On Inauguration Night, Purple Ball Had Color But Lacked Authenticity, and American Music Balls Were a Bust

By Ted Kruckel January 21, 2009, 4:08 PM EST

On Tuesday night, as my taxi inched down M street to the Georgetown inaugural ball, held in two venues alongside the Georgetown Shops Mall, one shop owner had posted a hastily made but hard-to-ignore suggestion: “Why not go home already: Take it all in on your TV!” I wish I had.

Let it be known that this mostly jaded reporter was down with the oneness, surprising everyone who knows me by hopping the metro yesterday at 11 a.m. and, with careful planning, arriving on the mall in time to hear Barack’s speech, call my sister, take a picture, etc. It was touching and all that.

But a night of overly commercialized, under-organized (or failed) party planning reminded me that even the noblest of causes or movements are not free from shameless exploiters and profiteers. It's been a long trip.

So as I rush to Union Station—I decided to forego my business class reservation and early return to the calm and cool oasis that is Manhattan—herein are my parting observations.

I had been warned by a Virginia journalist that the publicity team for the Purple Ball (supposedly a celebration of diversity and bipartisanship) was one of the weekend’s most unprofessional. With this in mind, I brought page after page of printed emails detailing my requests and various approvals (and rescinded approvals) to four different individuals.

At the media check-in I waited and listened to at least a dozen journalists in my same lifeboat: “I was told yes, then no, then yes, I wouldn’t have come otherwise…blah, blah, blah.” I would have high-tailed it, but the answers were so funny. “All media approvals were tentative, and that was made clear,” said one PR gal. “I know you have I.D., but we already checked someone in with your name so you’re not getting in,” said another. 

Miraculously, a pretty young lady in a plum (“please don’t describe my dress as purple”) satin sheath with green amethyst earrings and a clipboard ushered me aside with a “Follow me.”

“I read BizBash and I am dying to tell you about how ridiculous this experience has been,” she whispered, while walking me through a gauntlet. “I am a P.I.C. [Presidential Inaugural Committee] volunteer, one of 15,000 chosen from over a quarter of a million applicants. I am a professional. I had to interview to be a volunteer. Twice.”

The lady keeps talking to me like we’re old friends. “The other day I was told to arrive for the event at 8 a.m. and work the entire day, no break. They told me to arrive in my gown with hair and makeup ready, which of course I didn’t do. I was told I wouldn’t even be allowed to use the hotel bathrooms to change. Luckily, my aunt is staying here, so I changed in her room.”

Leaving me just inside the door, she muttered something about the ball’s charity component (according to the ball’s Web site, the United Negro College Fund will receive “up to 15 percent of the proceeds”), and suggested that the driving force behind the ball was pushing publicist and host committee chair Asal Masomi's social standing in Washington.

Inside the beautiful ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel, where sponsor Moet & Chandon was the sole offering at the three bars, guests were wowed by inspirational speakers like Deirdre Hall of Days of Our Lives and fellow TV manqué Hill Harper. If these are voices of a new generation, shoot me now.

And apparently celebrity cohost (and Eracism Foundation leader) Louis Gossett Jr. withdrew his support for the Purple Ball at the last minute, citing a lack of diversity. I thought he may have been anticipating annoyance at the party design, which was mostly swaths and swaths of cheap-looking purple velvet and the ubiquitous Swarovski crystals. Think grapey boudoir.

Despite wanting to see Il Divo perform, I bolted. 

There were two American Music Inaugural Balls canceled with no notification to paying guests. “Legends” was to be hosted by Dionne Warwick and attended by the great Chaka Khan and zany George Clinton. Who could resist? Evidently, most people. Ticket sales were abysmal for that one, but better for the more hip “Urban Ball,” featuring Cedric the Entertainer and Ludacris.

I had been confirmed for the old fogies’ version held at the Marriott Wardman Park on Connecticut Avenue, which a hotel operator told me was near the National Zoo.

Who needs a zoo when instead you can watch town car after town car pull up to the hotel, where bejeweled and bedazzled guests emerge, only to be told by doormen that the event has been canceled? Some people shrugged with disappointment and got back in their cars, but I should say those were very few. Most people, angry in disbelief, marched into the hotel lobby only to find that the unthinkable was true: Their hours in ablutions and primping had been in vain. Two ladies cried.

I have to wrap it up here because there’s a train to catch, but I hope that, like Bernie Madoff, the organizers and promoters of these events are hounded and brought to justice. And at another time, the inauguration ticket-holders who were turned away because of faulty security screenings should get to tell their story too. Organization was not seamless. 

But first: Did anyone notice that the viewing stands at the inaugural parade were nearly empty? Hundreds and hundreds of vacant seats, even inside the fancy bulletproof part. I can’t imagine it would have been that hard to send people down the parade route and offer the seats to standing people, so that the Obama girls would not have to look across the parade and wonder, where did everybody go?

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