In Baltimore, an inauguration tradition all its own

Dr. Louise Jones Johnson, W. Baltimore, chair of the Maryland Inaugural Special Committee, sets up for the Inaugural Ball in the Patapsco Arena.
Dr. Louise Jones Johnson, W. Baltimore, chair of the Maryland Inaugural Special Committee, sets up for the Inaugural Ball in the Patapsco Arena. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Louise Johnson popped out of her seat at the Patapsco Arena in South Baltimore — taking a break from tying decorative gold and silver sashes to the backs of hundreds of chairs — and smiled warmly at a man delivering newly pressed gleaming white tablecloths.

The 75-year-old West Baltimore resident exuded enthusiasm and energy — traits that are particularly needed in times like these, when well-heeled insiders from Annapolis and Washington are dry-cleaning formal wear and confirming invitations to inaugural balls. Johnson probably could use connections made through decades of working with Maryland officials to snag an invitation to one of the lavish events commemorating President Barack Obama's inauguration.

But she won't.

Instead, Johnson will host her own inauguration parties at the arena — a rental facility and bingo hall on a blue-collar stretch of Annapolis Road in Baltimore — for more than 500 people, many of them African-American and only a smattering with any real name recognition.

With tickets priced at $40 a person, the Saturday and Monday events are homey alternatives to the pricier balls in Washington. She's most excited for the Obama "swag" contest, in which male attendees will compete to see who can best imitate the president's strut. "He's got a certain walk to him," she said.

Johnson first held the event in 1977, and it has continued — at times in Washington, but always with a Baltimore crowd — ever since. It was designed to offer access to the inaugural fanfare that occurs every four years but, at least historically, has left few doors open for regular folks, Johnson said.

Back then, when she broached the possibility of hosting such an event, many African-Americans in Baltimore felt the celebration in the nation's capital "wasn't for them," she recalled. "The average person who would like to be a part, and who had voted, never thought they could have a presence."

Black leaders in Maryland had made huge strides and won political office. But average citizens remained largely marginalized in the theater of politics, she said — especially in its grandest of productions: the inaugural ball, which can cost attendees thousands of dollars.

No matter, Johnson remembers thinking. "My mother always said, 'If you build a good mousetrap, they're gonna come.' "

At the time, Johnson owned a public relations firm and was a member of President Jimmy Carter's National Inaugural Committee. She set to work making arrangements. She founded the all-volunteer Maryland Inaugural Special Committee, started working her contacts in Annapolis, and consulted a book titled "Protocol-Handbook for Diplomatic Social Events."

She also sought advice from former state Del. Walter Dean Jr., for whom she worked as an aide. He helped form the committee.

"She's really a gem," Dean said recently. "Not too many people have the work ethic to work five, six or seven days out of the week without complaining. She never gets tired."

Over the years, with Johnson at the helm, the event grew, drawing a crowd distinct from that attracted to the official inaugural balls. The victorious Maryland Democratic Party will hold its ball Sunday at the Gaylord National Hotel just outside Washington in Prince George's County.

Matt Verghese, a state party spokesman, said that ball will be attended by almost all of the state's prominent Democrats, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, General Assembly members, and the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, except Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Tickets to the event, about 1,000 of which had been sold as of Thursday afternoon, cost $250 for general admission and $1,000 for VIP treatment.

Johnson said she has kept her event more accessible by watching costs and giving away some tickets on the radio. She has also long stressed her event's nonpartisan approach.

"We don't care if you belong to the Mickey Mouse Party or no party at all," she told The Evening Sun in 1981, as she prepared her ball for Ronald Reagan, a Republican. "We just want people to come and be part of an historical event in our nation and have a good time."

Politicians are invited — City Councilman Pete Welch is on the event committee — but they don't deliver speeches and are discouraged from grandstanding, Johnson said.

"You can show up and work the room, but I don't want them to stand up there for 15 minutes," she said. "Fifteen minutes is a long time … to talk about 'my district this' and blah, blah."

The crowd is full of people from Baltimore and its suburbs, happy to feel they are "part of something" related to the inauguration after campaigning and voting, said Welch, who has attended past events and plans to be there this weekend.

"This is something that makes them feel this is the culmination of all of their efforts, and they really are excited to be a part of it," he said.

Former state Sen. Larry Young, now a radio personality in Baltimore and an honored guest at the ball in 2009, said he was impressed by the number of people Johnson was able to attract. "It looked sold out," he said of that event.

This weekend, there will be two events at the arena — a business-casual cocktail party on Saturday and a "dress to impress" ball on Monday. Johnson expects more than 500 people to attend each one.

Johnson, who heads the Maryland Unified Licensees Beverage Association and holds board positions for various other groups in the state as well, maintains oversight of the events from start to finish. The work ranges from obtaining sponsors, which this year include the arena and media conglomerate Radio One Maryland, to approving the catered menu from Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory.

A live DJ will work at each event, she said. It's a departure from the live bands that performed covers of The Temptations at the first inaugural party, but part of Johnson's effort to maintain a contemporary feel for guests.

Richard Johnson Jr., who was helping his mother decorate the arena this week, said the party and ball are both "meet and greet" opportunities meant to give local residents and small business owners a chance to network while having fun — something she has always done well.

"She's constantly evolving and participating in things to better our community, to help organizations grow," he said.

In the past, Johnson has printed event programs listing menus, bands and sponsors. This year, with funding low and Johnson wanting to keep admission affordable, there will be no program.

But the prospect doesn't seem to faze her. Johnson has focused instead on details that are delighting her this year, like the fact that a live feed of the inauguration in Washington will be played on televisions throughout the arena.

"It will be a constant party all night," she said.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.



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