NOT IN THE MOOD TO PARTY Gala gatherings suffer as war, recession make socializing less appealing


She was dressed to the nines in diamonds and pearls. Her hair was done, her nails were freshly polished and her hopes were high. But where, oh where, was the party?

Never in the four years that she and her husband had attended the Casino Ball had it been so easy to mill about without rubbing elbows, so simple to sample the caviar. And where were all the faces she recognized, the dresses worth ogling?

Once the highlight of her social calendar, this January event -- a kind of Monte Carlo-meets-Baltimore benefit for the Baltimore Museum of Art -- now seemed as flat as day-old champagne.

The yellow ribbons at the museum entrance helped explain why.

"It's really hard when you go out not to end up talking about the war," says the thirtysomething partygoer, who asked not to be named. "It's on your mind. You talk about who you know who's in the war. But with all the major corporations doing lay-offs, you also talk about when lay-offs will touch someone you know and care about. It's something that everybody carries inside of them."

If the band is playing on, it's definitely playing a more somber song. The double whammy of the war and recession has dampened spirits, often making fund-raisers, galas and benefits less successful and less fun.

"There's something very unappealing about the idea of fiddling while Rome burns," says Cameron Barry, a local marketing and public relations consultant.

Many profit-depleted companies have responded to tough times curbing their generosity, while would-be socialites are rethinking where they absolutely must be seen this year.

The results are often similar to what occurred at the Casino Ball last month, when 400 fewer people than expected turned out to support an $85-a-person affair.

"People simply aren't in a party mood," explains Marge Lee, the museum's public relations director. "You can't get away from the war. It's always there. No matter where you are."

In some cases, party planners have responded to the conflict in the Middle East by scaling back or even canceling events.

Although the Harbor Court Hotel had sent out 600 invitations to clients for its "yearly guest appreciation party," the late January festivities were postponed when war broke out, says Werner Kunz, managing director of the hotel. "It had to do with patriotism," he says. "We said, 'If war breaks out, we'll be American enough not to sing and dance and celebrate.' "

Some party organizers are already coming up with ways that their galas can pay tribute to the troops and to the country's renewed sense of patriotism. At the Triple Crown Ball in May, planners have decided to make the theme "An Americana Celebration" and feature flags, stars, stripes and an abundance of red, white and blue.

But perhaps no one's story better sums up how times have changed than caterer Charles Levine's. Three years ago, he was the toast of Baltimore, opening a swank banquet facility in Scarlett Place and holding receptions for everyone from high-ranking politicians to industry titans. Last week, however, the bottom fell out and Charles Levine Ltd. filed for reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. While still maintaining his Owings Mills commissary, he has returned to a former job, catering and managing the Pimlico Restaurant, which his uncle owns.

"Between the war and the economy, people have really taken a bath," says Mr. Levine, 36. "I made millions and I lost millions. I haven't failed. . . . I made some unwise business decisions."

Personal hardships aside, some believe the combination of war, recession and the death of the '80s may cause people to re-order their priorities, signaling a new, less ostentatious social scene.

"I have to wonder if the whole high-ticket, black-tie party scene . . . is not something that may lose interest for people now that the glossy, glittering '80s are over," says Ms. Barry. "I don't want to sound like a killjoy, but I also feel a lot of people are just coming to terms with reality in a lot of ways. They're realizing our country is in a very shaky situation, economically and in the Middle East."

Because of those feelings, she and her husband recently decided to skip a gala and spend a quiet evening with friends instead. "I felt strange about paying $100 a person, getting dressed up and going out," she says. "We just weren't in that kind of mood."

That's not to say, however, that the party's completely over in town. The Heart Ball, a benefit for the Maryland affiliate of the American Heart Association held last weekend, was a sell-out, with nearly 1,000 people buying tickets at $200 apiece.

"We feel it's our mission to save lives and fight heart disease and we needed to go on," says Robyn Landry, communications director for the organization. "People realize it's not just a party. It is for a worthy cause."

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