The inauguration is now largely about partying, but it wasn't always.

See our entertainment coverage for the inaugural balls.

Study our map of official inaugural balls.

Read the final word in First Family fashion and gowns for the balls.

Go to The Print Edition Supplement

Go to Inauguration '97

Go to Home Page

The Elements of a Well-Rounded
Inaugural Ball

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E28

Everyone should go to an inaugural ball. Once.

The balls are the whipped cream, the final flourish on top of the ceremony, pageantry and patriotism of the inauguration. They are elegant, if you can call a black-tie political pep rally elegant. They are fun, if squeezing into an overfilled ballroom can be considered fun. And they are exciting, especially for those who are not too jaded or too inside-the-Beltway to call this quadrennial prom exciting.

True, the drinks are overpriced. The food is not exactly gourmet (they served peanuts at Jimmy Carter's balls). And we won't even get into Coat-Check Hell.

In a drawing from an 1889 edition of Harper's Bazar, George Washington leads Mrs. Maxwell in the minuet at his first inaugural ball.
But thousands of Cinderellas come to Washington for these events and leave raving that their ball was the most thrilling, memorable night of their lives.

President Clinton will attend a record 14 official balls, 13 regional balls and a youth ball Monday night, three more than in 1993. Each ball will have music and dancing. There will be much milling about as guests hunt for friends and look at who is wearing what. The official high point of each affair is the moment when Bill Clinton strides onstage, bites his lower lip and waves appreciatively to his supporters.

The president and first lady will make an appearance at every ball, as will the vice president and Tipper Gore. A waltz around the stage is likely; a sax solo from the chief executive is optional. There will be a compliment about Hillary Clinton's inaugural gown. There will be a few corny jokes and short, heartfelt remarks followed by roars of approval from the crowd.

The formula has not changed much over the past two centuries.

George Washington attended the first inaugural ball, which was in the New York City Assembly Rooms, where the president danced two cotillions and a minuet. The first official ball in Washington was held for James Madison's inauguration in 1809 in Long's Hotel. It was a triumph -- for Dolley Madison, who made her mark as the social power in the new nation's capital. Not everyone was impressed: "The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive, and the entertainment bad," sniped John Quincy Adams.

How the Ball Got Rolling
Ulysses S. Grant had back-to-back disasters. In 1869, the ball was overcrowded, guests fought over food, and the coat check was manned by illiterates who couldn't read the claim tickets. In 1873, Grant's second ball was held in a muslin tent in Judiciary Square. The temperature dropped to minus 4 degrees, caged canaries froze to death and celebrants danced in their coats and boots.

Some presidents skipped the affair altogether. Woodrow Wilson refused to have a ball, saying it would offend the solemnity of the occasion. Franklin Roosevelt worked through the night during his first ball in 1933, and canceled the next three because of the Depression and World War II.

It was Harry Truman who revived the party in 1949 to celebrate his second term, and things snowballed from there. The demand for tickets to Eisenhower's first celebration prompted organizers to plan an unprecedented two balls; by 1957, there were four. John F. Kennedy, in white tie and tails, attended five balls. Ronald Reagan went to nine his first term, 10 for his second; George Bush had 11.

This year, 75,000 guests paying $150 apiece will collect their little piece of history. To sweeten the memories, organizers have assembled an all-star list of entertainers to perform, including Trisha Yearwood, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, the Doobie Brothers, Herbie Hancock, Chuck Berry, Grover Washington, Hootie & the Blowfish, LL Cool J, Thelonious Monk Jr., Bebe Winans, Joe Walsh, Little Feat, All-4-One and the Jim Belushi Blues Brothers All Star Band.

If you're one of the lucky ticket holders, a few tips:

Ladies, wear low heels. Trust us on this. Better to get a little dirt on the hem of your gown than to collapse in pain halfway through the night. Chairs are in very short supply. Besides, the balls are usually so crowded that no one will see your shoes anyway.

As for coats, the only easy solution is to leave them in your limousine and dash for the door. Coat checks at inaugural balls have produced some of the most chilling horror stories east of the Mississippi. But throwing them in pile on the floor is equally chancy. The best advice: Pray for a warm front and leave the coats at home.

Food for Thought
Eat and drink before you go. The cash bar will offer beer, wine and soft drinks only. Light snacks will be available, but don't arrive on an empty stomach. The winner for the best snack names goes to Tom's Cookies of San Francisco, which is providing free sweets at the balls: Clinton Cookie (peanut butter and banana), Heavenly Hillary (brownie with nuts), Tipper Chipper (chocolate chip with M&Ms) and Gore 'Smore, an updated, environmentally correct version of the campfire favorite (brownie, marshmallow cream, chocolate ganache and graham cracker).

Parking will be virtually impossible, but the Presidential Inaugural Committee is providing a shuttle service all night long. The shuttle buses, free for ball ticket holders only, will run between most hotels in the city to the ball sites. The balls officially start at 7 p.m.; the shuttles will run from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The sites and states for the official inaugural balls:

Air and Space Museum, Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW: Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa.

National Building Museum, Fourth and F streets NW: Pennsylvania, Ohio.

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island.

Washington Convention Center, Ninth and H streets NW: Hall A: California, Hawaii, Alaska; Hall B: Arkansas, New Hampshire; Hall C: Florida.

Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW: New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia.

Washington Hilton Hotel, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW: Exhibit Center: Texas, Louisiana, Missouri; International Ballroom: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota.

Sheraton Washington Hotel, 2660 Woodley Rd. NW: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama.

D.C. Armory, 2001 East Capitol St. SE: District of Columbia.

Union Station, First Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE: Tennessee.

Old Post Office Pavilion, 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW: Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont.

National Postal Museum, First Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE: 21st Century Ball (young adults).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top