And who was to be first among them?

Five minutes into the taping of the American Film Institute's 10th anniversary gala Thursday night, after the lights went down in the Kennedy Center Opera House, after Henry Mancini had finished conducting his medley of movie hits, right when Charlton Heston was trying desperately to read his lines off the idiot cards being frantically turned by a man in a pink Lacoste T-shirt crouching in the orchestra pit, Columbia Broadcasting System's camera took its first sweep of the star-studded audience. Who among the hundreds of celebrities would be selected as the first famous face to be projected coast-to-coast? Who would be the first star to shine among stars that night?

Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, AI Pacino, Elizabeth Taylor, Cicely Tyson, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda. Lillian Gish, Michael York, Eva Marie Saint, Omar Sharif? Jimmy Carter?

No.

Henry Kissinger.

It may have said more about the new Hollywood - or the new Washington, depending upon how you look at it - than any number of scripts, public relation handouts or hyperbole.

Nobody was quite prepared for how spectacular the evening was going to be. Not even AFI or its generals, George Stevens Jr., who produced the show that CBS bought for Nov. 21 airing, and socialite Ina Ginsburg, who masterminded the sit-down dinner for 1,2000 black-tie guests.

So how did they do it? Well, it didn't happen overnight. For instance, Ina Ginsburg ate not just one tasting luncheon but two, several weeks before the event. Assiting were Cappy Leonard, whose husband, Bill, is head of CBS's Washington bureau, and Robin Jacobsen, whose husband, Hugh, is the architect.

The first luncheon eliminated filet mignon in favor of roast capon; the second eliminated the parsley and thinned out the prosciutto slices. The night of the dinner, Robin Jacobsen's pate, reproduced by the Canteen Corp. and intended to be served on toast points WITH the capon, had to be served separately because the warm plates would have made the cold pate soggy. As a result, plates of pate ended up on tables looking like somebody's leftover liverwurst on toast.

Tablecloths were really sheets wheedled out of Wamsutta, and almost the sole disaster. Wanting napkins, she enlisted the aid of a young Kennedy Center volunteer who mistook finished cloths for scrap material and almost cut up the tablecloths into napkins.

"I put my head in my hands and almost cried," Ind Ginsburg said later.

"Then I gave myself five minutes to pull myself together."

The happy ending was that the error was noticed in the nick of time and catastrophe was averted.

Star-struck Washingtonians farsighted enough to have bought tickets, ranging from $25 to $500 each, hit the jackpot in celebrities. But then, so did the celebrities who found themselves elbow to elbow with the nation's power brokers.

Movie gadfly and producer of the film version of "Equus" Lester Persky was positively beside himself over having sat next to Kissinger at the performance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President's national security adviser, at dinner.

"I can't believe it, I just can't believe it," Persky gushed somewhat breathlessly at the dinner, "Look who I'm sitting next to!" He went around in a daze explaining how he'd been discussing things with "Zbig."

Nor were his dinner partners his by mere chance.

With all the instincts of a Hollywood producer herself, Ina Ginsburg said later she wanted to match political stars with the tinsel-y variety because "I wanted to mix everybody up."

And what a mix.

For instance: Ethel Kennedy and Stanley Pottinger, usually Gloria Steinem's constant escort, found themselves breaking bread with John and Liz Warner, ans well as gala director Marty Pasetta (whose directing chores have included Carter's inaugural gala, in case anybody has forgotten).

At the next table, design mogul Diane Von Furstenberg and her escort, Barry Diller, chairman of the Board for Paramount Pictures, shared Kissinger, who sat across from Carl Bernstein.

Ina Ginsburg, who literally stayed up all night Wednesday working out the seat plans for the 93 tables of 12, also put the Sidney Poitiers with Sen. and Mrs. Charles Percy, and Lauren Bacall with Sen. and Mrs. Frank Church.

And Ginsburg, who is nothing if not meticulous with such details, also combined probably the highest paid group of Hollywood directing and producing heavyweights imaginable by seating together directors Steven ("Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") Spielberg, George ("Star Wars" and "American Graffiti") Lucas, Francis ("Godfather I AND II" and "Apocalpyse Now") Coppola and Alan Ladd Jr., head of production fr 20th Century-Fox and the man responsible for bringing to the screen such flicks as "Turning Point", "Julia" and "Stars Wars."

The prospect of hobnobbing with a Hollywood West star even wooed big corporations, which were lured into buying entire tables after being assured a board chairman would be sitting with a famous actor. The J. Willard Marriotts got Jimmy Stewart.

Even Al Pacino,celebrated recluse of the movie world who never ever goes anywhere if he can help it, showed up with girlfriend Marthe Keller only after being assured that "everybody" would be here, too.

Almost everybody from New York had shuttle problems. Pacino took a 3 p.m. flight which hit a rainstorm. It shook Pacino enough for him to confess to fellow passenger John Damgard, a Washingtonian, that he was, frankly, scared.

Meanwhile on another-shuttle delayed an hour at Laguardia model Lacy Newhouse whiled away her waiting time by popping into the plane's bathroom to was her hair. And how did she dry it, someone asked? She shook it behind the bulkhead separating first class and coach.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 invitations had gone out and while tickets may have sold slowly in the beginning, the pace quickened as star RSVPs rolled in.

So did arrangements.

Ira Ginsburg wanted a discotheque at the party and got one at discount. Tyler Teg designed it on the condition that AFI put out big bucks for the lighting. "And he was absolutely right," she said, adding that Kinetic Artistry Inc. of Takoma Park did it all at a "nominal" charge.

AFT grossed $250,000 from the evening, George Stevens said yesterday, and looking back, "I wouldn't do a thing differently."

At AFI's annual board meeting yesterday, with Elia Kazan, Sam Spiegel, George Cukor and Olivia de Haviland looking on as unofficial observers, "everybody was very mellow," Stevens added.

But then, as Henry Kissinger hadd summed it up it the night before while looking around the mobbed Atrium, "I think this is the quintessence of something - but I'm not sure what."