It was election night here 43 years ago, and an exuberant band leader urged the ballroom crowd to stand up and be counted for its part in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's sweeping victory.
He watched in astonishment as just five persons got to their feet and stood awkwardly among scores of scowling club members.
Six presidents later, that scene typifies the mood inside the elegant and exclusive quarters of the Commonwealth Club of Richmond, then, as now, the most select of social organizations and a place that will never be caught changing with the times.
Here, when members toast "Mr. President," it is said they raise their glasses to a portrait of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Here, "Oysters Rockefeller" would be considered too liberal for the menu.
And here, in a red brick mansion 12 blocks from the State Capitol, can be found the cream of Virginia society and its financial and political establishment. Sharing their conservative preserve with rich antiques and striking portraits of Colonial and Confederate heroes, they continue a long tradition of behind-the-scenes power-brokering.
There is as much legend as truth to tales of the goings-on inside the club, but the club isn't about to encourage scrutiny from the outside. "We are a private club, and we don't want any publicity," said John Cole Gayle, an officer with the Paine-Webber stock brokerage firm. "No pictures, no cooperation whatsoever. We just prefer it this way."
Founded in 1889, its members remain all white and all male, a point that has angered some of the blacks and women who serve in the state legislature and feel excluded from the decision-making said to occur inside the club. State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), the only black in the 40-member Senate, calls the Commonwealth Club, "a racist club, a retreat from the world where social gains are being made."
Despite such pointed criticisms, the club has remained a particular favorite of several influential members of the General Assembly, state officials and many of the lobbyists who hover around them.
"A lot of legislative business gets done at these good ole boy meals," complains Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlington), who noted that the arrangement means women lawmakers "get left out."
Another nonmember who is familiar with the intricacies of the state's social structure says that the very existence and prestige of the Commonwealth Club "is proof that in Virginia family means as much as money . . . still."
Club regulations prohibit women members and until recently all women were supposed to use a side entrance. By tradition, no black -- not even Richmond's mayor, lawyer Henry Marsh -- has ever been invited to join.
An educator who joined the club during the Depression defends it as "a wholesome" place to take his wife dancing. He also likes the club's elaborate athletic facilities, and he enjoys attending lectures by prominent speakers.
His feelings are shared by many of Virginia's elite, among them U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., Gov. John N. Dalton, former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., and Clement F. Haynsworth, chief justice of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.
Critics of the club claim its members tend to relish the past. "So much of the Civil War was thrust down my throat," said Arthur Stone, the English barber who catered to the hair-cutting needs of club members for 12 years until his retirement in 1975.
"They were forever talking about the first families of Virginia," Stone said. "What happened to the second families of Virginia I do not know."
Stone, 73, said he caused notoriety as the first Jewish employe ever hired by the club. The club began accepting its Jewish members in the mid-1970s, he said.
"Why they accepted me, I don't know," said Stone. "Maybe because I was English, they thought I gave the club an international flavor."
Stone's barbershop was in the basement, on the same floor with a males-only grill, the swimming pool, gym and steam and sauna rooms.
He said the club used to subsidize his operations "until the club found out how much I was earning and decided I was an entrepreneur. Their attitude was that members were the only ones supposed to be making that much money, not the help."
Stone said the club's social and political policies are "anything but flexible. They hold onto the past like a vine clings."
Nothing illustrated this more than an incident in 1969 over an annual reception given each year for members of the General Assembly. The legislature's then only black, the late Dr. Ferguson Reid of Richmond, was dropped from the guest list, setting off a furor in the city's large black community.
Although blacks now attend club functions as guests without any fanfare, the only regular black visitors there are the servants. Women guests are there more frequently, but must still observe strict rules about where and when to use certain areas of the club.
The Commonwealth Club has more than 1,000 members, including more than 300 nonresident members who live more than 50 miles outside the city and pay half the roughly $1,300 initiation fee required of newcomers. Monthly dues can range up to $30, depending on membership status.
Prospective members must be nominated by the membership committee. While their membership is pending, their names are posted on separate cards in the club's reading room so that other members may add their names as endorsements.
State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), a railroad corporation lawyer, former House of Delegates majority leader James M. Thomson, a lawyer, and retiring State Sen. Omer Hirst (D-Fairfax), a wealthy landholder, are among the few Northern Virginians in the club.
"It's the only place besides the YMCA where you can get exercise," said Mitchell, who estimated he eats there only 15 or 20 times during the session and has used the pool once in his four years in the legislature.
He disputes the club's current reputation as the premier gathering place for powerful legislators, and he doesn't think any group of club members can wield that much authority in the assembly anymore.
"Somehow, it doesn't concern me that men have men's clubs and women have women's clubs," Mitchell said. "But it does concern me that the club is exclusively white male."
Still, Mitchell said, "I'm absolutely certain that if Doug Wilder had any interest in joining the Commonwealth Club, he would be a member today."
Not so, Wilder replied. "I think they would refuse me. I think they would refuse any black."
In the past, Wilder said, all the club had to do "was touch their own" to have the mechanisms of power. "But now the members will have to broaden themselves. It's time they left the cocoon and stopped talking about Civil War victories."