Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of dispatches that Washingtonian.com will be publishing in the months leading up to the inauguration. We’ll provide an insider’s look at how high-profile inaugural events come together—from food and decorations to entertainment and security. Our reporting will be focused on the inaugural activities at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.
The inaugural wheels are in motion at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in DC’s Woodley Park—and the new president hasn’t even been elected yet. Regardless of who is sworn in on January 20, the hotel is busy preparing for three days of jam-packed partying to usher in the 44th president of the United States.
Inaugural balls have been part of the presidential rite of passage since George Washington. He danced two cotillions and a minuet at the first ball in New York City on May 7, 1789. James Madison celebrated the first official inaugural gala in Washington in 1809. John Quincy Adams, who attended, wasn’t impressed. “The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive, and the entertainment bad,” he said.
According to Ed Rudzinski, general manager of the Marriott Wardman Park, not much has changed—at least when it comes to the official balls. For newbies to the madness that is the inaugural season, there are eight official balls and dozens of nonofficial ones. The official balls, which take place on the night of the swearing-in, are organized by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a group of party planners formed after the November election. In Rudzinski’s words, the official parties are “cheap”: “They’re very crowded, the food—like peanuts and pretzels—is boring, and there’s a cash bar. The president comes in, stays for 20 minutes, does a dance, waves, and then he’s gone and on to the next one.”
Rudzinski says the hot-ticket soirees—the nonofficial balls—happen before of the swearing-in, and they’re put on by “the people who actually got him into office.” (Read: major donors.) During his 36-year tenure with Marriott International—including 11 as general manager of the Woodley Park hotel—Rudzinski says one of the best hot-ticket bashes was President Bush’s first Black Tie & Boots gala, in 2001. Wardman Park packed in 13,000 guests and hosted the party in several ballrooms, each with a different Texas-inspired theme. They carted in live animals—including the University of Texas mascot, Bevo, a Texas longhorn steer—vats of chili, pound after pound of beef brisket, hundreds of servers and bartenders, singer Lyle Lovett, and lots more.
Around 11 PM, Rudzinski got a phone call from Bill Marriott—he was at the JW Marriott hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue entertaining the board of directors and wanted to bring his wife, kids, and grandkids to see “the Texas thing.” Rudzinski sent a couple of police squad cars to pick up his boss, and because the roads were already shut down for the inaugural parade the following day, Marriott made it to Wardman Park in four minutes.
The group, led by Rudzinski, walked into the hotel. They stood on the mezzanine looking down on the event. Marriott grabbed Rudzinski’s arm and asked, “How many people are in here?” Rudzinski sarcastically replied, “Too many.”
Marriott was in shock—and for a man who’s seen everything, that’s saying a lot. He was like a proud father, Rudzinski says, telling his wife over and over, “Would you look at that?”
Rudzinski’s not sure if his boss will come to the inaugural events this year. “That depends on who’s elected,” he says. But he is sure that his hotel—the largest in DC—will be hosting several inaugural soirees, both the official and hot-ticket varieties. We’ll be by his side to document the whole thing.
Much of the planning is still under wraps—to whet your appetite, a big-time singer is among potential hosts—but with the election too close to call, most of the heavy lifting is on hold until after November 4.
Next week, we’ll introduce you to Wardman Park’s events guru, Chris Otway. He’s the guy orchestrating the bulk of the event planning for the inaugural season. He’ll be a key player in our reporting as the event unfolds.
After the election, we’ll tackle the inaugural events from all sides and give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to pull off these high-profile parties. We’ll look at everything including security, food, drinks, guest lists, themes, decorations, and much more. Stay tuned!