In the 42 years he has known Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein said last night, he has seen Copland weep only once and get angry only once.
Both happened on the same night, when the two men were watching a Bette Davis movie and Bernstein made some loud comments during its poignant denouement. "Can't you shut up!" Copland exclaimed. When Bernstein looked at him, he saw that Copland was weeping profusely.
The tribute to Copland, who was the first of last night's five honorees, was virtually an all-Bernstein show. After his opening speech, and a short movie with Bernstein as narrator, he conducted the Kennedy Center orchestra in two Copland songs -- sung by William Warfield -- plus an excerpt from the ballet "Rodeo," which had Bernstein sliding and bouncing so vigorously that the whole orchestra platform shook.
Then Art Buchwald came out and made a strong bid to become a regular feature at these Kennedy Center Honors nights. Washington is the "charity capital of the world," he said. "There are so many dinners and galas held here that there's actually a shortage of diseases to give them on behalf of."
There was no public list of guests or acts before last night's performance. As a result, many items on the agenda, like Alan Alda's entrance, took the audience by surprise. Greeted with a crescendo of enthusiastic shrieks, Alda paid tribute to honoree Henry Fonda for setting "a standard in our profession that we admire and reach for but that few of us will ever be able to match."
"He doesn't talk much," added actress Jane Alexander, "He just does. And he doesn't act much. He just is."
Alexander and Joshua Logan told stories about working with Fonda, but the moment that registered most with the audience was a film clip of Fonda, as "Mister Robert," finally chucking Captain James Cagney's palm tree overboard.
Gene Kelly talked about Martha Graham, the third honoree on the program. "She was stretching the dance into realms never known before," he said. "Martha Graham is to modern dance what Queen Victoria was to the royal families of Europe."
Then Mayor Marion Barry appeared with the observation that the successful artist and the successful politican depend on the same two qualities -- "great stamina and the ability to survive shifts in taste."
And as if to demonstrate the value of the second quality, he introduced Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, from the Broadway show "Sugar Babies," who sang, danced and joked -- and made no reference, explicit or implicit, to any of the honorees.
Silver-gray hair was in abundance last night. Besides Bernstein, there was Eric Sevareid, who made a stately general introduction to the evening, and Elia Kazan, who offered a tribute to Tennessee Williams. "No one in our theater has created a world of people to compare with Tennessee's," said Kazan, the director of four Williams plays and two movies.
Perhaps the most unexpected entrance of the night was that of Peggy Lee, who did the honors for the last honoree, Ella Fitzgerald. "You know, she started out to be a dancer," said Lee, "and a lot of us singers wish she had stayed with it." Then Lee was joined by Count Basie and his band for a musical tribute to Fitzgerald that included an original song the performers tried -- with erratic success -- to read from cue cards at the back of the orchestra.