It was, everybody acknowledged, an old-fashioned Hollywood "cattle call," an open audition for eager young dancers and actresses to get a break in pictures. And they came yesterday morning if not in herds then a least in droves young women of every size and shape, from hardened veterans of Hollywoods Boulevard strip joints to rosy-checked schoolgirls from Santa Monica.

The word leaked out last week, on the radio, in the trade magazines and along the grapevine, that Columbia Pictures was looking for 30 "girls" to play chorus line for their new television movie "Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women." At 10 a.m. yesterday, there were 600 women waiting outside Columbia's Burband studios, some in leotards and jeans, some in high heels and monstrous black boots, all for the chance of a quick nod from director Buzz Kulik and his team of consultants, five former Ziegfeld show girls.

Waiting on line, Rita Meyer, a 25-year-old belly dancer who looks remarkably like actress Jane Fonda, fidgeted, tapping her feet on the pavement. "You get a little crazy waiting outside like this," the slender, 5-foot-6-inch woman admitted. "I'm like a horse at the starting gate. Oh, when will they let us in?".

Four hundred women back. Diane Waters was trying to look composed. The tall, thin blonde from Fairfax, Va., was on her first Hollywood audition and couldn't help being a little awestruck at the hysteria around her. "I really had no idea it would be like this," said Waters, 28, a professional model. "I looked at this line and said what a pain in the neck. But then I thought - this must have been the way the Ziegfeld girls must have done it, so I guess it's appropriate.

In groups of five, the women came into the studio, took off their outer clothes and walked onto the stage, numbered stands under their feet. Klieg lights hit them as they posed, sticking whatever they thought best out toward the five former Ziegfeld girls, director Kulik and the group of joking Columbia executives.

As each group came on the stage, the Ziegfeld women huddled, discussing the relative heights and shapes of those on stage. Some were too tall, a few too heavy, others too short. Usually the five women were simply marched up on the stage, asked to turn around and told. "Thank you for coming, girls." Bright eyes quickly turned downcast, as a new group was trotted out.

For the most part the Ziegfeld veterans were unimpressed by what they saw. "These kids today can't walke they have no carriage," complained Harriet hassler, who appeared in the 1928 Ziegfeld production, "Whoopee." "These girls are used to walking around in blue jeans that are all ripped up, and it takes away from their beauty."

Hassler, pale but still faintly blond, smiled silently when asked her age. "Oh, life is so sordid itself. So why throw it at us," she asked, changing the topic. "God, there's no glamour anymore."

But for most of the women herded through the studio, the glamour of the Ziegfeld Follies, the grand New York shows with glittery, high-stepping, long-legged ladies, seemed as remote as a medieval forest. And the method of selection left some of them in a very angry mood. "This is obviously sexist," complained one passed-over dancer in her mid 20s. "They don't want to see any talent at all - all they want is your body. It's just like being a prop. All you can do is smile and bubble."

Not surprisingly, however, the 50 women selected through the cattle call didn't seem to mind the method used at all. Susie Guest, 28, a veteran Las Vegas show girl, thought the whole thing was just great. "It doesn't bother me if it's sexist," she said, smiling broadly. "I'm a woman and I'm glad to be one. This is really fun."

"Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women" will begin production next month and is scheduled for broadcast by NBC sometime next year. The 50 girls selected will be cut to 30 soon. The story centers on the life of New York showman FLorenz Ziegfeld and the women he discovered and loved. "I usually like to do heavy dramas," explained director Kulik," but the public seems to want escapism, so we're giving them this."

Kulik got his start in New York working on the old Kay Kyser musical variety TV show and believes "Ziegfeld" may open up a whole new market for television musicals. "Even in the '80s and it's the biggest sellers were the musicals in the movies." Kulik said. "There's a possibility it could be the same on TV now."

To former Ziegfeld girl Hassler, a development like that would signal a welcome return to "the good taste" prevalent when she was dancing on stage. "Those musicals were entertaining. You went to the movies to be entertained in those days," she called. "Now all you do is have sex. Who wants to see that? Of course, we did things like that in my day, but it was all behind closed doors. WHat we did on stage was to show what it is to be beautiful, and that was a lot better."