Ticket Holders Recount Washout at Ball in Md.

By Avis Thomas-Lester and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 31, 2009

When David J. Byrd paid $2,000 for tickets to a Jan. 20 ball honoring President Obama at the Gaylord resort in Prince George's County, he envisioned a celebration that would create a lifetime of memories.

Instead, Byrd said, his party of 10 people was denied entry to the event -- the African and International Friends Inaugural Ball: the Ancestors' Dream Realized -- and ended the evening munching on food from a Wendy's drive-through in the back of his rented Lincoln Town Car.

"I felt embarrassed in front of my family," said Byrd, of Upper Marlboro.

Byrd, who paid $200 apiece for 10 tickets, was among hundreds of people turned away at the door of the ball. When Byrd arrived, he said, he found a crowd waiting to get in. A man in a tuxedo stood on a table in the hotel lobby and shouted into a bullhorn, "I'm sorry, the event has been oversold," Byrd said. Some people forced their way in, but his group chose to leave.

The ball was among several that had problems. Two events at the Marriott Wardman Park in Northwest Washington were canceled at the last minute. People with tickets to several other balls complained of being locked out.

At the Africa ball, the sale of too many tickets was one of several problems. The event was publicized as a fundraiser for Fallen Soldiers, a nonprofit organization directed by the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, chairman of the ball.

Fauntroy, a former D.C. congressional delegate, initially said 15,000 people were expected, including dignitaries from around the world. The ball's Web site listed Mwai Kibaki, the president of Kenya, as the event's "convener," although officials at the Kenyan Embassy later said that was untrue.

Organizers said the entertainment would include performances by Usher and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But Simone Smalls, a publicist for singer Usher Raymond, said that Africa Ball officials had made the singer an offer in a letter but that he had not signed a contract or indicated that he would perform. Mitchell Goldstein, business manager for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African group, said it was not paid and therefore did not plan to perform.

Elizabeth Hodges, the booking agent hired by Fallen Soldiers, said that she negotiated with Usher's mother but that he never agreed to perform. She said several other artists who had been cited as performers by Fauntroy were later canceled, including Lalah Hathaway, Keith Sweat and Raheem DeVaughn. Patti LaBelle and the O'Jays performed.

At the same time that Fauntroy's group was planning the Africa ball, a group of Prince George's leaders headed by Terry L. Speigner, chairman of the county Democratic Party, was planning its Ancestors Dream event. Ultimately, the two balls were held in the same room, but they were not contractually connected.

Speigner said ticket holders from as far away as Bermuda have complained to him about being locked out. He said a letter of apology, a memento and a refund will be mailed to them by Friday.

Fallen Soldiers paid for 647 people, according to the hotel. Speigner said his group paid for about 1,700 people. The hotel limited the ball to 2,400 people because of fire regulations, but 300 to 500 more people, most with tickets, showed up, said John Jenkins, vice president and hotel manager of Gaylord.

Fauntroy said his event experienced "problems because of the economy," including low ticket sales and few paid sponsorships. He said that the ball was never canceled but that when it was "scaled down," there was no need for as many entertainers, so his group canceled some of them. He said each was allowed to keep the deposit.

"My commitment is to pay anyone who is due money, even if I have to work for the rest of my life," Fauntroy said.

But the refund will do little to recapture a chance to participate in the history-making event, said Maurice Hargraves of Raleigh, N.C. He and his wife, Melissa, paid $1,000 for two tickets, but they were not on the guest list. By the time they were admitted and found where they were going in the huge hotel, the food was gone, Hargraves said.

"We were anticipating a great event, but nothing could have been further from the truth," he said. "It was a disaster from the outset."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company