Some enchanted evenings

When celebrating Oscar, one can never start too soon.

Oscar night. It's the Super Bowl of Hollywood sport, and Tinseltown's creme de la creme are sure to sparkle during the many one-upping pre- and postceremony soirees. A party is only as good as its guest list, and, rest assured, there won't be one boring person in sight as the biggest names in entertainment come together for a night of fun, geniality and all-star dazzle.

With so many parties and so little time, several festivities actually jump-start the 78th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. Superagent Ed Limato, vice chairman and co-president of ICM, kicks off the weekend with a star-studded bash tonight at his estate high above Beverly Hills. Superstar clients such as Billy Crystal, Claire Danes, Mel Gibson, Steve Martin and Denzel Washington will get the opportunity to schmooze, eat and dance with abandon as they enjoy being out of the spotlight.

Saturday marks the 13th annual Oscar luncheon held at the home of Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp., and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg. Later in the afternoon is the Weinstein Co.'s cocktail party at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, a much smaller affair than the bashes Harvey Weinstein hosted when he was at Miramax. This year's 5 p.m. time slot eases the way for Jeffrey Katzenberg's fourth annual Night Before party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with proceeds benefiting the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

The biggest schmooze fest is, of course, the Governors Ball, when 1,600 celebrants, who've paid $750 a head, enter the ballroom at the top level of the Hollywood & Highland complex immediately following Sunday's telecast at the Kodak Theatre. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governor who's chairing the ball for the third year, feels the post-Oscar bash should inspire a sense of family.

"This is Hollywood's ball, a prize ticket, so we want to capture the excitement of the evening, but we want a warm and convivial environment," she says. "The pressure is off, so guests aren't afraid to let down their guards and kick back -- as much as it is possible to kick back in a ball gown."

The Academy has again chosen event planner Cheryl Cecchetto to produce the soiree for the 17th straight year. Such longevity in an industry where today's A-list is typically tomorrow's has-beens is not lost on her. "I bring every ounce of my energy and creativity to this each year," says Cecchetto, whose budget for the bash is just under $1 million. "The reason I've never accepted a long-term contract from anyone is because I want to approach each event like it's my first. My clients deserve that."

Cecchetto is always faced with the challenge of discovering a new facet of the ball -- to create new, innovative dimensions. The three-tiered physical layout she designed last year is a keeper, she says, because it provides phenomenal seating for all and transforms the ballroom into an intimate living room setting. This year's attention is on lighting, she says, "which is usually a third party, but we're bringing it to the forefront."

Enhancing that emphasis is an ivory palette that will reach from the ballroom's translucent walls and floors to the architectural pin-spot formations on the ceiling. The neutral color scheme will encompass water walls, an ice bar, ultrasuede table cloths, leatherette chairs and flowers from Mark's Garden. "We're hitting all the senses -- from the feel of the fabric to the sound of the water to the sparkle of the pin spots. The lighting is orchestrated in such a way that everything in the room changes color throughout the evening -- from lavender to rose to aqua and so on. This happens so gradually that guests won't even realize it."

Music from Tom Scott, Patti Austin and the Greg Field Orchestra will inspire late-night revelers to hit the dance floor. "We brought back the dance floor this year because guests who hang around until the wee hours really wanted it," Cecchetto says.

Master chef Wolfgang Puck returns for the 12th year to light up taste buds with innovative dishes, as well as traditional favorites including 450 smoked-salmon pizzas and 4,200 gold-dusted chocolate Oscars. For all its razzle-dazzle, the soul of the party is its luxurious yet intimate vibe. "We've created a hip Oscar club," Cecchetto says.

Elton John's AIDS Foundation Oscar party has grown from a relatively small affair at Maple Drive Restaurant in Beverly Hills 14 years ago into the party everyone wants to attend Sunday. A good party is all in the mix, and what a mix this will be: a black-tie dinner at the PDC filled with music legends, Hollywood royalty and pop-culture icons. But mastering the mix is what people have come to expect from the legendary musician. This is the party that lured Elizabeth Taylor back into the spotlight last year for her 73rd birthday, which was celebrated in grand style with a lavender cake and a rousing round of "Happy Birthday" led by the host. Past musical performances have included guests such as Harry Connick Jr., Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Sting; this year's headliner is the soulful John Legend, whose fusion of hip-hop with classical soul earned him this year's Grammy for best new artist.

Also sure to be on hand at John's soiree are this year's chairs: Sheryl Crow, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicole Kidman, Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne and Sharon Stone, along with regulars Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Ben Kingsley, Donald Trump and Donatella Versace.

Event designer J. Ben Bourgeois Prods. will transform the PDC's Outdoor Plaza into a lavish and warm environment using hints of periwinkle and chocolate brown staged in a custom-built circular tent. Guests will arrive at 4 p.m. for a cocktail reception followed by a five-course benefit dinner and viewing of the Oscar telecast on flat-screen monitors. Immediately following, partygoers be joined by 1,000 additional invited guests to celebrate the night's winners. Co-sponsored by Audi, Chopard and VH1, the event is always sold out -- even with its hefty price tag: $2,500 per person and $25,000 per table. Proceeds benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised more than $80 million since its establishment in 1982.

InStyle magazine, a former sponsor of the John soiree, will host its eighth annual private viewing party at new eaterie the Venue at Republic for 200 invited celebrities and industry hotshots.

When it comes to a perfect blend of glamour, kinetic energy and a hint of drama, nothing beats the Vanity Fair party, one of the most-photographed events in the world. The 13th annual invitation-only bash is a mix of old and new Hollywood, the literary and music worlds and New York and European society. The guest list might well include the players in the most recent Hollywood scandal, the indie film star du jour, as well as emerging artists. The event begins at 5 p.m. Sunday with a

sit-down dinner at Morton's. But the party and the flash bulbs really go off after 9 p.m. when A-listers saunter down the red carpet into the Melrose Avenue restaurant and tented backside. Style and star wattage will be at an all-time high, though on a smaller scale. "We're cutting the guest list and making it more intimate this year," Vanity Fair executive director of public affairs Beth Kseniak says. "We want to keep it sophisticated and elegant."

Another spectacularly memorable gathering is the 16th annual Night of 100 Stars at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which brings out an equal measure of film and TV's elite. Guests have come to expect the unexpected: Gary Busey and late Oscar winner Patricia Neal doing the tango up the staircase; James Woods showing up with his own camera crew to film his every move; Tom Arnold, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher and Red Buttons holed up in the men's room betting on the outcome of the Oscars. Produced by former supermusic agent Norby Walters, the formal $1,000-per-person viewing party gets underway Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with cocktails, followed by a sit-down dinner for 200 that always includes past Oscar winners and nominees.

Finally, when the clock strikes 12, the party's just beginning at People magazine's second annual Oscars After Midnight party, held at the Beverly Hills home of entrepreneur Phil Maloof. Hosted by managing editor Martha Nelson, this late-night soiree is all about being pampered. A-list guests can kick back with cashmere blankets, relax with the help of on-hand masseuses or lounge by the pool. The menu starts with classic comfort food and rolls right on through breakfast. Last year, this was the only stop on Oscar winner Jamie Foxx's postawards-show schedule.