7:30 p.m.: The evening began ever so elegantly with many of the men in white ties and tails, the women in ruffles and lace. A string quintet serenaded the 250 couples as they strolled into the brand new Georgetown Park mall Saturday night to celebrate its grand opening with a Victorian-style benefit ball for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Before Claire Schweiker, wife of Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker, cut the red ribbon and walked through the cast-iron and brass gate hand in hand with several diabetic children, the guests were impeccably proper, stiffly sipping their drinks, murmuring "how do you dos" near the sparkling fountain and gardens.

Midnight: "An Evening in the Park" rocked like a fraternity party. Those who paid $150 a plate for the dinner, among them Ambassador to Canada Peter Towe, Judge John Sirica, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and their wives, danced to everything from waltzes to '50s hits to disco tunes. All around the room, there was some serious dancing.

Even Schweiker, who friends say isn't much of a partygoer, twirled his wife through the crowd. "Yeah go to it, Dick," someone screamed from the second level. "Boogie it up."

Marcelle Adams, a friend of one of the mall's merchants, watched the Schweikers dance. From the sidelines she debated whether to ask for their autographs on a copy of this month's issue of The Washington Dossier, a magazine of Washington society. She decided against it, but the magazine was the topic of much conversation.

The secretary and his wife posed for the cover in elaborate Victorian dress to publicize the benefit dinner, which is expected to raise $50,000 to $60,000. But the photograph, showing the Schweikers seated at an equally elaborate banquet table, drew a great deal of criticism. It appeared at same time the secretary was announcing cutbacks in social programs.

"In the 20 years I've been in politics, I've been criticized for many things," said Schweiker, "but never for helping a children's charity."

Claire Schweiker, dressed in a simple pink chiffon dress with pearls, said she has no regrets about the cover. She is involved with many charities, she said, but juvenile diabetes is most special to her. And that cover, she explained, helped sell tickets. "There was criticism," she said. "We also got enormous support. People have sent checks . . . for the foundation."

The original Miss Claire on the children's televison show "Romper Room" paused for a moment. "And it was a fun thing to do," she said with a giggle, "getting dressed up like that. It was such a beautiful gown."

When actress Dina Merrill walked through the room with escort Bob Gray -- her husband Cliff Robertson couldn't make it -- the crowd parted. Merrill, however, seemed oblivious to the attention she was getting. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation is something she takes extremely seriously. Barbara deFranceaux, chairman of the ball, said Merrill attends every fund-raiser, no matter how hectic her schedule.

"I had a son who died of diabetes," Merrill explained softly. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help find a cure."

Amid the rowdiness -- the singing and swaying arm in arm -- there were somber moments. Parents discussed the effects of the disease on children and families. "We should be having a good time, but we can't forget why we're here tonight," said Al Caplan, the father of a diabetic boy. "We have a tough battle ahead of us."

As guests danced into the wee hours of the morning, workmen and merchants inside the stores busily prepared for the first day of shopping yesterday. Only hours before the celebrities arrived for the opening ceremonies, much of the mall was yet unpainted. "It looked like a disaster," said deFranceaux. "It was a real last-minute push."

No one would have guessed. Except for the people who arrived early and rode the brass, glass-caged elevator with the construction worker laying on his back making a few last-minute repairs, and the people who leaned where they shouldn't have and got green paint on their hands.

Georgetown Park, at Wisconsin and M streets, houses about 100 stores as well as a group of condominiums. The adults peered in the windows of such exclusive shops as Linea Pitti, Senor David, Cache and Davison's of Bermuda. Then there's a Casual Corner, The Limited, Radio Shack and Athlete's Foot. The children all found their way to F.A.O. Schwartz to play with the toys.

This was the most fun part of the evening for Kyle Johnson, 10, one of five diabetic children at the ball. "I really like it here," he said, rolling a truck across the floor. "But I won't come back if I have to get dressed up like this again."

By the end of the evening, several of the women kicked off their shoes and the men loosened their ties as "The Floating Opera" played "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." One table had a wine-chugging contest. The loser was supposed to go up to Richard Schweiker and give him a big kiss, but the middle-aged woman who lost was too shy. Another group proposed taking the band outside and dancing down the middle of Wisconsin Avenue. As Dick Tadjer, designer of the mall, put it, "I haven't been to such a terrific party in years."