’s first inaugural ball (at $200 a ticket), produced by the group’s inaugural committee in the Oriental Ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental (down the hall from BET’s fete). In addition to Swank Audio Visual’s effect, at the 7 p.m. kick-off, each arriving guest (some in black-tie and others in Hawaiian formal dress) received a floral lei, donated by the 50th state’s floral businesses, which also provided the exotic blooms for centerpieces. Featured cocktails included the “Air Force One,” made with Hpnotiq’s fruit-flavored liqueur, and the “American Dream,” concocted with Pama pomegranate-flavored liqueur. Long lines formed when the Mandarin’s catering crew rolled-out the suckling pigs. “We wanted to keep it authentic Hawaiian, no surfboards or volcanoes. That’s Hollywood,” said Kohono Mossman, a 26-year-old Pentagon consultant who chaired the society's inaugural committee, working with the 400-member society’s president, Sarah Ulis. “We wanted to honor all Hawaiian leaders, not just the new president.”

Africa & International Friends Ball: Billed as one of the season’s largest events, with planners hoping for more than 10,000 guests, the Africa & International Friends Inaugural Ball at Gaylord National clocked in at a more moderate headcount of 2,300. But despite the lower than anticipated turnout, the ball went on with is theme of “The Ancestor’s Dream Realized.” Planned with a tight four-week time line and hosted by the Prince George's County Presidential Inaugural Committee, the ball’s guest list included Maryland state legislators and Prince George’s County leaders. The evening’s entertainment didn’t include Usher, who was rumored to be performing but was ultimately snagged by another party. Guests instead celebrated the historic moment with performances from comedian Steve Harvey, the O’Jays, and Patti LaBelle, who kicked off her 40-minute set with “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Youth Inaugural Conference Ball: Across town, nearly 5,000 teens and twentysomethings gathered at this two-venue ball, capping the Presidential Inaugural Conference for 15,000 university scholars that kicked off last Saturday. Produced by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council’s Robert Smith and Rebecca Fazzari, the event took over the Hirshhorn Museum’s outdoor sculpture garden and the entire National Air and Space Museum a block away. HDO began erecting the heated tent over the Hirshhorn courtyard last Thursday, and Williams/Gerard Productions and Fandango Productions worked to create an LED dance floor. While a DJ manned the music at the Hirshhorn, cover band Burnt Sienna churned out hits like “Jessie’s Girl” atop a raised stage at the Air and Space Museum. Although the event mirrored many a ball around town, its alcohol-free status was decidedly youth appropriate, as was the mashed potato bar courtesy of Design Cuisine.

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