"St. Paul the Hermit" by Lo Spagnoletto and the Holy Family of Jacob Jordaens' "The Flight Into Egypt" could only look on in somber silence. Below their corner in the Walters Art Gallery, a crowd had gathered, not to see them but to await a chance for a palm reading by a woman dressed as a witch.

In another room, Frank El, a leather-clad Elvis impersonator, paid an accidental tribute to decadence as he nursed a between-shows drink beneath the bronze bust of Louis II de Bourbon. In the museum's front hall, a 470-year-old glazed terra-cotta Adam and Eve looked on approvingly at several dozen young men and women tangled together in a giant game of Twister.

Music was blasting, liquor was flowing -- all that was missing Friday night was a strobe light, as hundreds of affluent twenty- and thirtysomethings transformed the venerable Walters into a raging nightclub.

The event was April Foolishness, an annual party thrown by the youngest patrons of the museum known as Friends of the Walters. Officially the party is a fund-raiser intended to attract more young people to the museum. Unofficially, the party counteracts the 89-year-old Mount Vernon institution's reputation for stuffiness by turning the gallery's grand halls into dance floors and creating a circus-like atmosphere in the smaller rooms.

"The Walters traditionally has a much older constituency, one that is literally dying off," said Rebecca Waters, a Friends of the Walters member. "This is a way to preserve and grow the membership and introduce a younger audience to the museum."

Other area museums are vying for the same audience. Most notably, the Baltimore Museum of Art offers free admission in the evening once a month to "show the museum in a relaxed, casual atmosphere," said BMA spokeswoman Tara Fenlon.

The Walters crew took a different approach, charging $50 to $60 a head and billing the party as an upscale evening out.

"We wanted to have a fabulous, wonderful event," said Lauren Weinberg, who co-chaired the event. "I think it's a great value: three bands, tons of food, open bar. It's just a big bash."

The night included intentionally un-stuffy activities, such as the Twister game, a magic show, a fire-eater and other diversions that the typical Walters patron, age 55-60, might not have appreciated as much as Friday's crowd.

And the 800-plus mostly young, mostly white, well-dressed party-goers were different from the typical patrons in more than age. Few acknowledged the art in their midst; instead, they preferred to see and be seen by the other revelers.

"We came to eat and, like, see who was here," explained 27-year-old Jennifer Campbell, who stood with her friends, bubbly drink-filled plastic cups in hands, at the edge of the dance floor.

"We all came from work. We came to meet people, and have fun. Are we going to check out the China statues? I don't think so," said Jessica Ordeman, 23. "I think I'd rather go drink with Voltaire," she said, gesturing to a bronze bust next to the open bar.

Walters director Gary Vican declared the night a success, despite the lack of attention paid to his collection.

"This is great. It's exactly what was intended. I don't know anybody here," he marveled.

"It's great to get [young people] in here, we want them to feel comfortable here," he said, surveying the packed, gyrating dance floor. "Now that they know it's here, we hope they'll come back."

Whether that wish will come true wasn't clear Friday night.

Eddie McGowan, a 27-year-old dressed in a tight black T-shirt, had never been to the museum before, but looked right at home scoping out the scene Friday, beer in hand. "I'm having a great time," he said.

When asked if he planned to return to the Walters, McGowan flashed a smile. "Yeah, I'll be back. Right about this time next year."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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