WASHINGTON — Washington--It was going to be a glorious, glittery affair.
A seven-piece band, eight-course meal, ladies and gents dressed to the nines. There would be champagne, tents, re-created scenes of Venice inside the Italian Embassy residence where all this fabulous consuming and merrymaking was to take place.
But this $275-a-pop fund-raising gala for the Phillips art gallery, planned for May and already heralded on 1991 social calendars as an opulent "pageant," has recently been recast -- scaled back dramatically to a simple dessert and champagne reception at the gallery for $150 a person.
"Gala," says Rima Calderone, former director of corporate relations at the Phillips Collection, "is the wrong word to be using right now. Anything that creates the aura of opulence we felt we couldn't do right now. These are not opulent times. We felt it was unrealistic and inappropriate.
"The original idea of having a black-tie dinner dance at the Italian Embassy was going to be lovely -- but lovely for another time."
Even on Washington's social circuit -- usually recession-proof and insulated from the fallout of world crises -- the economic and political uncertainties weighing in with the New Year are casting an air of restraint and apprehension.
"There was genuine concern about whether we might be at war in May," says Ms. Calderone. Could we have an event like this? Could we expect people to come if we're at war?"
Beyond that, she says, were economic considerations, especially poignant for Washington's real estate and banking moguls, major linchpins of the social scene here: "This was a decision based on what the future holds. And the future is recession."
Recent economic and political instability has had a "profound and unequivocal" effect on D.C. society, says Craig Stoltz, editor of Washington's Dossier magazine, who believes we're witnessing the last gasp of the opulent charity ball.
"People are scaling down," says Bill Homan, owner of Design Cuisine caterers. "There's definitely a climate of concern, a watchful eye."
"The mood is very subdued," says socialite Jayne Ikard. "People are in a very serious, restrained frame of mind."
This year's fund-raising event for the National Council of Negro Women, for example, is a "Stay at Home Dinner" -- in other words, contributions please, but no event. Washington Times society editor Merrie Morris Hammons says she doesn't have "one single solitary party on my calendar for February."
Lobster, caviar and crab claws are giving way to meatballs and cheese puffs on buffet tables. And attendance and revenue have been down one-third to one-half at charity balls in the last year, say event planners, including last month's Symphony Ball, the ,, highlight of the social season, and September's Constitution Ball that netted $90,000 less than expected.
"Most people who would like to see a 10 percent increase are thrilled if they have the same attendance as last year," says party planner Carol McCain of Washington Inc. "This is the first time I've seen a recession ever hit Washington."
Several of last year's big-ticket items were deemed colossal flops because of poor ticket sales -- most notably the $3,500-a-head benefit dinner dance with Princess Diana in October, boycotted by even the city's most stalwart ballgoers because of the hefty price tag.
"Everyone, including that creature of the '80s Georgette
Mosbacher, rebelled and said, 'too much,' " says Mr. Stoltz. "If Georgette has caught on to that, you know everyone's caught on."
Especially Washington's developers and bankers now grappling with economic worries of their own, and leaving benefit functions to hobble along without them. Developers have been heard telling their socially active wives to select two balls a year in which to participate. "Normally, it's two a week," says Mr. Stoltz.
And corporate sponsorship of big charity affairs has all but disappeared, say party planners. "Companies can't afford to give money when they're laying off people," says events organizer Mary Ann Lundgren.
Mr. Stoltz sees the change as a "de-evolution" of the charity ball, a trend back to its smaller, quieter beginnings. "The charity event started as a small, exclusive event with only the most elite supporters. Over the '80s, the wealth got spread around. Developers got rich. Car dealers got rich. Everybody got rich. It just exploded."
In fact, the '80s played host to so many lavish, caviar-laden affairs that many observers believe Washington's social animals overdosed on the stuff. "People almost reached the point where they'd give you a check if they didn't have to go to the party," says Ms. Hammons.