The lighting was soft and pleasant, the centerpieces were made of flowers . . . and the tables were covered in AstroTurf at the Corcoran Ball last night.

"We're playing soccer after dinner tonight," said one bemused guest looking down at his place setting.

Why was there crunchy, green fake grass over linen tablecloths?

"Well, with real grass you have to cut it a lot. This cuts down on the maintenance," explained Peter Marzio, the director of the Corcoran, with a grin as he ran his finger over the stuff. (His straight answer: "It's part of the garden theme."

It wasn't really a night for straight answers. It was a night for dressing up in rufles or black tie and not thinking much about work. U.S. Trade Representative Bill Brock had a beer with friends. Financier Joe Albritton, who has purchased most of the stock of Riggs Bank, stood in one place on the main floor of the Corcoran in hopes that the waiter who took his drink order would be able to find him in a crowd of 1,250.

"The bank's fine, I think. I wasn't there today," he said. "These things are fun."

The ball?

"Yes -- and the bank," he said cheerfully. "I think the purpose of both is money."

Indeed, the annual ball is the Corcoran's main fund-raising event for the gallery and the school of art. Board president David Lloyd Kreeger hopes to clear $125,000 this year. The decorations were donated by Ridgewell's -- whose tuxedoed staffers wore little earphones with wires causing much speculation on which expected guests needed the Secret Service protection.

"This is such a great space, you know," John Hechinger noted, looking around.

"Oh, it's great," said Steve Harlan, president of the Cultural Alliance, pulling his dinner table card out of his pocket. "We're on the roof. It's a little windy out there . . ."

Whether or not you knew everyone depended on how many other social functions you attend each week. "Same old crowd," quipped Leonard Silverstein, president of the board of the National Symphony Orchestra, who goes to a lot of these things.

"I get to see people I usually don't see," said Dr. LaSalle Leffall, president of the American Cancer Society, who has missed the last three Corcoran balls due to out-of-town business.

And if you were Esther Gottlieb, whose late husband was artist Adolph Gottlieb, you had been through this ball before in much the same fashion.

Upstairs, the exhibit "Adolph Gottlieb: A Restrospective" had just begun. "It's wonderful -- absolutely," she said with a calm smile after descending from the exhibit in chiffon, unruffled by the tafeta-skirted, drink-wielding crowd. "We had a show here in the '60s in connection with the Corcoran Ball. This is not a new experience."