At first it looked like kiddy-time at the White House. Lorne Greene strolled in with his girl-child, shook hands with the president, with Mrs. Carter, with the Tip O'Neills, and then addressed his 9-year-old:

"Gillian dear - we've got to go up."

Gillian-dear nodded politely. She was going to bypass the 500 people milling about the East Room, the salutations and congratulations honoring the 10th anniversary of the reopening of Ford's Theatre, the hot lights, stars, and politicians. She was going "up" to see Amy Carter. And she wasn't the only one.

Actor Cliff Robertson walked in next, and watched as his 9-year-old received a presidential embrace.

"The first thing Heather said to me," reported Robertson after the hug was concluded, "was, 'Do you think I could see Amy?' And the second thing was, 'Do you think we both could watch "The Hardy Boys" on TV?'"

Robertson smiled paternally, looking not at all like a man who has lately been pointing the accusing finger at alleged financial improprieties within the movie industry. "I keep looking up," said Robertson, looking up, "and saying, 'Why ME, God? Why me?' But you have to do these things . . ."

But on to happier subjects. Pearl Bailey was there greeting Bennetta Washington and husband, the mayor, and wearing a black robe embellished with gold brocade that "the Empress of Iran had made for me." Lorne Greene, who was host for the special on Ford's Theatre that was taped Sunday and is scheduled to be shown on NBC Thursday night ("the holy host," is how he describes himself), just signed up for another two years of dogfood commercials.Tycoon Armand Hammer was there because, "I have a seat in the theater with my name on it."

Jimmy Carter told Eartha Kitt, "I'm glad you're back," which is sort of interesting since Kitt hadn't been back to the White House since 1963 when she denounced the Vietnam war to Lady Bird Johnson.

Kitt, currently starring in "Timbuktu!" at the Kennedy Center, said she didn't feel totally comfortable in the White House Sunday night - but not really uncomfortable, either. "I'm not sure of the personality of the nation at this time," is how she put it.

Actor Vincent Price wasn't totally comfortable, either. "I'm always paralyzed with fright at the White House," said Price, who's been coming there since FDR's time.

And Frankie Hewitt, the executive producer of Ford's Theatre arrived flushed and tremulous with actor Hugh O'Brian ("an old friend of too many years' standing").

"I'm trying to calm down," said Hewitt. "I'm trying to calm down and take a deep breath and pretend it's all over."

"It's like" - Frankie Hewitt flashed a big smile - "It's like the whole world is here."

President Carter stood before the assembled, and beamed his praise down on Frankie Hewitt. He called the reopening of Ford's after its 1968 restoration, "a tribute to Abraham Lincoln who was killed there . . .

"It wasn't in the character of Lincoln," Carter continued, "to have a source of tragedy, wit and humor to be closed, to be kept from our people.

"A unique occurence is being recognized tonight . . . when a national historical site was opened not as a museum, a closed and dead thing . . . but as an open and alive thing . . .

"As a southerner and a president I'd like to say I'm very proud of all of you for helping to unify the consciousness of a nation . . ."

But not everyone present seemed to be in such good spirits. Actors James Whitmore and Denis Patrick, for instance, both looked very disgruntled.

"Originally," said Patrick, "this party was to have been for 100 people. And then somehow it grew to 500. And we never got to shake the president's hand."

By the time everyone bundled into his fur coat and traveled the seven-block distance to Ford's Theatre by jitney or limousine for the taping, any ruffled feathers had been smoothed. Backstage at the 115-year-old theater, the presidential guests became all-American television stars. Whitmore, a lasso in his hand, glanced at the number of cowboy outfits around him and said, "I think we have them outnumbered."

There were more pauses on the stage than backstage, President and Mrs. Carter, who sat in the front row with the O'Neills, Hewitt and actor Hugh O'Brian, seemd amused at the scurrying around on the stage between numbers. During the taping, Carter initiated a standing ovation for Billy Dee Williams, who did Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech from the 1976 Ford's production of the same title.

"A Celebration of Theater," as the whole shebang was called, raised close to $300,000 through the sale of chairs from $500 to $5,000.

After the taping at Ford's Theatre, the Carters left in their cream-colored Lincoln to return to the White House and the rest of the guests attended a supper and dance at the Pan American Union Building. Backstage, Clark Morrow, a sound man, was breaking up his equipment and heading back to Baltimore. One of his stagehands, humming an upbeat number from the show said, "I hope it's a good party. I hope we're not in for Lester Lanin."

No, it turned out to be The Michael Carney Orchestra of New York.

Meanwhile, over at the Pan American Union, a line-up of limousines not too often seen in Washington these days decked the streets where the post-theater supper was hosted by Secretary General of the Organization of American States Alejandro Orfila and his wife, Helga.

Some 80 candle-lit tables for 10 filled the massive hall where guests dined on a buffet of salmon mousse, chicken crepes in white wine sauce, a cooked vegetable salad, and lemon mousse for dessert.

The table wine, Zezelay, fame from the Argentine vineyards owned by the Orfila family.

If anything, the evening featured a higher turnout of White House staffers than normal - Carter Special Consultant Peter Bourne and his wife, Mary King, ACTION deputy director; Projects Director Greg Schneiders and his wife, Maria, electronic media adviser Barry Jagoda, and Press Secretary Jody Powell and his wife, Nan.

Most guests, however, expressed disappointment in the program seen earlier at Ford's Theatre, agreeing with John Brademas (D-Ind.), who said "the program was rather like going, expecting dinner and getting nothing but hors d'oeuvres. For instance the dancing - I think people would have liked to have seen more of that."

Jagoda echoed the sentiment. "I have always had a lot of respect for Frankie Hewitt and her imagination. But I was disappointed with all the interruptions they made in the program supposedly for TV. They weren't necessary. We don't have that problem over at the White House."

Hewitt, who said the evening had gone "far beyond my wildest expectations," defended her program by saying that "if we had started out just to entertain those 700 people, we would not have had that kind of show. But the fact is we did it as a TV special. So perhaps it did come out in bits and pieces. But when you put it all together on the air, I think it was a miracle that we had to do as little interruptions as we did."

Meanwhile, Orfila was obviously thrilled at the turnout. "Anything that involves the president, Tip O'Neill, and the United States government is very important to the OAS. It is very important to bring people to this building. That is what I consider the important catalyst of being social particularly here in Washington."