ON THE SATURDAY NIGHT before the Oscars, organizers of the annual Princess Ball in Beverly Hills were getting ready for their big night. They had secured names like John Travolta and Bruce Willis to serve as co-chairs and knew they had a lock on the evening.

They were in for a surprise. None of their superstar guests showed. What they didn’t know was that they had bumped up against another party that gets virtually no press, but that every Hollywood “name” regards as a “must attend.” Up in Coldwater Canyon, Ed Limato, the veteran ICM agent, was presiding, Gatsby-like, over his annual pre-Oscar blast and, as expected, everyone showed — from De Niro to Depp, from Gibson to Geffen.

It was a typical Limato performance. Amid the mob of stars there he was, silver-haired and shoeless, utterly calm, as though this was a role he was born to play.

“I love parties,” Limato acknowledges. “I like to give people a good time.”

Limato himself has been having a good time lately. It’s been precisely 10 years since he moved to ICM from the hallowed halls of William Morris, and he has been bolstering his client list with younger performers like Edward Norton, Winona Ryder and Laura Linney (from “The Truman Show”). Add them to his longstanding clients like Mel Gibson, Richard Gere and Michelle Pfeiffer and it’s no mystery why Limato wields a lot of leverage in the agency business.

LIMATO’S FRIENDS SAY he’s gone on a signing binge lately in response to rumors planted by rival agents that he was ill or planning to retire. “Ed may represent an old-style agent, but he has no intention of fading into the night,” says one associate at ICM. “He likes what he does and intends to keep doing it.”

Limato bristles at the “old-style” designation, but concedes that his personal role model was Leland Hayward, the sleek agent-producer-bon vivant who died in 1971. While present-day client-agent relation-hips tend to be remote and businesslike, Limato is a throwback to the agent-as-friend, who becomes part of his clients’ lives as well as their careers.

“My clients are my children,” Limato admits. “I think agents today tend to place themselves first. They’ll serve their clients only as long as it serves themselves.”

A DECADE AGO, Limato’s move from William Morris to ICM caused a seismic shock in the agency business. ICM at the time had a substantial list of directors and writers, but Limato also gave them a big stake in the movie star business. His exit to ICM was quickly followed by those of four other agents, Toni Howard, Elaine Goldsmith, Risa Shapiro and Boaty Boatwright, each of whom brought her own clients, including Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins and Anjelica Huston.

While acknowledging ICM’s loose-knit structure, Limato refutes the “boutique” label applied to his unit. “We team up on clients,” he says. “I operate as an integral part of ICM, and I often have meetings in conjunction with Jeff Berg and Jim Wiatt.” At the same time, he says, “ICM is basically a bunch of eccentrics. We wouldn’t know how to conform to some sort of rigid corporate game plan even if we had one.”

Limato grew up in a working-class Italian family in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and served as everything from a driver for Franco Zeffirelli in Rome to a disc jockey in Panama City, Fla., before becoming a junior agent for the old International Famous Artists, which later emerged as ICM. Indeed, his mother used to provide her Italian specialties at his early parties when he lived in a house once owned by Bela Lugosi.

His present home on Coldwater predictably has a Hollywood back-story. George Raft lived there with Betty Grable. Diana Dors, a later owner, was once deposited in her own swimming pool amidst a party that got out of control.

The house has a vast lawn and a certain Old Hollywood grandeur which suits Limato’s present mood rather well. Inevitably, his own parties have become somewhat more formal. There are more studio “suits” in attendance, and you don’t see stars hanging out at 3 a.m. eating pizza in the kitchen.

Limato may covet the Old Hollywood, but he is very much at home in the New Hollywood. “Look, I know the business has gotten mean. There’s no limit to what a rival will do to steal your clients. But I still love what I do. It’s all I know how to do. It’s me.”