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Posted at 10:00 PM ET, 10/16/2011

Gala chairs, at Meridian Ball and other parties: More work than prom queen

The chairs of the Meridian Ball — Susanna Quinn and Mary Ourisman, with their husbands Jack Quinn (left) and Mandy Ourisman (right) at the gala Friday night. (Tony Powell)

The chairwoman of the gala! A title of such grand, obscure glamour — but what does it mean? And does she get to carry a scepter?

Ask some of the ladies whose names appear atop the heavy-paper invitations, though, and they’ll tell you it's not like being prom queen: It’s hard labor on the factory floor of Washington’s charity-fundraising industrial complex.

Ann Walker Marchant at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opening night gala at the Kennedy Center in February. (Rebecca D'Angelo for The Washington Post)
“I resist chairing events because it’s so time- and resource-consuming,” said Ann Walker Marchant, a corporate communications guru and sought-after social chair, who oversaw Knock Out Abuse in 2008 and the Washington Ballet gala in 2010. “It’s a wonderful thing to do, but it becomes a job and a half.”

Case in point: Meridian International House, which for its 43rd annual black-tie ball Friday night (Steny Hoyer, Gail Huff, Regina Benjamin, Michael Chertoff and Franklin Raines among those clinking flutes and savoring dark chocolates under a starry sky) enlisted no fewer than four chairs.

At the top of the pyramid: Mary Ourisman of the Ourisman automotive family. As a former ambassador to Barbados, she was a natural fit for Meridian’s diplomatic-outreach mission — and as a veteran of the gala-chairing circuit, a natural at raising money. Ourisman was tasked with luring the big-bucks donors who, for a minimum of $650, were treated to embassy dinners before the ball.

Clara Brillembourg Chopivsky at the Meridian Ball. (Tony Powell)
But a successful gala these days is all about looking toward the future, so Ourisman was assisted by three younger chairs: Susanna Quinn, Clara Brillembourg Chopivsky and Mary Kathryn Covert. If it sounds like a farm system for doyennes — well, it is.

“You’ve got to start them young,” Oursiman told us. “What we hope is that they grow into it.”

“Any black-tie event is a hard sell for the younger generation,” said Chopivsky, a lawyer and the daughter of financiers and arts patrons Arturo and Hilda Brillembourg. Along with Covert — a 20-something public-affairs strategist enagaged to Michael Steel, the spokesman for John Boehner — Chopivsky tapped into networks of young professionals and junior socialites to sell less expensive tickets to the ball, minus dinner. Quinn, meanwhile, oversaw Meridian’s White-Meyer dinner, an intermediate-level ticket designed to further hook young guests on the gala experience so they’ll come back again next year.

No easy task, said Quinn, the wife of lobbyist and former White House counsel Jack Quinn: Lots of people want to come to the ball, she said, but not everyone’s in a hurry to write the check.

“With any big event in D.C., you deal with people who try to get comped press passes or just crash,” she sighed. “Going through a divorce and co-chairing a ball are certainly two ways to figure out who your friends are.”

By  |  10:00 PM ET, 10/16/2011

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