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Dropping the Ball

Cowed by crowds and wary of Y2K trouble, New Yorkers are staying home in droves this New Year's Eve. That means some of the best seats in the house are still available. But good luck getting a cab.


On judgment day, the last shall be first and the first shall be last -- or so it's been written -- and as the clock ticks toward the millennium, no one knows that better than Clive David. Back in 1993, the Beverly Hills society-event planner -- who helped throw the birthday party where Marilyn Monroe sang to JFK -- booked the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court and Terrace Ballroom for this New Year's Eve after reading in the Times that hotel rooms were already going fast. At the time, friends slapped him on the back for securing the stateliest jewel in New York's Y2K crown. "People said, 'Clive, this is the best thing you've ever done,' " he remembers.

By the beginning of this year, David seemed to have established his $5,000-to-$7,500 black-tie Millennium Ball as the A-list way to spend a once-in-a-lifetime evening. But by June, he had reservations for only about half the room's 400 seats -- mostly from foreigners. To his usual clientele, "the fear of crowds and gridlock and everything else became a turnoff." And then there was what he calls the greed factor: "Musicians, performers, staff -- I cannot tell you the prices everyone was asking," he says. "The red ink just got to be ludicrous."

So David set another trend: He became the first party promoter to cancel his New Year's festivities.

David is hardly the only victim of "Y2K fatigue" -- the pre-party hangover that's knocked the wind out of New York's New Year's well before the festivities start. By the end of November, the ad hoc company Celebration 2000 had to scuttle plans for its $1,000-to-$2,500 Party of the Century at the Javits Center -- an intimate buffet for 30,000 with performances by Sting, Kool & the Gang, and Aretha Franklin. Billy Joel is still having trouble selling tickets to his $999 New Year's concert at the Garden. And restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten opted to close for the evening rather than strain to provide a fully fleshed-out experience with a skeleton staff.

Great expectations are at least partly to blame -- as are promoters who charged too much too early and "killed the thrill," says high-end party planner John Schwartz, who had to cancel his bash in L.A. but is moving forward on a private affair in New York. "There was a tremendous amount of hype, but I don't think it was strategically planned to match people's expectations," he says. "It just put a psychological damper on what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event."

New Year's Eve 1999 was expected to be an orgy of excess -- an extravagant coming-of-age bacchanal for the bull market. Yet those atop the A-list are hightailing it to St. Barts, Bali (where nightlife impresario Mark Baker will ring in the millennium with prayers from a Balinese priest at $500 a ticket) -- or even just Blockbuster. "I'm going to be in Paris," says Sotheby's heiress and fashion-department head Tiffany Dubin. "But my real dream would be to be in New York. We just got this flat-screen TV, and it would be great to have a tub of caviar and a bottle of vodka."

The media drumbeat about terrorism and Y2K computer problems, as well as the very real problem of crowds -- Times Square alone is expected to attract as many as a million revelers instead of the usual 500,000 -- have also dampened fin de siècle enthusiasm. Worst of all for the professional- socializer set, perhaps, is the prospect that many of the revelers will arrive by bridge or tunnel. "I have not a clue what I'm doing," says iron-man party boy Anthony Haden-Guest. "But I can give you a long list of places I'm not going to go, starting with Times Square. Saturday night is amateur night of the week, New Year's Eve is amateur night of the year, and this is going to be the amateur night of human civilization."

Many of those who want to stay on this island are still making plans to make plans. "I was out for dinner last night at Canteen," says an entertainment publicist, "and there was a table with Julia Roberts and a table with Sarah Jessica Parker, and everyone was talking about how they're staying in New York, but they just don't know what they're doing. And this is December."

Of course, Julia Roberts is unlikely to stay in and rent Notting Hill -- and the millennial hype has created opportunities for less planned, less predictable, and perhaps more pleasant partying. "I think there was too much anticipation that people were going to buy early," says Jason Strauss, co-owner of Strategic Events and one of the producers of the "Pier 2000" party at Pier 92 Ballroom, which is selling $200-to-$1,000 tickets at a fairly brisk pace. "It's going to be like every other New Year's, where people are going to make their plans on December 15."

The hottest ticket in town is likely to be Ted Field's private resurrection of the Studio 54 scene at its original site; Mark Ronson will D.J., and food will include a crustacean bar. "Everyone's calling and saying they're a friend of Ted's," crows model-actress Elizabeth Nottoli, Field's girlfriend and an owner of L.A. party handler La Bon Vie, which sent out a little disco ball as its invite.

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