One of the charms of the annual Wolf Trap Ball is the blend of the familiar and the exotic. Each fall, more than a thousand Virginia movers and shakers gather on the Filene Center stage, dine and dance with old friends, and network like crazy. Every year, a different country provides the theme -- this year's is "Jewels of India" -- its ambassador and the bulging goodie bags. And at every ball, one tipsy guest begins a conga line, regardless of the music, and pretty soon the whole place is snaking through the tables.
Tradition is all fine and good, but the buzz before last night's party was the nontraditional choice of a gay couple, Mark Lowham and Joe Ruzzo, to co-chair the black-tie ball, a first in its 34-year history.
Asking Ruzzo and Lowham to chair this prestigious fundraiser sounded like a bold and possibly risky move for Wolf Trap, but it turns out that it has raised nary an eyebrow.
"This is really a community where everyone counts," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). "We value people for their goodness, their heart and their mind. Joe and Mark are two of the nicest people you're going to find anywhere."
"I don't think we've ever had a negative comment, at least to our faces," Ruzzo said.
Proving once again that when it comes to fundraising what really counts is money and charm. The chairmen of large social benefits are typically selected for their ability to bring in big bucks and new people and expand the franchise. Oh, and to work like dogs for months planning every tiny detail. This proved to be a piece of cake for the successful and well-connected couple.
Lowham, 42, is a partner at West Group, the largest real estate developer in Northern Virginia and (not so incidentally) the lead sponsor of last night's ball. Ruzzo, 46, heads a high-tech dentistry practice in Tysons Corner specializing in cosmetic and reconstructive work.
Partners for 12 years, each wears a wedding band. They had a commitment ceremony several years ago in Jackson Hole, Wyo., attended by their families. They shy away from politics and activism, saying they prefer to lead by example.
"We live by the Golden Rule: Treat others like you want to be treated," Ruzzo said.
"It's our responsibility to live honestly and be straightforward," Lowham said.
"If someone's got a problem with that, they don't have to invite us to dinner," Ruzzo added with a smile.
That, judging from their calendar, is not a problem. They've lived in Virginia for nine years, with a home in McLean, as well as houses in Jackson Hole and Palm Beach, Fla. They've been active in a number of charities, focusing primarily on the Children's Hospital Foundation, Virginia Opera, McLean Project for the Arts, CharityWorks, Inova Fairfax Hospital Emergency Department and the Phillips Programs for Children and Families. Lowham has been a board member of Wolf Trap Associates for the past three years and was selected by the board to chair the ball.
"Personally, I had no hesitation," said Wolf Trap Foundation Chairman John Backus. Wolf Trap, he said, is just not a political place, and no one objected to the selection. "I would have heard about it, believe me."
"To my knowledge, there was never any discussion about whether they were gay or not," said Wolf Trap President Terre Jones.
Last night's party may be Lowham and Ruzzo's last big charitable project for a while. They are expecting twins (a girl and a boy) by a surrogate mother in December and are in the process of interviewing nannies. Their families, in town for the party, are hosting a baby shower for 100 friends today.
Their list of friends is long, exactly what you want in benefit chairmen. Several gay couples -- first-time supporters of Wolf Trap -- purchased ball tables of 10 for $5,500.
"We've now burned our Rolodex, because no one's going to call us back," Lowham said. The take: more than $600,000 for Wolf Trap's educational programs.
By the time the reception kicked off last night, the serious work was finished and it was time to celebrate. Sitar music drifted through the ballroom, as did Indian dancers. The decor was inspired by the Rajasthan, a region of India known as the Land of Kings. The menu featured a variety of Indian dishes, including chutneys, lamb and pomegranate margaritas.
"The ambiance was so enchanting," said Ambassador Ronen Sen, India's new envoy to the United States. "It reflects part of the diversity of India, which is actually India's greatest strength."
Clearly this was Lowham and Ruzzo's night. Eloise Poretz, who heads the associates board, introduced the co-chairmen as "the two very handsome men who have made this evening possible."
And then there was this: Last year, Ruzzo won two airline tickets to Italy in the raffle. Last night, his name was the first pulled from the raffle bowl for two tickets donated by United Airlines to anywhere in the world.
"I was mortified," he said, laughing. "Of course I turned them back, but if we won the Cadillac, I was going to keep it."
Lowham flashed a huge grin. "We're buying lottery tickets," he said. "Wanna come?"