06/24/2014 06:15 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Philly's Whacky Reception Groupies

If you've ever been to an event in Center City that included a reception, such as opening night at the theater or an art gallery, you know how much fun they can be. Receptions range from high to low, meaning that some are grander than others. Consider what happens at the city's art galleries on First Friday, when hundreds of people crowd the streets of Old City and go from gallery to gallery in search of free libations, edibles and a little bit of art. First Friday, of course, used to be more popular than it is today. The change occurred when art gallery owners realized that the streams of visitors were eating and drinking them out of house and home. First Friday in Old City today is only half the celebration it was five years ago. How can a struggling art gallery dispense wine to hundreds of people who visit just to get drunk?

A couple of art galleries come to mind: At the James Oliver Gallery you get all the fine wine or beer you can handle even if the food is sparse. At The Print Center on Latimer Street, guests and Print Club members are always on a perpetual fast; wine is carefully measured and poured by one designated gallery rep which often results in a long wine line that snakes around the gallery. Those intending to get tipsy or smashed had better head elsewhere. Consider yourself lucky if you find a pretzel or a chip at a Print Center reception. (This has been a point of contention among Print Center members for years).

Opening night fanfare for new plays in Center City theaters (or Fishtown theaters like Walking Fish, for that matter) has not changed much over the years. One can still see a complete play and enjoy small or large plate Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails afterwards-- at no cost. Although seeing the play should be the theater lover's primary interest, opening night receptions are a nice way to bring people together for conversation and camaraderie. (True theater lovers, however, will attend opening night with or without a reception). Still, the scope and quality of theater receptions vary. Play and Players on Delancey Street serves up fabulous food but the theater's small, crowded cash bar will keep you in waiting in line forever. If you like lines and hailing bartenders as you would hail a taxi, then you will be in your glory at Plays and Players.

The Suzanne Roberts Theater (The Theater Alliance) recently scaled back their opening night receptions. Before the change, a lavish food spread was arranged in the middle of the theater's upstairs hall, so that opening night guests could move around the Hors d'oeuvres table like goldfish swimming in circles. Unfortunately, economic cut backs necessitated getting a different caterer who then "shrunk" the size of the food table and moved it against a row of windows, a placement that prohibits "round the clock" circulation. Long reception food lines are now common at the Roberts Theater on opening nights, something that was not the case before.

At the Wilma Theater there have been no such cutbacks. Two lavish food buffet tables (hot and cold) are laid out in the lobby, and pre-poured glasses of red and white wine are arranged in long rows on a special table. Wilma receptions are a staple, like classic Coke. Or fig newtons.

There are people who frequent receptions who could care less about the play, lecture or exhibited art. These infamous but artful freeloaders cover the waterfront in terms of demographics: I was first exposed to this phenomenon years ago when I spotted old ladies at Wilma receptions opening their pocket books and packing them with napkin-covered hors d'oeuvres. You can still see this from time to time. The old ladies move fast and the tendency, I think, is for witnesses to excuse them with the thought: "The poor dears need food. They must be on fixed incomes."

Careerist freeloaders find their way into every free reception in the city. Ordinarily, receptions are for members, press, their friends, and to people who RSVP, but some folks have a genius for putting their names on lists or even slipping into events when the gatekeepers are not looking, like 40 minutes into a happening.

Recently I witnessed a freeloader hijacking after a long academic lecture on the brain and violent criminal behavior. This took place at a venerable city institution where the author of the study gave a lecture to a tidy 40 or 50 people, and ended his talk with an extensive Q and A session. Just as the Q and A was ending, I heard a commotion near the reception hall where a generous open bar and a spread of culinary delights lay waiting. Two people who did not attend the lecture, or who arrived very late for it, were already in the hall plating large helpings of sushi, steak, chicken, veggies and other delicious edibles.

The two guests were sloppily dressed, and their method of digging into the food had a frantic "pile it on fast" quality. I think I'm as compassionate as most when it comes to feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, but does this have to extend to "private" lecture receptions at venerable city institutions? The two people in question, a man and a woman, can in fact, be seen diving into reception buffets all over town. "Dive' as in a sloppy belly flop that makes a big splash.

It didn't help matters any when a friend of mine said that one of the reception hijackers has an awful habit of pouring white wine over your head if he doesn't like what you say, or if you are talking too long to somebody he really, really wants to speak to.

But it's not always uncouth people who create reception mayhem. Sometimes, educated, articulate and very nice people ignore reception etiquette when they fall prey to certain behaviors.

An acquaintance, XY, for instance, is a sort of reception groupie, but at least he attends the full play, lecture or reading in question, and even contributes something in the way of commentary if there's a Q and A. XY, unfortunately, has a problem with drinking. Rather than drinking wine one glass at a time in the manner of say, G.K. Chesterton, his habit is to stockpile drinks at his table so that anybody coming along would see four or five extra glasses of wine near his place setting. He does this, he says, because he never knows when they are going to cut off the free bar. He sees it as a kind of insurance. "Besides," he told me, "I don't like to gulp my wine or drink fast. I like to sip. And if I sip slowly with just one available glass to my name, too much time will pass before I will need another glass. I don't want to be left high and dry."

This has gotten him into trouble with reception organizers and caterers (especially bartenders). At a recent U or Arts event, I saw XY with four red wines all lined up in a row as the catering company was beginning to clean up. "Where did you get all the extra wine?" I asked him, not realizing that he had a problem with stockpiling. Although XY was able to consume his stockpile before leaving the event, I began to get worried when he began to covet a lone, open bottle of red wine on the bar. He began talking about bringing the open bottle to his table because he was sure it had been part of the free reception. "It's up for grabs," he said.

Receptions in the City of Philadelphia, then, have become their own kind of theater, with plots and plot twists, and even blatant "over your head" wine baptisms.

You have to see it to believe it.