Ah! Those were the days!
Clark Gable and Mary Pickford would mesmerize the crowd with their dazzling presences, Eddie Cantor would bring tears to the eye with his corny jokes and Glenn Miller would arrive with his band for some serious foot-stomping. Everybody who was anybody showed up.
And sooner or later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would drop by all the March of Dimes balls in hotels around town, where celebrity-studded crowds gathered to celebrate the president's birthday and raise money to fight polio, the disease that plagued him through his adulthood. Last Saturday night was no exception; remembrances of Roosevelt and his era sentimentally touched this year's ball.
"It was all so very exciting in those days," said Washington liquor distributor Milton Kronheim, 93, who attended all the birthday parties in the '30s and '40s. "The president and all the headliners would create quite a stir."
Some of the same names and faces who had idolized Roosevelt then were gathered 50 years later in one of those same ballrooms, at the Mayflower Hotel, on Saturday night. It was the Centennial Birthday Ball, and $70,000 was raised for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
Roosevelt's sons Jimmy and Elliott, who were often called FDR's legs because they assisted the paralyzed president when he left his wheelchair, brought now-adult Roosevelt grandchildren to the black-tie dinner.
For some others who showed up, Franklin Roosevelt's legend was just a rumor. "I was too young to really appreciate his impact," recalled Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio). "But I can remember when I was about 10 or 12 years old, it was during the Depression and my Dad had a small plumbing business that wasn't doing very well. I remember most vividly overhearing my Mom and Dad talking over the kitchen table about how we might lose our home. The next thing I knew, Roosevelt provided work for my Dad through WPA Works Progress Administration and the house was saved."
"I was just a kid in Kansas City at the time," said Ed Asner, television's Lou Grant, who was the evening's emcee. "But I can remember the feeling, from all the adults around me, about this man. Kansas City was very Republican too, yet Roosevelt was seen as an all-powerful God."
The lineup for the program was suitably impressive: Asner; Jason Robards Jr. and Edward Herrmann, who have both portrayed Roosevelt, and Jane Wyatt, who is on the board of the March of Dimes, all presented the program -- a sentimental mix of readings and film footage from Roosevelt's presidency.
Patriotism prevailed. No less than 20 flags bedecked the ballroom, and warm white candles cast a cozy glow over red tablecloths and red, white and blue carnation centerpieces.
Those who lived through the times had stories to tell about FDR and how he made the American dream come true for them.
"He put me back in business," said Kronheim, "by repealing the Volstead Act" lifting Prohibition. "He knew me better than I knew him, because I supplied the White House."
Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W. Va.), who served in the House of Representatives during the Roosevelt administration, remembers well the times and his "favorite" president.
"I've served with nine, and I'll tell you, he was the best," said Randolph, who was first elected to Congress the year Roosevelt won the presidency, 1932.
On Inauguration Day, 1933, Randolph said, FDR "spoke to a nation that was in despair. I said to my wife, Mary, as we drove away, 'This man is going to put the pieces together.' And sure enough, he did. He had a wonderful power and warm voice."
"He was my hero," said Joe Rauh, who worked with brain truster Tommy (The Cork) Corcoran on the New Deal.
The irony that many of the same social programs instituted by Roosevelt are today being eliminated by the Reagan administration didn't escape the politicians.
"We certainly seem to be moving in the other direction," said Glenn.
"The spirit of Roosevelt is still governing this country today, and I regret to say that this administration is ignoring the concerns of the people," said Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), who served in the Senate when FDR was president. "It's a political peril for them to cast aside the needs of the poor. Roosevelt always said that he was determined to pay attention to the distressed. This administration thinks you can do that by creating general prosperity. You can't."
Saturday night's fund-raising event cost $150 a ticket -- as compared with the $7.50 of FDR's day. The 400 guests ate chicken, salad and pieces of a two-tier birthday cake. They danced to the Big Band of Vic Simas, and ladies in black dresses gave out little bottles of Halston perfume.
As the last "Roosevelt for President" balloons were being cleared from the ballroom, Jimmy Roosevelt reflected: "My father taught me never to get discouraged, to keep on going no matter what, because for every two steps forward, you always take one back."