Last month, in throes of frantic inaugural planning, Marriott Wardman Park's general manager, Ed Rudzinski, told us, "By January 17, it's over. All we’ll need to do is execute.” Last night, that's exactly what happened.
The Kentucky Bluegrass and the North Carolina State Society balls unfolded in tandem Monday night at Wardman Park. The first was a seated dinner for 1,250 people, and the second, a cocktail reception for 1,425. With two sold-out balls and a fully booked hotel, Wardman Park was packed to the gills.
When we arrived at 6 PM, the hotel was electric. Kentucky ball guests, clad in tuxedos and floor-length gowns, milled around the lobby and posed for photos before heading upstairs for a reception—in true Kentucky style—with six bourbon stations.
By 6:10, Rudzinski was already putting out his first fire of the evening: An Obama souvenir table set up near the Kentucky ball needed to be packed up and moved. "It's all about the client," Rudzinski said. "If they want us to change something, we do it. No questions."
All photographs by Chris Leaman
Inside the ballroom, an army of servers stood at attention behind 150 tables. But just when the doors were about to open, the client changed plans—another table needed to be added for the band. Chris Otway, Wardman Park's director of catering, quickly recruited banquet servers to help him add and dress another table. Crisis number two averted.
In the kitchen, a health inspector arrived for a surprise visit. "This is normal anytime you have an event of this magnitude," Rudzinski said, looking at his watch. "By now, the cooks are plating dinner."
He was right. An assembly line of 15 kitchen staff were hard at work, squirting rosemary oil, spooning buttered leeks, and dishing up bison tenderloin. At 7, more than an hour before the first course was to be served, the plates were being assembled and placed into hot boxes, heated metal containers on wheels that continue to slowly cook the food.
"Timing is crucial," Rudzinski explained. "The food has to be cooked just right so that it's not overdone or underdone by the time it comes out of the box."
Next, we headed to the other side of the hotel for the North Carolina ball. "Want to see Muhammad Ali's birthday party on the way?" Rudzinski asked. Yes, please.
The retired boxer was in a smaller room as part of a VIP reception and birthday party in his honor. He was at the hotel to participate in the Kentucky Bluegrass Ball and was taking photos with VIP fans beforehand. When we arrived, he was posing with members of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-Americans who famously enrolled in a segregated school in 1957. We also spotted world champion boxer Evander Holyfield.
In the Thurgood Marshall Ballroom, the North Carolina ball was set up and ready to go. A buffet spread lined the perimeter of the room, and a handful of tables were set up to give partygoers' feet a bit of respite. This party was designed for guests looking to dance and mingle for hours.
The doors opened at 8, with everything ready to go, but as guests started filtering in, the house lights came on—not according to plan. Crisis number three.
Otway sprung into action, racing from light switch to light switch to investigate the problem. A few minutes later, he was back. "Someone was leaning on the switch," he said, chuckling. "I locked it."
Thousands of people moved through the Woodley Park hotel last night, but behind the scenes, employees were surprisingly calm and on task. Everything seemed to move like clock work—"well-rehearsed chaos," just as Otway had predicted.
"It's nights like these that make it all worthwhile," he said later over a round of drinks. "We sell excitement. It's nice to see it all come together in the end."