The real theatrical event of the evening began before desert was even served and long before the costume parade began: A congressman was present.

"It's perfectly extraordinary to see a congressman walking around this close to Washington," exclaimed one speaker during remarks to 150 dinner guests at the Third International Theatre Costume Ball Saturday night at the Shoreham.

"I'll promise you no long speeches," emcee Rep. Tennyson Guyer (R-Ohio) began. "Nobody in this room can vote for me." Yeahs from the guests.

"The longest speech in history was made by President William Henry Harrison who spoke an hour and a half on the portico of the White House outside, without his coat on," said Guyer. "Right after, he caught pneumonia and lived only 30 days -- shortest presidential term in history. The moral of the story: Know when to stop."

Anyone who has gone to one of these balls knows it's a marathon of drinks, dinner, speeches, endless raffling off of door prizes -- and then the ball.

But it's all for a good cause: the American Theatre Association, sponsor of the American College Theatre Festival here each year. Also this year, the association presented an award to the National Endowment for the Arts, which just celebrated a 15th anniversary.

"We cannot live the life of the spirit without artists," said actress Irene Worth, who accepted the award which resembled a giant-size silver cake pan.

"I wouldn't put that to a test," whispered guest Mort Clark.

"I would," whispered back Jeanne Tufts Cassidy, whose late husband started the American College Theatre Festival.

Not everyone made it through the marathon. (Arts Endowment chairman Livingston Biddle didn't make it at all. He was in China on an official visit.) The National Theatre's head Maurice Tobin ducked out after part one of the evening -- cocktails. So did Roger Stevens, head of the Kennedy Center. (He had another engagement.)

Some who came and stayed included Esther and Jack Coopersmith, neither in costume. (The rules of this ball -- show up in costume or formal dress.) "We were chicken," said Esther Coopersmith. When Jack Coopersmith spied a costumed woman in slinky pink leotard and black fishnet stockings, he suggested they stay awhile.

Those who showed up just for the ball included a quartet from the University of Maryland in 17th-century pearl-studded velvet and moire, the men in more face makeup than the women. "We're all theater arts majors," said senior Cheryl Aiello, waving her fan.

Warren Zwicke, a local attorney, and Claire Pittman, who runs her own public relations firm, showed up as Raggedy Ann and Andy. "This is my normal business suit," said Zwicke, red plastic ball on his nose, empty minestrone soup can swinging from string around his neck.

The grand prize winners in the costume parade were Isha Childs -- she came as the Washington Monument -- and Len Doggett, who came as the Pleasure Principle (in red, white and blue boots and stars.) Sondra Porten won the trip to Europe.

Before dinner, there was some talk of furniture -- among furniture designers Irving and Leon Rosen of the Pace Collection and Paul Buchbinder of Benjamin Buchbinder Associates. The Rosens donated a $2,000 coffee table as a door prize. "I hope I win," said Tom Zumwalt, nephew of the admiral (Elmo Zumwalt) to the group.

"Tom just decorated a palace for King Khalid," someone offered.

"We call them VIP facilities," corrected Zumwalt, the head designer for the Middle East division of the Army Corps of Engineers.

But no palaces?

"Well, they're kind of large. But they're very low-key."

The prizes were raffled off, many going to people in the American Theatre Association.

"This is all rigged, isn't it?" asked attorney Joseph Fontana.

"No," said Mort Clark, president-elect of the American Community Theatre Association. Minutes later, Clark won a high-back sofa. "Anyone want a sofa?" he asked his dinner companions.