Annual Best Buddies Ball Rolls to a Glitzy Finale

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

Back before the dinner performances by Kenny G and Cirque du Soleil under purple and teal stage lights in colossal satin-draped tents, before the open bar encircling three stuffed peacocks in an iron gazebo, before Miss Universe and Robert De Niro came to mingle, the Best Buddies Ball was hardly one of Washington's glitziest charity events.

The inaugural benefit two decades ago was just a low-key dinner hosted by a Georgetown undergraduate to support his fledgling charity that would pair people with intellectual disabilities with friends and mentors. The earnest student was Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the dinner party was at his famous parents' Potomac estate, and the rest is history.

Since then, Best Buddies has become a massive international nonprofit organization with 1,300 chapters across the country and on six continents. The annual ball, held at the home of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, has morphed into one of the hottest galas on Washington's social calendar, attracting politicians and celebrities, industry titans and technology moguls, as well as dozens from the Kennedy clan.

On Saturday night, more than 900 guests gathered in black tie under backyard tents at the Shriver estate and bade farewell in opulent fashion to the Best Buddies Ball, held for the final time. The Shrivers have put their home on the market -- the 16,000-square-foot Georgian manse is listed at $11.8 million -- and their son plans to replace the annual gala with a D.C. cycling challenge.

Anthony Shriver, 43, who emcees each year, said he will miss the ball, adding "we're definitely going to go out on top."

"I didn't want this thing to become stale . . . or become this Washington event that went on and on and on," said Shriver, who works full time as chairman of Best Buddies. "After 20 years of success, you've got to reinvent yourself."

Saturday's finale provided Best Buddies its largest haul yet. The ball raised $3.35 million in ticket sales (starting at $600 a head) and auction revenue (Randy Jackson auctioned four backstage passes to "American Idol" for $64,000, while Kenny G's saxophone went for $9,000).

The event honored Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, consort of the emir of Qatar, who founded a center for special-needs children in her wealthy and fast-growing country. She is credited with raising awareness of intellectually disabled people, who had been hidden in her society.

"They are the true leaders," she said in accepting a leadership award.

The evening had a Middle Eastern flair, with a menu of seared sea scallops, lamb shank and baklava tart garnished with figs and pistachios. Fuchsia, gold and turquoise fabric draped the ceiling of the dinner tent, and dramatic lighting bathed about 100 round tables and their centerpieces of roses.

The Best Buddies Ball only recently took on a global flair. The early balls were less glamorous. For one, Anthony Shriver rented a cheap tent, and it started to fall down as a pouring rain drenched the event. Organizers drove out to buy umbrellas and ponchos for the guests. "The tables were literally sinking into the ground," recalled Lisa Derx, a vice president at Best Buddies.

Every year has a theme. Once, Indy 500 race cars were displayed in the tent and each guest got an unusual gift: a quart of oil.

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