Thursday, December 2, 2004

It’s the hottest ticket in town: The Black Tie & Boots Ball thrown Jan. 19 by the Texas State Society at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel.

Some 5,000 tickets at $175 each sold out in 40 minutes for the 10,000-person event, officials said. Ironically, there may be few Texans guzzling champagne and boot-scootin’ to Asleep at The Wheel, thanks to the sizzling scalping market.

And although the Internet has made purchasing legitimate tickets a breeze, it has also served as a black market for inaugural tickets — some of which are supposed to be free to the public, but are being snatched up by brokers eager to make a buck.

Yesterday on EBay, there were a dozen offerings for some of the tickets to the Black Tie & Boots ball, arguably the most popular party of the inauguration. The remaining 5,000 tickets are reserved for the Lone Star elite, special guests, dignitaries and those who placed orders through the mail.

The evening features big-name entertainers, open bars, Cut ‘n’ Shoot Cantina, access to the Lone Star Sports Bar and maybe a live animal display.

The tickets that made it online however, were selling for upward of $1,000 per person, putting the Texas-themed evening in the same league with big-time sports events.

“The inauguration is the Super Bowl of politics,” said Shawn Collins, a 35-year-old middle man from Summit, N.J., a consultant who works for a ticket agency. His employer, he said, expects to clear “tens of thousands of dollars” before the confetti settles Jan. 21.

Scores of ticket brokers are selling tickets online to the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade, which are free and open to the public.

“People are too dumb to know that they’re paying money for something they could get for free,” Mr. Collins said.

Each Senate and congressional office is allotted a certain number of tickets. There is usually a waiting list, and yesterday Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest’s Web site said the number of names on their list had already exceeded the number of tickets they expect to receive.

Although the balls are private affairs — meaning you have to have not only the cash, but the connections — the swearing-in and parade are not.

Asked where he gets most of his tickets, Mr. Collins said, “I can’t really name them. They are sensitive sources who provide them. Some people in politics.” Senators and congressmen? “It could probably be harmful to their careers. Maybe not them directly, but people in their offices,” he said.

The Senate Committee on Ethics declined to comment yesterday on the sale of parade and swearing-in tickets. Routinely, Capitol Hill staffers would be free to give away or sell tickets to private affairs, even though there might be problems with some staffers making a profit from official events open to the public.

Still, the Internet has revolutionized the way Washington — and every other town — does business. The inauguration is just the latest example.

“People used to have to stop by or call for tickets,” said Jim Hess, a spokesman for George Washington University, which is hosting the so-called Youth Ball at the Omni Shoreham Hotel at $75 a pop. “We have sold over 1,600 tickets and expect to sell out.”

To make it easier, GWU students can pay online using their “Colonial Cash” debit cards, Mr. Hess said.

“The Internet has certainly made it better,” said Joe Brown, president of Chicago-based “Four years ago, there were a lot less people who knew what was going on. And it’s better this time around because Bush was really elected. It just makes it hotter.”

Mr. Brown said his customers are businessmen who want to use the event for networking.

“They get to rub elbows with millionaires and big shots. They get to pass out their cards to people who ordinarily wouldn’t associate with them. It’s a way to better themselves.”

As a nod to the high-tech community, there will be The ENaugural Ball held at the Wyndham Washington Hotel. Tickets are being sold on a sponsorship level, and the hosts promise to hook up partygoers to political leaders, White House staffers, businessmen and corporate executives.

The VIP ticket option offered “upgraded, top-shelf liquors,” and — rather than the usual cheese cubes on frilly toothpicks — “heavy, premium cuisine.” Their first block of tickets, according to their Web site, is already sold out and “prices will go up again at any time.”

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies’ fusty Web site ( hosts a “live Web cam” aimed at the west side of the Capitol so policy wonks can sit back with a bucket of popcorn and watch the construction of the platform where President Bush will deliver his inaugural address. Not much was happening yesterday.

Indeed, the government seems to be lagging behind the Internet.

The official presidential inaugural office, according to one volunteer, “was not really up and running yet.” Located on C Street in Southeast among a suite of offices, the bricks-and-mortar operation simply can’t compete with the high-speed service the Internet offers.

The rise of bloggers also has affected this year’s inauguration preparation.

Every rumor, every tidbit is dutifully reported, often as fact. But the wealth of information — ticket-scalping sites now feature every ball, every address and list of entertainers — is a godsend for hordes of red-staters hoping to buy a piece of history.

But maybe they may be shy about broadcasting the fact. None of the Black Tie & Boots buyers on EBay returned e-mails. And the Texas State Society was unavailable for comment.

“I imagine they don’t think too highly of it,” said scalper Mr. Collins, who called the inaugural festivities and the number of tickets “a gigantic source of income” for his line of work.

Asked what the cheapest ticket might go for on Jan. 19, he replied, “I think probably the New Hampshire Ball. I don’t think anyone is clamoring to go to that one.”

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