- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

For certain Kennedy Center patrons, sipping champagne, eating M&Ms; and socializing are as much a part of a visit to the Kennedy Center as theater, ballet and the opera.
These privileged performing-arts lovers, who donate anywhere from $1,000 to $250,000 annually, don't have to mingle with the rest of the audience or stand in long lines for a drink or a bite to eat at intermission.
When the curtain drops, they head to one of three special lounges, each with its own comfortable seating areas, flower arrangements and exquisite art, to chat with friends and enjoy light snacks, coffee and tea or something stronger from a full-service bar.
High-level Circle members paying $1,000 and more (currently about 2,500 in number) have access to the Circle lounges, of which there are three: the Israeli Lounge in the Concert Hall, the George Rogers Clark Lounge in the Eisenhower Theater and the South Opera Lounge on the box-tier level of the Opera House.
"They like the intimacy of it," says Jovita Gross, assistant manager of special events, who often greets guests as they enter the lounge with membership cards in hand. "They say it's a country-club atmosphere and it's relaxing. It's a home away from home for them.
"They love champagne, and they're crazy about M&Ms.; You should see the gentlemen sticking them in their suit pockets ," Ms. Gross says with a laugh.
Though the patrons do have to pay for bar-service drinks, no money is exchanged inside the lounges. As in a top club, members merely sign a bill for whatever they order. (Charges automatically are billed to their credit card of choice.) They can pre-order drinks to save even more time. Light meals often are available before a performance, as well.
Each Circle lounge is packed with art. The walls of the South Opera Lounge, also called the Waterford Lounge for its gargantuan Waterford crystal chandelier (which weighs 1,008 pounds), are covered in Spanish tapestries, all reproductions of works by the 19th-century painter Francisco de Goya.
The lounges often are gathering spots for many of the capital's political, diplomatic and media luminaries. On a recent Saturday evening intermission for "Kiss Me Kate," for example, Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo and his wife, Anna Maria; MSNBC's Chris Matthews and his wife, Kathleen; ABC News' Chris Wallace; former FBI Director William S. Sessions; and Kennedy Center Vice President Ann Stock were among guests in the South Opera Lounge.
The official name of the lounge adjacent to the Eisenhower Theater is the George Rogers Clark Room, but it's commonly known as "the Bird Room" because of its glass vitrines containing numerous porcelain birds from the Boehm studios in Trenton, N.J. (Other wildlife also is represented, including foxes, fish and frogs.)
The Israeli Lounge in the Concert Hall boasts art with biblical themes. Even the ceiling is painted, which is reflected in the mirrored tabletops.
The contributing members are key to the overall economy of the Kennedy Center, says Marie Mattson, the center's director of development. That's why the constant creation of new perquisites is so important.
At the $1,000 level there are four, including admission to the lounges, invitation to a cast party and ability to purchase tickets before the general public.
At the higher donor levels, perks include use of the trustees box for performances, a complimentary parking pass and one of the much-coveted advance invitations to the Kennedy Center Honors Gala.
"With the perks, people have something to aspire to," Mrs. Mattson says, "and we hope they will want to go to the next level."
Mrs. Mattson's department helps raise $38 million of the center's total $120 million annual budget through private and corporate contributions and sponsorships.
Ms. Gross' responsibilities include staffing the lounges and making sure the members "have a good experience — that everything is nice and comfortable — from the time they go through the door until they leave that evening," she says.
If several houses have intermissions at the same time, Ms. Gross has to run from one lounge to the next — and if you know the Kennedy Center, you are aware that the distance between one performance hall and the next can be great — to arrive in time to greet the guests as they walk through the door.
"I have legs of steel," she says. "Some people go to the gym to work out. I work at the Kennedy Center."

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