You walk in with your soiled Halstons, your spot-ridden chiffons and your velvet evening gown on which Zsa Zsa splashed Dom Perignon and what should greet your mascara-lined eyes but a sign that says, "We are unable to accept new customers at this time."
Welcome to Burns Brothers, dry cleaner to the stars, a store that won't take just anybody's dirty laundry.
Located in upscale McLean, just a quick chauffeur's ride from Kennedys, Meeses and the CIA, Burns' place may well be the Polo Lounge of dry cleaning.
Why do the high and mighty step on each other's hems to get on a list that guarantees a year's wait? Why are a thousand people fretting by the pool phone, laundry poised, waiting for the call?
Is somebody being taken to the cleaners?
"We were growing too fast," says owner Don Burns. "And it was affecting the quality of our work. I was unable to turn out the kind of work I wanted. I wanted to, one, control growth, two, protect my oldtime customers, and three, not raise prices sky high."
A list was born, now estimated at 3,500 members.
Burns is too reticent to reveal his dry cleaning secrets and certainly won't discuss the names of his clients.
"But I will say I've had two Supreme Court justices and four senators on the waiting list." At present, he says, he has "one Cabinet official" on the active list "and another [Cabinet official] waiting." The first Cabinet official, says Burns, has "been rooting for his friend" to get promoted.
The customers come from McLean, Potomac, Bethesda, Washington and as far away as Middleburg, according to both Burns and his well-starched clientele. One customer, a State Department official, used to mail his wife's gowns from Sri Lanka.
How clean can you get?
Snugly hidden behind a glass storefront in a more or less spotty shopping center, Burns doesn't do awnings and fawning attendants. You sling your stuff on the Formica counter beneath the signed pictures of Jack and Robert Kennedy while an employe checks your name on the computer list. On the right side of each name lies one of three letters: A, he explains, is for active, I for inactive and W for waiting list.
Burns, a bespectacled, lean-jawed six-footer with a soft-spokenness that a Shaolin priest might envy, sports the white shirt and dress slacks that Central Casting would have assigned "the dry cleaner." Only his bow tie shouts, a technicolorful orgy of oranges and blues.
If a customer hasn't visited the shop in three months, says Burns, "then he goes to the inactive list. The retired and senior citizens we give a six-month period. They don't go out so much . . . I send out a postcard asking them, if they wish to be [re] activated, they can let us know within two weeks.
"If I haven't printed a ticket in a year" for a customer, he continues, the customer is transferred "right to the bottom" of the waiting list and "will have to wait to be reactivated, by way of the waiting list."
"I was a year on the waiting list," says Cabinet wife Ursula Meese, who says she became a member "as of two days ago." The store, she said, was recommended to her by friends. "I thought it would be nice to have quality work there." Assistant Attorney General Lois Haight Herrington, she said, also was on the list.
"Both Kennedys, Robert and JFK," used to be clients, says Burns.
Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) office would not comment on the senator's membership or nonmembership ("That's part of his personal life. We wouldn't comment on his clothes or anything like that").
Does Ethel come around?
"No, I'm happy to say," Burns says.
"Let's just say, I'm happy. It's a very confused household."
Ethel Kennedy could not be reached for comment.
Mildred Jorden, wife of former ambassador William Jorden, says Burns was recommended to her by neighbors "about six months ago . . . I think I will get a membership before I pass on to the next world."
"Businesses don't seem to give a damn about whether you come or go," says Burns. "Don't you find that? I don't think people would go on the list if it wasn't good. They'd tell me to stick it in my ear. I work 60 hours a week. I do almost all the inspection, the difficult spotting work. That's where most of the expertise comes in, from one fabric to another. When they have a problem I see to it personally. We go to extreme lengths refurbishing some articles . . . as far as we can to fulfil our responsibility."
In a town where appearance is the currency of power, Burns has his work cut out for him. But it's not just a question of money. You can get the sauce be'arnaise off your tuxedo for $7.35 at Burns. Other cleaners around town charge anywhere from $5.50 to $24.
"One of the wedding dresses I did was 100 years old," says Burns. "I worked on it for months. I charged her $60, and she insisted on paying me $100 . . . But I didn't make anything out of it."
To Jane Gephardt, wife of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the Burns mystique lies in "the way they put tissue paper in the sleeves, the way it's pressed . . . But the thing I like the best about them is their sense of community."
One 45-year-old customer would identify herself only as the wife of a builder in McLean. She wants her identity hidden, she says, because she recently committed a Burns Brothers no-no. She smuggled in a friend's clothing she pretended was hers. Anyone caught doing this is automatically whisked to the waiting list.
"I was just panicked they'd find out," says the woman, who wouldn't change her dry cleaner for all the haute couture in Paree. "If anything happened to Mr. Burns I'd have to buy wash-and-wear clothing."
"Success can kill you in this business," says Burns. Raised in the area, and a graduate of William McKinley School, Burns worked in a few dry cleaning establishments around Washington before opening the store with his brother Bob in 1949. After his brother's death in the 1970s, Burns incorporated with his wife Marie. They have stayed in the same location for 36 years. Business, he said, got so good, "the volume was jumping dollarwise over 20 percent a year for four or five years."
His 1982 decree to restrict customers sent the communuity into a spin dry. The waiting list "was the subject of every cocktail party in the area," he says. "A longer waiting list than the Chevy Chase Country Club."
"You have to admire a person who has evidently controlled his quality to such a marvelous degree that he has a waiting list," says Burns' friend Edward Boorstein, owner of Parkway Custom Drycleaning, which attracts an affluent clientele in the District. "His clientele in McLean ranks certainly among the highest incomes, and the more fastidious in the metropolitan area."
"It's all BS," says Paul Reynolds, owner of rival McLean Cleaners, where, he brags, prices are the highest in Virginia. "A man comes into town and hears he's got to wait in line. What the hell's he going to think? He's gotta think Burns is pretty damn good.
"Ethel Kennedy's been coming here since 1963. She used to go to Burns, in all honesty, because I wasn't here."
The Burns list, sniffs Reynolds, is "a merchandising gimmick. 'Course he'd never admit that."
"Limiting growth is un-American," says Burns. "You're supposed to grow. I guess I'm un-American. But it's been an interesting experiment and I've done very well."