Randi Martin will never forget her first inaugural ball. There were the sequins, the president, the champagne — the riot.
Martin was at a ball for President Bill Clinton's second inauguration when Clinton arrived, danced with Hillary, played the saxophone and left — followed by a majority of those gathered to see him.
Thousands of people converged on the coat check from three balls at the Omni Shoreham hotel. Fur flew, and not always to the rightful owners. Judges, politicians and assorted bigwigs rushed the coatroom and banged on the door.
"It was a mass of finely clothed and jeweled individuals starting to chant 'We want our coats! We want our coats!' " said Martin, a Washington-area voiceover performer. "There were elderly women in this crowd, and they weren't going down without a fight."
Police were called, and the mob was sent out in the freezing cold, coatless. It wasn't the first time an inaugural coat check turned ugly, and it's just one of the indignities that insiders say come with the territory at soirees that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars on inauguration night.
Just like ‘a massive high school prom’
If you're eager to attend a ball for President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20, consider: Balls can be so crowded that sequins and jewelry become entangled on the dance floor. One misstep and you could be crippled by a misplaced stiletto. Food is hard to come by — some remember it fondly, while others ask, "food?" The line for alcohol would be unbearable, if standing on the dance floor wasn't essentially like waiting in line.
"It's like a massive high school prom, is the only way I can describe it, in terms of the crush of people and the level of sophistication," said Sheila Tate, who was press secretary to Nancy Reagan. "It's just packed."
Tate has witnessed two coat-check riots at Republican balls. It happened at President Ronald Reagan's ball in 1985, when many women left in minks not their own, and again in 1989 for the first President George Bush at a ball with what became known as "The Bastille Day Coat Check."
"People were screaming and yelling. Some people had to go back the next day. Some people never got their coats," she said.
A historical traditionIn that, they were following a fine tradition. Abraham Lincoln lost his hat at Zachary Taylor's ball in 1849, according to historian Jim Bendat. (No word on how one might misplace a stovepipe.)
"Twenty years later, for Ulysses S. Grant's first inauguration, illiterate workers mixed up everyone's coat claims, leading to fights among the men and tears among the women," said Bendat, author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1978-2009."
It could be worse: For Grant's second inauguration, somebody forgot to heat the room where the inaugural ball was held. "Everybody was tripping over one another because they were all bundled up," he said.
While the coat-check problem was solved, the canaries brought in to chirp out entertainment froze to death.
This year, with 10 official balls and what's shaping up to be more unofficial parties than ever, the coat situation could be even more precarious. Peter Grazzini of Washington-based Perfect Settings bought an extra 250 coat racks and is still short 250 that he hopes to bring in from Chicago along with another 12,000 chairs.
"Our industry has kind of learned from the past that unfortunately you just have to make the decision to buy more. The sad thing is you only need them every four years," he said.
He thinks he'll have enough for his more than 200 events over Inauguration weekend, including a party for Google and events at several museums. But that's mostly because "anybody in their right mind won't bring their coat to an inaugural event."
Going coatless works in good weather, but that's rare in Washington in January. One year, Tate said, her eyelids froze shut.
Tate's strategy is to keep her coat with her — or better yet, skip the ball. She recently spoke to a woman overseas who couldn't wait to come back to the United States for the inauguration. "She said 'I'm excited, I really want to go to the inaugural ball,' " Tate said, "and I said 'Then I guess you've never been to one.' "
Everyone should attend ‘once’Still, Tate thinks everyone should go to an inaugural ball — once.
"You can dine off that for years," she said. "And we should keep it fairly secret that it's not all that glamorous so that people still want to go."
Barry Landau has been to at least a dozen inaugurations and says there's been no dancing since the Reagans, and heavy security means everyone must wear unfashionable credentials around their necks and risk getting locked out if they visit the powder room.
"You're expecting to have a nice drink in a crystal glass. Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone," said Landau, who is working on a history called "The President's Inauguration: 200 Years of An American Pageant."
But while today's balls may not be as glamorous, he wouldn't miss this one.
"You know what? It's still exciting," he says. "It's nice when people get dressed up again and have something to look forward to."
A happy endingFor Martin, the night of the riot turned out better than expected. She and her date, Allen Orenberg, were able to laugh about it. It was bitter cold outside, but Orenberg lent Martin his suit jacket for the long walk.
Today, they are married and living in Rockville, Maryland.
"It was our first date. It was a memorable one," she said. "You never forget your first riot."