One of Washington's glitziest New Year's Eve events, which would have benefited 20 area nonprofit organizations, was canceled this week because of extremely slack sales of its $500 and $2,000 tickets.

Organizers of the "America's New Millennium" gala had expected nearly 3,500 people to celebrate at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, entertained by Roger Daltrey of the legendary rock band The Who. An added draw, they felt, was that all of the money raised would go to charity.

But the "party with a purpose," as it was billed, apparently ran into the same disinterest or disenchantment that has forced cancellation of New Year's Eve events elsewhere. By yesterday afternoon, the party's Web site announced simply, "Ticket purchases have been suspended until further notice."

"Going out to a nice, fancy ball isn't turning out to be what the zeitgeist calls for," an executive involved in the planning said yesterday.

The Dec. 31 black-tie affair was being put on by the trade center and Hayes & Associates, a McLean public relations firm, with major corporate support from Discovery Communications Inc. and The Washington Post. The designated nonprofit beneficiaries had been told they might receive as much as $50,000 each, according to one official.

"It would have been absolutely wonderful," said Barry Lofton, development officer at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, which hoped to use the funds for its efforts with local schools. "We very rarely get the opportunity to be involved in this type of event."

At Food & Friends, executive director Craig Shniderman was told Tuesday that the party was off. He was disappointed but not completely surprised. About a month ago, he'd gotten wind of problems when a telemarketer phoned his house trying to sell tickets for the event.

"I assume someone is out of pocket quite a bit of money," he said.

Across the country, numerous New Year's Eve celebrations also have been canceled--and others are hurting--because of sluggish public response.

One of the biggest-name shows was to be a lavish soiree at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, with performances by Aretha Franklin, Sting, Enrique Iglesias and Tom Jones. Yet even with three years of promotion, only a few thousand tickets reportedly were sold before that "Party of the Century" was scrapped two weeks ago.

"This year's just been kind of quirky. A lot of people are producing New Year's Eve events who have never done it before," said Michael Harrigan at Shack Events, the Northern Virginia promoter staging Washington's biggest bash that night.

Harrigan predicted that "Capital Countdown" at the downtown MCI Center will sell out just after Christmas; at least half of its more than 10,500 tickets--priced at $249 and $399--have been sold so far, he said.

Tickets, however, are moving slower at his company's other party at Georgetown Park, where he'd like to see 2,500 people revel.

Ticket-holders for the Reagan building event will get refunds, said Brian Dacey, managing director of Trade Center Management Associates. "We all had great intentions," he said.

The party's sponsors echoed that sentiment.

"We were happy to make the investment if it could help the community," said Linda Erdos, public relations manager at The Post. "We don't regret the decision."

Donald Baer, executive vice president at Discovery Communications, said the Bethesda-based company still is helping to sponsor a daytime program at the trade center Dec. 31.

It will bring many in Washington's diplomatic community to watch, via global television hookups, as the new year arrives in their respective countries.

But cancellation of the evening party is a loss, he said. "It would have been a wonderful event at a nice site."

CAPTION: Nearly 3,500 people were to celebrate at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, shown at '98 dedication.