All the organizers of this week's Leukemia Ball could do was pray. They rented the Washington Convention Center for their annual fundraiser. They booked Jerry Seinfeld to perform. They sold 2,300 tickets. What if it happened right before the party? During the party?
Fortunately, Seinfeld's wife gave birth to the couple's second child 11 days ago, and the comedian will appear as promised.
"The baby was the first hurdle to get over," David Timko, executive director of the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, says with an audible sigh of relief.
Barring yet another snowstorm, war is the next hurdle -- the elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about. Specifically, what to do if the United States invades Iraq days or hours before a social event? What is the smart, safe, appropriate way to proceed?
It's no small decision in a city that hosts dozens of events every night ranging from intimate embassy dinners to black-tie charity blowouts. Months of planning and millions of dollars are at stake.
The official position is to behave normally. That means throwing on the tuxedo and showing up, as planned. Leave your jitters at the doorstep. President Bush set the example by attending the Ford's Theatre gala and the Gridiron Club dinner over the past two weekends -- no small achievement for a guy who doesn't much like fancy affairs. The tone was more patriotic than playful, but social life goes on.
But behind the scenes, there's a lot more to worry about.
Now in its 15th year, the Leukemia Ball is the organization's biggest fundraiser, this time bringing in a record $2.8 million. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend the party Saturday night, and they need to be wined, dined -- and protected.
About a month ago, when the Homeland Security Alert went from yellow to orange, the need to make security a higher priority became evident. After meeting with Convention Center officials, organizers decided on a canine sweep before the party and more security guards at the event to inspect large packages and bags.
Last week, the possibility of war was added to the agenda.
When planners got to this point, they debated the possibilities, Timko says: "We're off to war and things are going well with the campaign. That sets one kind of tone. Or we're off to war, and it's going horribly. That might result in a different set of decisions."
Ultimately, they decided they couldn't decide. In addition to yesterday's regular meeting to go over last-minute details, another one was called for late this week to review the latest news. On Saturday -- if the war begins -- Timko will have employees on hand to field questions and phone calls, update the Web site and send e-mails. If not, they'll do what they always do: help set up the silent auction.
As with so many other things in life, timing is everything.
Last week's Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation annual spring gala was sold out -- more than 1,000 guests came to the party hosted by Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekouar. The evening raised a record $1.6 million and featured Arab food and decor and a souk. "It seemed like the mood was very festive despite the tensions between our government and a few Middle Eastern countries," says spokeswoman Heather Thompson. "The politics were put aside because it was a night to celebrate the spice of life."
Next week's American Ireland Fund dinner is scheduled for March 17 -- St. Patrick's Day. The million-dollar fundraiser at the Building Museum will honor U2's Bono. One thousand guests, including a number of national and international politicians, are expected.
Even though Secretary of State Colin Powell has announced the date as a possible deadline for war, there are no plans to cancel, says Susan O'Neill of O'Neill and Assoc., who's coordinating the event. "Everything is proceeding normally," she says.
The March of Dimes' 21st annual Gourmet Gala is slated for March 18 and will feature "celebrity chefs" who include Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and 100 members of the Senate and House. The organization has already reached its goal of $900,000, and is now hoping the war doesn't start on, say, the morning of its event.
"It would be nice if it didn't," says Beth Joscelyn, executive director for the National Capital Area. "But we don't anticipate losing any of those participants. If the members are called to late meetings, the spouses are there to represent them."
O'Neill has been through this before. She was at the National Theatre for the opening night of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" in January 1991 when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Her cell phone beeped, as did dozens of others in the audience. She could tell from people's body language who was getting notification.
But the play went on, and so did the parties. "Nothing was canceled," she says. If anything, she says, there were more events: the regularly scheduled charitable parties, plus last-minute benefits for military relief and the USO.
This time is different, if only in the fear factor. Wars used to happen somewhere far away, but that changed with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Now party planners have to add in the possibility of something happening on these shores and make the necessary adjustments.
The new AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the $20 million state-of-the-art movie, entertainment and education complex in downtown Silver Spring, kicks off 10 days of opening events April 4. Talk of war has not significantly altered plans for the celebration.
"We've discussed it," says Director Murray Horwitz. "I'm not going to discuss our security arrangements, but we're going ahead with a full programming schedule. We'll respond appropriately to whatever happens or doesn't happen."
People have Plan A, Plan B and sometimes Plan C. Realistically, government officials are less likely to attend social events in the critical first days of any invasion, and many in Washington will prefer eating takeout in front of the television to dining out. A small dinner party can be scheduled and canceled at the last minute. But a larger event planned months in advance has far less flexibility.
Carolyn Peachey, president of Campbell Peachey, is planning two benefits in April. "In each case, we've touched upon it lightly," she says. "This is the current thinking: The intention is to go ahead, taking it into consideration. In even talking about the possibility that war would start prior to the events, there was the decision to keep them very low-key in terms of the invitation and decor."
The benefits, she says, have been in the works for a year: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's fourth annual gala (timed to the company's appearance at the Kennedy Center) and the fundraiser for Zero to Three, an early childhood development organization.
The only reason not to proceed, says Peachey, is a disaster.
"Where you seriously consider a cancellation is if it is something that sends the entire country into shock and mourning -- such as 9/11 or the Challenger or Columbia -- that deems inappropriate anything remotely festive," she says.
The goal at the moment is to set an appropriately respectful tone and then focus on the task at hand: supporting the charities. "I think canceling an event that is sizable -- 150 or more -- has serious ramifications for any organization in light of the current economy," says Peachey.
To wit: It costs charities thousands of dollars to abruptly cancel a party. They lose their deposit on rental sites and deposits to vendors such as florists and caterers. If an event is called off within 48 hours of the scheduled date, there are additional costs of food and other perishables. An organization has to offer ticket holders the option of getting their money back: Many donors will waive the contribution, but some people will ask for refunds.
Although the Leukemia Ball has already secured the bulk of this year's fundraising goal, Timko says the organization would still take a hit.
"We're looking at at least a $600,000 loss just in revenue should we cancel," he says. In addition to expenses, he estimates potential losses of $50,000 in raffle ticket sales on the night of the party, $250,000 from the live and silent auctions, $250,000 in outstanding pledges from corporations who have promised to support the event and $50,000 in refunds to ticket holders.
And so the show, most likely, will go on.
Philanthropist Jim Kimsey is the guest of honor at the Capital Athletic Foundation benefit on March 26. The party is at the Spy Museum, and Kimsey promises he'll be there -- tux and all.
"Americans should go about their daily existence and lead normal lives," he says. "Americans have been spared this for a long time, and we just have to get used to it like everyone else."