- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

One of the bigger New Year’s Eve parties in Washington today will be just another day on the job for Nina McNeil.

As a hostess at the downtown Hard Rock Cafe, she will be greeting the politicians and businessmen invited to attend tonight’s bash.

“Everything is already ordered, like hats and those little things you blow,” Mrs. McNeil said. “We’re going to have a big net with the balloons in it. When they count five, four, three, two, one, then the balloons will drop down.”

The New Year’s Eve party also celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Hard Rock Cafe in Washington at 999 E St. NW, where patrons come for burgers, beer and Beatles memorabilia.

The “Jammin’ in the New Year” party will feature the funk band Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. Patrons must pay an $85 entry fee, which includes a buffet, champagne and an open bar.

At the door, where old electric guitars hang from the walls, Mrs. McNeil meets guests and makes sure their experience is pleasant.

The nickname on her name tag, “Little Mama,” says something about the diminutive 37-year-old’s status at the Hard Rock Cafe.

“I’m older than a lot of the guys who work here and I’m always telling them what to do,” Mrs. McNeil said.

She says she has taken a smoother approach to her duties since she started five years ago.

After a few months on the job, she encountered a hip-hop songwriter named Kirk Franklin, who arrived in a limousine for lunch. Mrs. McNeil mistakenly seated him at a back table rather than as a guest of honor, which would have been more appropriate for the Hard Rock Cafe.

The sore feet she acquired from standing nearly all day gave her second thoughts about whether she was working in the right place.

“The worst day I ever had was my first week,” she said. “My ankles were throbbing.”

She has acquired a taste for the style of music in the restaurant.

“When I first got hired, I thought, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to like rock ‘n’ roll,’” she said. “Now I can name every song. It’s really cool working here.”

On a typical day, she either takes a bus from her home in Southeast or her husband, a zoo custodian, drives her to work.

As her shift starts at 11 a.m., she checks the tables, menus and radio headsets to make certain everything is ready.

She then directs “seaters” to escort customers to their tables.

Throughout the day, employees occasionally choreograph dance movements to the tune of the Village People’s song “YMCA.” “We try to do it at least every three hours,” Mrs. McNeil said.

Managers might designate a crowd of guests as “PX” for “please excuse” from the excitement of the “YMCA” choreography. “Some days, when it’s really slow and we have the government workers in, we don’t do it. They want to unwind for the day,” Mrs. McNeil said.

The restaurant sections follow different rock ‘n’ roll themes. The John Lennon area includes a signed photograph of the former Beatle, and the Jimi Hendrix section features pen-and-ink self-portraits.

“We have Bill Clinton’s saxophone here,” Mrs. McNeil said, pointing to an instrument hanging on a wall near a window.

The lapels of her dark blue uniform are decorated with colorful pins of electric guitars.

Her shift ends at 7 p.m. on most days, but tonight, she is scheduled to work until after the New Year’s Eve party ends at 2 a.m. At home, she enjoys watching rented videos, listening to music and reading books.

“That’s my downtime,” Mrs. McNeil said.

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