For four decades as a drama critic, Richard L. Coe heard the applause for others as he hurried up the aisle to rush back to the office to write his reviews under deadline.

On Saturday night, the audience stood and clapped amid shouts of "Bravo!" and "author, author" for Coe himself as he was honored by the American Theatre Association at its second international costume ball at the Shoreham Americana.

Actors, producers, fellow critics and theatergoers alike joined in tribute to Coe, the retired Washington Post critic "who made theater exciting" as he guided Washington audiences for 40 years.

In presenting the association's silver tray to Coe, Roger L. Stevens, head of the Kennedy Center and the first recipient of the award last year, added:

"Dick has never tried to see how smart or cute he can be . . . making quips at the expense of people on the stage . . . I always have felt that theater can be no better than its critics."

It was a gathering of theater people to honor Coe, who has carried the title of drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post since he stepped aside from regular reviewing chores last January after 41 years on the aisle.

Helen Hayes was there. So were George Grizzard, who spent the early days of his career at Arena Stage, and Judy Manos, singer, performer and co-producer of Broadway's "Sweeney Todd." Elliott Norton of Boston, dean of American theater critics, and Hobe Morrison, Variety's legit-entertainment editor, also came for the tribute to a colleague.

Hayes, retired from the theater, was as excited as an actress preparing for her first starring role as she talked about her next performance -- reading the lesson during Pope John Paul II's mass in Yankee Stadium.

"I don't know what genius chose the lesson," she said. "It's those marvelous lines at the end of Genesis I, when God looks out after creation and 'Behold, it was good.' We need to be reminded of that."

Coe accepted the award with tributes to others, showing the same enthusiasm for the theater that he had when he started his job.

His memories touched many of those in the audience -- Zelda Fichandler, founder of Arena Stage, whom he recalled as a young college student with a dream of theater on a barge on the Potomac; Father Gilbert Hartke, the child actor who became a priest and founded Catholic University's drama department, and Grizzard, who was the witch boy in a past Arena production of "Dark of the Moon."

The American Theatre Association is an umbrella organization for educational and noncommercial theater, including community, college, children's and military groups.

Its second benefit costume ball, with a theme of "All the World's a Stage," ended with kings, queens, pirates, surgeons, scarecrows and Shakespearean lords and ladies dancing to disco music in a cabaret scene.