The setting was the lush and tropical Botanic Gardens. The players were members and friends of the Washington Urban League. The occasion was its golden anniversary. And the party was marked by an accent on the positive.

"This is a party and I make no apologies about parties. I'm not going to be very serious tonight. I'm saving that for another occasion," said league President Betti S. Whaley as she greeted guests and directed traffic. Whaley, like almost everybody at last night's "cast party" in honor of the league's founders, life members and supporters, was determined to sustain the optimism born of the organization's 50 years as bridge and broker between the urban powers and the urban poor. "Despite all the really crucial and crushing problems that we have, we cannot be defeated," she said.

Sighted among the crowd were such urban powers as Hechinger Co. President John Hechinger; D.C. Council member Nadine Winter; former White House social secretary Gretchen Poston, now a coowner of Washington Inc.; and former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker.

"I like optimistic people," said Ron Townsend, president of WUSA-TV. "Optimistic is preferable -- it means you can solve things -- and Betti has so much energy you can feel it everywhere. I only hope the Urban League is around 50 years from now, because I think that there are so many things that need to be done."

"The league has been kind of a glue," said Emily Durso, vice president of marketing for TechWorld and a league board member. "It has held a lot of communities in this city together, and this city needs the league badly. Besides, these people {on the board} don't go away, and I like that."

One member celebrated for not going away was former board chairman Mortimer Lebowitz, president of Morton's department stores and, in the 1930s, the first retailer in Washington to hire black staff members and allow black customers to try on clothes.

"We treated our black customers the same as the white customers, and that was altogether new back then," he remembered.

At one time there were four Morton's stores, but two were burned out in the 1968 riots. Later in the party another guest was overheard trying to persuade Lebowitz to reopen a store on H Street NE.

Of race relations today, he said simply, "A lot of people are saying it's getting worse; it's not getting worse."

More than 100 guests mingled throughout the greenhouses, savoring hors d'oeuvres, enjoying jazz by the Jacques Johnson trio and swapping stories about the past decades.

"This is my first love," said Tucker, a former executive director of the league. "The first sweat and tears that I put into this city came through the Urban League. When I look around and see what's been done, my heart is made a little bit glad; when I look and see what has to be done, my heart is also sad."

Current Chairman Patrick Hartley, executive vice president and chief financial officer of the National Bank of Washington, briefly addressed the gathering, calling the evening "truly a cast party" and singing the praises of one of the "few organizations that have had the kind of foundation that the league enjoys."

Crestar Bank Vice President Roderick K. Gaines, the gala chairman, agreed. "There are very few opportunities for black folks, white folks, rich folks, poor folks, old folks and young folks to get together in this city. The Urban League is one of the few organizations that provide opportunities for this."