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"We've had to make excuses for the auto industry, for Detroit — but no more," said an ebullient Paul W. Smith Friday evening at the North American International Auto Show Charity Preview. "We're back!"

And while the event sold 476 fewer tickets than in 2014 — 13,350 compared to last year's 13,826 — the price jump from $350 to $400 per ticket ended up raising considerably more money for kids' charities, $5.34 million versus $4.8 million.

None of this arithmetic, good or bad, dampened the bubbly spirits at Cobo Center.

"This show gets better and better every year," said Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, mingling with a small group near the Bentley display. "The whole week is outstanding, and there seem to be more and more ancillary events around the city every year."

Gilbert should know. He said he's attended 10 Charity Previews over the years.

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"We live in exciting times," said Brenda Lawrence, the former Southfield mayor and newly elected congresswoman for the 14th District.

"When we were going through the recession," she said, "it showed right here on the floor. Now you see the energy and the excitement. It's a clear indicator of how we're doing as a city."

Among the stars spotted across Cobo's vast floors were queen of soul Aretha Franklin and Nicole Murphy, star of the reality show "Hollywood Exes," who was once married to comedian Eddie Murphy.

As usual, the black-tie event that wags like to call "auto prom" was a glittering tapestry, with rainbow-hued evening gowns set off by the stern monochrome of the men's tuxedos. There were, of course, exceptions to the latter.

Bigalora Cucina restaurateur and rocker Chet Offensive stood out in a pink-and-purple Moods of Norway suit coat, vintage tie and Shinola watch. Offensive, whose band bears his name, says it's just part of his personality to stand out. At least, he added, "I always do."

And Todd Hoffman, with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Houston, was attending his first-ever auto show in a flocked, navy print Ted Baker jacket set off by a jazzy red bow tie.

The women, of course, were not to be outdone.

Competing with candy-red cars were dozens of flame-colored dresses, including the tea-length Roma Sposa red frock on Karrie DeLuca, at the Preview with her husband Jim DeLuca, GM executive vice president for manufacturing.

"I think of it as an Audrey Hepburn, 1950s look," DeLuca said.

Also popular this year were pouf-y, knee-length skirts that looked like something that '50s ingenue Sandra Dee would have loved.

One of the most princess-like ensembles was worn by 8-year-old Yuka Takeuchi of Canton, who sported a long pink dress with large ruffled rosebuds matched to a pink bowed purse. Yuka was taking in the excitement with mother Janima and father Katsuhiko, a vice-president at the Aisin Group.

For their part, the car company exhibits were no slouches, either, noted Leland K. Bassett, chairman and CEO of the Detroit public-relations firm Bassett & Bassett, pointing out how much flashier they all looked this year.

"I hear they cost at a minimum $4 million dollars," Bassett said, "and some as much as $20 million. And," he added, switching subjects, "look how diverse this crowd is. It's all about pluralism now."

As for the slight fall-off in ticket sales, auto show officials attributed that mostly to the price increase.


Partygoers tell the stories of their fashions.

"You have to find the price point to make it a great night for everybody and raise a lot of money for kids," said Rod Alberts, auto show executive director.

"We had 17,000 one year, and that's great — but oh my gosh, it was crowded," he said. "So 13,000 to 14,000 is a very good target for us. But there's no absolute number that makes it perfect."

Benefiting charities are likely to agree. This year they are the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Boys Hope Girls Hope Detroit, the Children's Center, Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation, the Detroit Institute for Children, Judson Center, March of Dimes Metro Detroit, Detroit PAL and the Detroit Area Dealers Association Charitable Foundation Fund.

Just as things were wrapping up before the 9 p.m. curfew, Quicken Loans' Gilbert was surprised to learn that he was wearing a sharp navy-blue tuxedo, which he'd taken for black.

"Is this blue?" he asked, turning to his wife, Jennifer. She told him it was, indeed, blue.

"I just do what she says," he said with a gracious smile.

Detroit News staffers Felecia Henderson, Susan Whitall, Adam Graham and Melody Baetens contributed to this report.

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