The official theme was the Swing Era of the 1940s, but it was more the kind of scene that would have made the Great Gatsby era of the 1920s proud.
Thousands of people--some dressed to the teeth, others dressed casually--gathered in a North Island Naval Air Station hangar Friday night to attend National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle's invitation-only Super Bowl party.
The annual event has earned the reputation of being one of the most opulent and awe-inspiring of its kind. This year's version in San Diego was no disappointment. And those lucky enough to get on Rozelle's party list were faced with a mind-boggling orgy of food and drink.
'Decadence at Its Highest'
"This is decadence at its highest form," remarked Jack O'Toole, a New York banker attending his first commissioner's party.
Ron Zucker, a former CBS employee now living in Boston, was just as stunned, and could only manage a weak joke about his good fortune.
"What are the poor doing tonight?" he said.
Too big for a 50,000-square-foot hangar, Rozelle's party rambled through an additional 40,000 square feet of tents.
Outside those tents, television cameras stood in line, a la the Academy Awards, to capture the celebrities as they alighted from their limousines and made for the party.
Among those attending were former New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio, Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, presidential hopeful Jack Kemp, movie star Jimmy Stewart, television star Suzanne Pleshette, author George Plimpton, and former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie.
If a bit of freshening up was in order, Rozelle's guests could use one of several portable toilets stationed outside the tent. But there was no need for guessing, as host Rozelle had employed attendants to indicate which of the toilets were available for use.
Guests who entered the tented entrance were immediately greeted by hostesses in long-tailed tuxedos eager to ply them with vodka and chocolate liqueur drinks.
As they proceeded into the bash, they walked along a "living museum" of 12 models dressed in 1940s-style clothes who posed flawlessly for two hours as mannequins.
One male model, for instance, was sitting in a chair, reading a magazine and holding a pipe; a woman model was staring into a mirror and preening.
Holding those poses was sometimes difficult, said Stacie Parker, one of the models. The 21-year-old San Diegan said she almost moved her head at one point.
"I saw Jimmy Stewart out of the corner of my eye," she said. "It was really hard not to want to look at him.
"A little boy posed for a picture next to me and he thought I was fake," she said. "When he touched my arm, he screamed."
As they entered the party, Rozelle's guests were also asked to put on special buttons with flashing lights. While the buttons were souvenirs, they also served a more practical purpose.
"The blue buttons are for regular, ordinary people," said one of the party staff members. "The silver ones are for the VIPS."
One man coming into the party showed momentary resistance. "Do I have to wear this?" he said about the button.
"Yes, please," insisted the staff member, firmly.
Inside the hangar, the crowd mingled under large posters hanging from the ceiling and showing sports greats from the 1940s, such as baseball pitcher Warren Spahn. Miniature white lights and potted plants also served as decorations. There was a re-creation of an RKO Radio show.
While on one end of the huge hangar there was a sedate 1940s dance band, there was a 1940s dance number with women in slit skirts on the other end of the hangar.
Redskins defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello looked at the crowd and said facetiously, "This is my kind of party--pretzels and beer."
Author Plimpton said he has tried to avoid Rozelle parties in the past because "I've heard they are exactly what this is, a lot of confusion."
"But this is fun," he confessed. "This is like a tribal rite. We should do this every night."
The main event was unquestionably the food and drink. Virtually every foot of the tent's interior perimeter was either a food or liquor bar.
12 Executive Chefs
Hyatt Hotels Corp. catered the 12 party and it flew in 12 executive chefs from around the country to make sure everything was prepared just right.
There were wild mushrooms in cream sauce. "Seventeen dollars a pound," said a waitress. "These are fresh."
Guests indulged themselves in garlic-smoked sausage, as well as black and golden sturgeon caviar served on silver-dollar-sized pancakes.
Yet there was mundane food as well--hot dogs, peanuts, ice cream and fresh pizza made on site in huge ovens. One party favorite was the White Castle hamburgers, apparently a hot item among the guests from the Midwest.
Wafting through the tent were the smells of other barbecued fare, all of which were being cooked outside in the cool Coronado night. There were 4,500 pounds of New York strip steaks, 4,500 pounds of baby-backed pork ribs, and 1,500 pounds of chicken.
Seafood delicacies abounded: 2,000 Maryland crab cakes; 2,800 live Maine lobsters flown in Friday morning; 500 sides of North Pacific smoked salmon; 125 gallons of fresh oyster stew; 25 bushels of fresh mussels and 25 bushels of fresh clams. There were also 2,000 corn bread muffins.
Special VIP Seating
Guests--mesmerized by the choice, quality and amount--queued up at the food lines. The majority of them sat down at tables with paper coverings, but many of the special VIPs--a contingent that included NFL team owners--were escorted into a quieter section of the hangar and were seated at settings featuring real tablecloths.
Around the VIP section was a hedge of landscaped shrubbery, and guards stood at attention every 20 feet or so around the living moat. The effect was curious, almost as if those outside were observing a special exhibit.
"I sat and stared at Sen. Muskie for quite some time," said Plimpton, laughing.
Not everyone, however, was there to party. One well-dressed man was asked what he thought of the premier social event in Super Bowl week, but he deflected a reporter's question with a businesslike air.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't talk to you. I'm with the police department and I'm looking at a person who shouldn't be here.
"I've got to go."