A Night Out: Illinois Inaugural Gala

By: Erin Delmore

What: The Illinois Inaugural Gala, hosted by the Illinois State Society.

Where: Renaissance Hotel.

When: Monday, January 19.

Ticket price: $500 for the dinner and ball, $300 for the Gala Ball only.  Tickets sold out by November 29, 2008 after going on sale to the public in September.

Who: Prominent Illinoisans, politicians, corporate sponsors, and anyone who figured that the new President's home state would pull out all the stops to usher in its favorite son as Commander-in-Chief. Government officials dominated the crowd of nearly 7,000, with honorees including the state's 20 members of the 111th Congress. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr attended the dinner with wife, Sandi, and told Washingtonian, "This is the party of the century! No, it's the party of four centuries!" Roland Burris, the newly appointed successor to Obama's vacant Senate seat, sat at the table next to Jackson's and told us that he was very much enjoying himself as he shook hands and posed for photos with guests. Also spotted: actor Bill Murray on the dance floor in a pale pastel madras bow tie; former NBA star Cliff Robinson sporting a top hat on his 6'9" frame; and actor Keith David, who starred in a film about a barbershop in Chicago's south side. Government types included Senator Dick Durbin; Congressman Aaron Shock, State Senator and former colleague of Obama's, Kirk Dillard.

Rumored to be in attendance: Retired Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, comedian and former Daily Show pundit Mo Rocca, and musician George Clinton, minus the Funkadelics.

See more photos of inaugural balls.

Missing: The Man of the Hour. Attendees managed to keep whispers of President Obama's impending attendance alive, but should have known better when lax security allowed many of their tickets to go unchecked at the door. And rumor has it that Rham Emanuel was slated to attend, but backed out at the last minute.

Scene: With three floors, two ballrooms, and 18 themed rooms to explore, there was simply no way to see everything in one sweep. The sea of tuxedos and gowns included Scottish kilts, African headdresses, and Indian saris, while iconic Obama accessories peppered even the most traditional wardrobes. Native Chicagoans attested to the accuracy of recreated scenes of the Magnificent Mile and Hyde Park. For the many transplanted Illinoisians in attendance, it was a healthy dose of home.

Dinner: Eighteen-hundred guests enjoyed a sit-down meal honoring the inauguration of Barack Obama and the 200th anniversary of Illinois native Abraham Lincoln's birth. A madrigal alumni choir from West Springfield sang the Illinois State song while guests finished off their meals with colorful plates of American-style cheesecake. Recorded slideshows of President Lincoln and video of President Obama's past speeches covered the sound of 5,000 guests making their way into the lobby one floor above.

The Illinois State Fair paid homage to the Heartland with visual touches such as patriotic plastic flags, bales of hay, and fat, blue first-place ribbons. Food hearkened back to childhood delights such as cotton candy, corn dogs, and the understocked balls of cheesecake on a stick. Ace of Cakes' Caterpillar Bulldozer Cake proved a dead ringer for its real-life counterpart parked only a few feet away. Drinks such as lemon shake-ups flowed easily, though bar-lined walls made for narrow, crowded passageways.

Country Saloon
The Saloon's dance floor served a higher purpose as a passageway to cut from the State Fair to more hopping grounds, such as the Irish Pub. Not for lack of a decent country-western band, only three to four couples seemed to cut a rug at a time—that is, aside for the sporadic line dance favored by a dozen or so more dancers. A classic whiskey bar (announced pointedly by a nearly human-size cutout of a bottle of Maker's Mark) outside the main area drew long lines instead.

Irish Pub
As a Motown cover band lured people in from saloon, plenty of cold bottles of Guinness, endless bangers and chips, hot soft pretzels and plenty of mustard kept people in the Irish pub all night. Green and gold balloons, shamrocks, and cutouts of pots of gold and rainbows didn't seem inauthentic against life-size cutouts of castles, and standards such as "Celebration" and "Ladies' Night" kept everyone in a good mood, whether dancing, waiting for drinks, or playfully jousting in the pretend kingdom.

Steppenwolf Theatre and Theatre Row
It took no more than a stack of hot cheeseburger sliders and chili to relieve guests of the gridlock they fought through to make their way to the theater. Clips of Illinois-based movies such as "The Breakfast Club" were long enough to kick off the shoes and rest the feet between bouts of dancing.

Sports Bar
If there's one thing you can have any night of the year, it's sports and beer. Guests pegged the Sports Trivia as largely missable, with its lack of music and unnotable food and drink, and quickly moved along.

Heartland Diner
Like a scene born out of Grease's Rydell High, the Heartland Diner rang of poodle skirts, roller blades, records and rock. A DJ played tunes such as "Surfin' USA" and "The Twist," and people danced with root beer floats in hand among cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.

Chicago Pizzeria
Obama himself might not have drawn such a crowd. Lines wound out the door and around the hall to enter the one room with no music, no dancing, no games, no alcohol and no favors. Acquiring a plate of Uno's deep dish pizza in two varieties (sausage/chunky tomato/mozzarella or pepperoni/sausage/mushroom/onion/pepper) became more coveted than a picture with Bill Murray. When the pizza ran out at five after midnight, crowds thinned for good.

"Controlled Chaos"
Guests who wandered up to the hotel lobby expecting more theme rooms and goodies unknowingly traded their spot downstairs for a place on the (sometimes hour-long!) line to get down there in the first place. Temporary shortages of glasses, plates, and water put a damper on the mood, but staff kept crowds happy: After prolonged rummaging underneath the bar to fill a drink order, a bartender emerged clutching a tall bottle of Vox vodka and hoisted it in the air and shouted, "Yes we can!"

Ok to bring:
• Kids. From the cotton candy to the deep-dish pizza, lively Motown and sing-along '50s rock outlets, kids clearly felt not only welcome, but catered to.
• Your single friends. Random chatter among well-dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings coupled with a singles meet and greet at 10 PM under the Marshall Field's clock (Chicago's version of mistletoe?) made this pick-up locale a safer bet than Georgetown's Social Safeway.

What not to wear:
• Trains! As if a fool's-length gown isn't hot and cumbersome enough in an overcrowded space, never think of wearing a dress with a train when thousands are expected. If you don't want everyone stepping on your pricey gown as you move through halls at a snail's pace, don't give the invitation.
• A coat, if you can help it. After checking 5,000 coats and filling a couple of entire rooms, the gala stopped accepting them!

>> See all inauguration coverage

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