Midway through the lamb course in the Crystal Ballroom at the District's Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, the band broke into a drumroll. Wayne Moore was about to give Ekaterina Mariamova the surprise of a millennium.
"My God, the bride doesn't know!" diners whispered.
Before Mariamova could utter a word, Moore whisked her to a microphone on the dance floor and, with the help of a newly arrived minister, the ceremony began.
Rapt guests put down their forks and picked up their cameras. Concerned that he wouldn't have pictures, Moore delayed the ceremony long enough to dash back to his seat for his point-and-shoot.
"No!" cried the crowd, and Moore rushed back to Mariamova's side. Moments later, they were wed--and, to the exultant cheers of the crowd, they kissed. Bride and groom then took their first dance as husband and wife.
The tune: "Unforgettable."
"I had no idea," said an incredulous Mariamova, who is from Moscow and met Moore, of Columbia, over the Internet two years ago. "It's the end of the millennium, the end of the century and the beginning of our life."
The newlyweds were among thousands of revelers who picked their own ways to usher in 2000, away from the crushing crowds and high public spectacle of the Mall. Friends and relatives gathered in living rooms, back yards and ballrooms for private millennial parties both boisterous and quiet, crowded and small.
In Prince George's, hundreds of guests poured into the BET Soundstage Restaurant for a pull-out-all-the-stops dance party. At historic Epiphany Parish of Georgetown, Debra Andersen and Paul Ghostine said their vows--this wedding was planned--before 120 relatives and friends. Residents of the Goodwin House West retirement center in Falls Church pondered the waning of the century that defined--but did not encompass--their lives.
And in the District's Washington Circle neighborhood, techies prepared to welcome a new year that appeared, after midnight, to bring no computer meltdown after all.
Some of those who chose private parties over public celebrations feared terrorism. Some hate crowds, and others wanted to mark the passage in the company of good friends. By sticking close to home and close to loved ones, many hoped to put a more intimate end to the old year.
Andersen, 35, and Ghostine, 31, knew they wanted a New Year's Eve wedding. How better to share their special day with friends and family than to exchange vows on the last day of the old year and party into the wee hours of the first day of the next one?
Amid decorations of holiday greens and Christmas trees twinkling with white lights, the Maronite Christian ceremony began at 6:30 p.m. with an organ processional and ended a half-hour later, bride and groom joined in matrimony. Members of the wedding party and guests agreed that the date of the wedding couldn't have been better.
"What else would I have done tonight?" said Ken Rokoff, 39, a groomsman from Bethesda. "Without this, I would have gone to some overpriced party, not known anyone, put on silly hats and blown into a whistle. Here, I'm with friends. It's great."
After the evening nuptials, the celebration moved to Georgetown University's Car Barn, where French cuisine was on the menu and the tables were set with candelabras--lots of candles, said the bride, in case of a power failure. Eventually, the wedding reception was transformed into a New Year's Eve party, with a DJ on duty at the turntable and guests on the dance floor.
The revelry was less formal yesterday in a little slice of Del Ray in Alexandria, as adults and children drifted among houses during a block party. New Year's Eve began with brunch at one house, followed by dinner at another house and culminating with sparklers on lawns.
"We wanted to keep it in the neighborhood and include the children," said Denise Dieter, who hosted the brunch.
Across the Potomac in the District, Michele Gallo threw a party crowded with information technology consultants and other friends in the computer business. After a year of long hours and fretting connected to Y2K, partygoer Erin Cole cringed at the sight of a laptop in the middle of the appetizer spread.
"What is that computer doing here?" asked Cole, in mock horror.
Gallo, who was setting up a visual Internet link with another party in New York, said Cole "doesn't want to sound like a geek."
About 10 p.m., after a couple of hours' effort, the feed from the New York fete was finally established. The Washington partygoers crowded around the computer screen and watched a jerky, two-inch high video feed from Manhattan.
"This is what [information technology] people do at their parties," said Lisa Brenner, 30, an accountant.
Even without the impromptu nuptials, a trio of black-tie balls at the Willard were among Washington's most elaborate private New Year's Eve parties, costing as much as $750 per couple. That price did not include accommodations--which raised the price of a two-night stay to $2,000--but it did entitle guests to a five-course dinner with a bottle of Moet & Chandon, commemorative champagne flutes and dancing until 2 a.m. to a 10-piece band.
Lawrence and Priscilla McAndrews, of Alexandria, always travel on New Year's Eve. Last year they were in the Galapagos Islands. The year before it was Malta. Seated last night in the Willard's presidential ballroom, they said this was the year they decided to stay put.
"It's our only concession to Y2K," Lawrence McAndrews said. "I didn't want to be in a Third World country this year," Priscilla McAndrews added.
Peter Willard, 39, of the District, decided three months ago that he would ring in the new year with his partner and another couple in the aptly named Willard Room, rather than on the Mall. "We wanted to be part of history," Willard said. "We wanted to be part of the life stream of America."
At midnight, many of the guests streamed onto Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the new year and see the fireworks on the Mall.
In the suburbs, residents of Goodwin House West held their annual New Year's Eve party. As the New Year began, the four members of the Herb Smith Trio played a halting version of "Auld Lang Syne," accompanied by the mournful sounds of a saw being played with a bow by one resident.
"Ever since I was 20, I thought, 'I wonder if I could see a new millennium in,' and now here I am seeing a new millennium in," said Mary Lathram, 84.
After watching New York's famed ball drop on television at midnight, Lathram hugged her husband: "We have the new century, the new millennium," she said. "We weren't sure we were going to see it."
Within minutes, the residents raced for the leftover shrimp and the elevators--"as much as people in their eighties can be seen racing," said Elizabeth Olson, 85.
Things were substantially noisier at the BET Soundstage Restaurant in Mitchellville, where the music was cranked to disco and hip-hop with two hours to go until midnight. It was too loud to talk, but men in suits and tuxedos and women wearing spaghetti-strap dresses and glitter galore mingled and feasted on steak, shrimp and crab cakes.
Dates were not required at this party, as demonstrated by three single women who flew into town just to bring in the new year at the trendy dining spot.
"We decided back in September to come to the D.C. area," said Tiawanna Gilyard, 24, of St. Louis. "We thought it would be exciting."
In Anne Arundel County, Sue Grant's Titanic party required a boarding pass from guests before they could walk up the wooden plank of the famed ship--which was Grant's white-pillared colonial house.
Some guests came dressed as captains and deckhands, others dressed as aristocrats or just plain ladies and gentlemen. Grant's sister-in-law, Dorothy Grant, came as the "unsinkable" Molly Brown.
She wore a black velvet ankle-length dress with a shawl of feathers draped around her shoulders. On her head was a bouffant hat with a cascade of chiffon. "I look like one of those toilet paper covers," she joked.
Among the 100 or so guests were neighbors Warren Harper and Edlu Thom. "Initially I thought that I didn't want to sink on New Year's Eve," Thom joked. "But then we looked at it as sinking 1999 and bringing in 2000."
CAPTION: Wayne Moore and Ekaterina Mariamova dance moments after getting married at the District's Willard Inter-Continental Hotel. The ceremony was a surprise to Mariamova.
CAPTION: Dorothy Grant attends a Titanic party at a home in Anne Arundel County as the "unsinkable" Molly Brown; her husband, Peter Grant, is a steerage passenger.
CAPTION: During First Night Annapolis, "Fru Fru's," street performers, walk down Main Street. Public and private celebrations across the Washington region drew revelers.