"They've all been here, believe it or not," said Charlie Ragusa, a senior banquet captain who served them. "VIPs, they're all over the place."
"The place" Ragusa speaks of is the Washington Hilton, which has hosted presidents, kings, politicos, movie stars and sports legends since it opened 45 years ago on Connecticut Avenue. Ragusa arrived three days after it opened on March 28, 1965. Since then, he has overseen the serving of more than 2 million meals to the capital's high and mighty and the hoi polloi from out of town.
The hotel celebrated its anniversary Thursday in a modest ceremony "attended" by wax replicas of three presidents borrowed from Madame Tussauds downtown. But it is another anniversary this week that is indelibly linked to history.
It was here, on March 30, 1981, that John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan as he exited the hotel after speaking to a luncheon of the AFL-CIO. Ever since the failed assassination attempt 29 years ago, Washingtonians have referred to it as the "Hinckley Hilton" to distinguish it from the Capital Hilton closer to the White House.
While there are fancier hotels in Washington and others with more room for conventioneers, the Washington Hilton boasts the largest column-free ballroom in the city and along the entire East Coast.
Nearly 2,700 people can be seated for a meal in the 36,000-square-foot subterranean International Ballroom, making it the go-to place for presidential inaugural balls, prayer breakfasts, fundraising galas and chicken dinners of all kinds.
"This is a key landmark of Washington," said Joe Berger, Hilton Hotels' president for the Americas. "This is where the president speaks when he speaks to large numbers of conventioneers and guests. It's probably one of the most important hotels in our Hilton system."
Every president since Johnson has eaten, spoken and glad-handed at the hotel. Many have been roasted.
Perhaps the most high-profile event held at the Hilton is the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which has called the hotel home since 1976. A staple of C-SPAN in which journalists in rented tuxedos and nondesigner gowns parade with Cabinet secretaries and congressmen past gawking tourists often unclear about who is who, it's Washington's night to disprove Sen. John McCain's maxim that this city is "Hollywood for ugly people."
While that may no longer be true, the dinner is a night when official Washington tries (often without success) to stop working and just have fun.
Where else, as in 2002, could President George W. Bush give a shout-out to heavy metal rock star Ozzy Osbourne?
"The thing about Ozzy is, he's made a lot of big hit recordings -- 'Party With the Animals,' 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,' 'Face in Hell,' 'Black Skies' and 'Bloodbath in Paradise,' '' Bush said. "Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff.''
Four years later, comedian Stephen Colbert roasted Bush and the media's coverage of the war in Iraq, inducing cringes throughout the ballroom.
This year's dinner is May 1 and will feature comedian Jay Leno. If it's anything like past dinners, Ragusa expects plenty of celebrities to show up to the dinner honoring President Barack Obama.
"They draw a lot of Hollywood," Ragusa, 77, said of the scribes' event. "The Republicans don't get as many as the Democrats. When it's a Democratic president, the place is loaded with Hollywood stars. When it's a Republican president, its a lot less. I think it's because most of the people out there are Democrats."
Ragusa, who observed to Politics Daily last month that those at the National Prayer Breakfast "should learn to get along with each other, not once a year but all year long," has served nine presidents. Mary Johnson has worked even longer at the hotel -- she began as a room inspector when it was still under construction -- but has never seen even one. As the hotel's longest-serving housekeeper, she was always upstairs. And that's where the real celebrities -- not just local politicians -- were to be found.
Johnson, now 72, remembers talking to an 8-year-old Michael Jackson in his room. What was that like? "Oh, you know how kids are. He wanted more water, more towels," she said.
Boxer Muhammad Ali was "grouchy" when she knocked on his door to ask if he needed anything. That aside, Johnson said sports figures are the best tippers -- one visiting NFL football coach once left her $100. She couldn't remember his name. But when it came to the African-American royalty she'd seen over the years, Johnson remembered them all: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Diana Ross, Coretta Scott King.
But for every star Johnson, who is unfailingly polite, recalled those whose names she never knew.
"We treat everybody like a president," she said.