Johnny Carson said it: "Well, this is the first administration to have a premiere."
And so a former movie star, now about to become president of the United States, was celebrated last night in true Hollywood fashion -- with glitz and glitter, sequins and stars, klieg lights and orchestras. It was a 2 1/2-hour "party" as Carson put it, an entertainment at which the audience riveled the stars.
And if the setting was somewhat regal -- with the president-elect, vice president-elect and their wives sitting in velour-covered wing chairs on raised platforms in rather thronelike fashion -- it was also typically American in that it was held in a sports arena gussied up for the occasion. Furthermore, the entertainers felt no compunction about kidding the rulers-elect.
Comedian Rich Little, an impressionist, imitated four presidents, including Ronald Reagan, and had the president-elect leaning back in his chair with laughter.
"Well . . ." Little started out. Mimicking Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley on what he called "Cheat the Press," Little/Reagan was asked what he was going to do for alternate sources of energy. "We're going to build a pipeline to the sun," he answered. "Now you're probably thinking, that's impossible, you'll be burnt up. Not necessarily -- we're going to do it at night."
As Gerald Ford, Little said that Jimmy Carter's presidency was "like Truman Capote marrying Dolly Parton. The job was just too big for him to handle."
The evening, long as it was, drew a full house of close to 18,000 people, who paid between $50 and $10,000 (for a box) for their seats. The fashion news: Polyester is out, spangles are in. Spangles, ruffles, satin, brocade and all manner of other expensive evening wear. Indeed, the wall-to-wall value of the clothes worn last night might wipe out the national debt.
The expected traffic jam outside the Capital Centre occurred and the show was 10 minutes late in starting and even then there were quite a few empty seats. Meanwhile the glitteries mingled. In one box, Nancy Reagan's friend Jerry Zipkin sat with two expensively decked-out matrons eating foot-long hotdogs in foil wrappers. "Is it any good?" one of them was asked. She responded with an elaborate, mink-covered shrug.
Dean Martin, who had rehearsed his act earlier in the day, did not appear in the show, although he was present in the audience.
The crowd cheered at every mention of America, Ronald Reagan and the new administration. After the show, Reagan appeared on stage with Bush and their families, and after lauding his former show-biz colleagues, said: "During the past few days, I've been asked, 'Has it really sunk in?' Well, tonight there was a point during the show when I leaned over to Nancy and said, 'It's sunk in.'"
He didn't say what point that was, but it was probably not the point when Carson twitted him about his age, saying that Nancy Reagan was going to decorate the White House in antiques, "Old furniture that Ron used as a boy," or when he said "Ron's economic emergency is when they run out of goose liver pate at Bloomingdale's gourmet department."
Bush was not spared either. The vice president-elect, Carson said, "sits in his office with an open airline ticket waiting for some foreign leader to die . . . I'm sorry Mr. Vice President, I didn't mean to ignore you -- but you better get used to that."
There was considerable self-congratulation about the quality of the evening's entertainment. Frank Sinatra, who was the show's producer and director, called it "the greatest collection of talent America could offer to any audience," just before he began singing with his usual superb phrasing, but with occasional insecurities of pitch.
Bob Hope was so impressed by the array of stars who came to Washington for the inaugural that he said, "If someone dropped a bomb here tonight, Pinky Lee and Tiny Tim would be stars again." They might have to wait in line behind Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Vladimir Horowitz and a few others, but Hope might have been drawn into exaggeration by the high quality of the evening in his own specialty, humor. Besides his own short monologue, this was provided by Little and above all by Carson, whose stylistic debt to Hope came out with special clarity when they shared the same platform. Hope's jokes were relatively tame: "Just when we need some hot air, the election is over"; and "I like to come to Washington once in a while. Why should my money travel more than I do?"
But Carson aimed at everyone in sight and hit his target fairly often. After being introduced by Sinatra and left along on stage, he said, "Frank will be back later; he running to the post office to pose for a stamp." To Reagan he suggested that "If your movies had drawn crowds like this, you wouldn't have had to go into politics." He was no kinder to George Bush: "He gave up public life," he said, "to become vice president."
Musically the evening was mostly a celebration of mediocrity. It was highlighted by Donny and Marie Osmond, the brother-and-sister duo who are living proof that any Amercian can become a star. But Donny Osmond showed that he can make thousands shout when he sang an adaptation of a rock classic as "Ronnie B. Good," replacing the traditional Johnny and getting the audience to shout "GO" on the offbeats in the chorus: "Go Ronnie go. . ."
In a medley of songs called "Tin Pan Alley," Debby Boone sang more than a dozen songs, from "Toot-Toot-Tootsy, Goodby" to "Windmills of the Mind," demonstrating at great length a variety of songs in her own imitable style.
Charlton Heston did a reading in his god voice of a series of quotes by American writers, climaxing with a prose poem by Thomas Wolfe on the glories of America with the band playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" softly in the background. Ethel Merman managed to get through "Everything's Coming Up Roses" without serious mishap.
Mel Tillis and colleagues did some slick country numbers in a slick style and Charley Pride did some sincere country numbers in a sincere style. He interrupted his singing with a short monologue that might get his name changed to Charley Humility: "It's a privilege and an honor to be here -- a guy from the Delta of Mississippi. I thank you, Miz Nancy, for inviting me."
There were two other black performers among the 15 acts in the show. Grace Bumbry sang one operatic aria ("Vissi d'arte") and one pop song ("Natalie") with equally fine quality. Ben Vereen did an impersonation of the great star of the '20s, Bert Williams, who broke the color barrier on Broadway but had to put on black face makeup in minstrel-show style to do it. Vereen began his number in a caricatured style; but at the end, wiping off his blackface makeup while he sang the classic "Nobody," he suddenly injected a surprising dose of real feeling into the act.
General Omar Bradley, the nation's only living five-star general, sat silently in a wheelchair while General Jimmy Stewart offered a tribute to his former acting colleague: "Ron, I want to tell you, you'll never know how I'm going to feel, because I can't put it into words -- the wonderful feeling I'm going to have to be able to call you Mr. President." Stewart saluted his new commander-in-chief, who saluted him back.
The Naval Academy Glee Club sang with spit and polish precision, although the audience couldn't quite keep up with them on the "Star Spangled Banner."
In the Reagans' box were their children, Ron and his wife, Doria; Maureen and her fiance, Dennis Reyell; Mike and his wife, Colleen; and daughter Patti Davis. Other guests were Mrs. Reagan's mother and step-father, Mr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis; her brother, Richard Davis, and Reagan's brother, Neil, and their wives; as well as Reagan's pastor from Pacific Palisades, Donn Moomaw, and his family.
Although most of the audience was in elegant attire, there was one man walking the halls in a rainbow-colored hair-dye job and tails and a T-shirt that said "Believe in Jesus."
"It draws attention to the message on my shirt," he said of his get-up.
There were long lines at the bars, long lines at the rest rooms, and of course, long lines to get out of the Capital Centre. Anyone above the first tier of seats in the arena had to watch most of the show on the telescreens high above the floor because the stage was so far away.
"Ron! Ron!" one woman kept squealing, as though the president-elect were Frank Sinatra in his hey-day.
Speaking of Sinatra, the singer topped off the evening with a small performance of his own, starting with "Chicago" and proceeding to a song dedicated to Mrs. Reagan. He sang "Nancy With the Laughing Face," changing it to "Nancy With the Reagan Face." Mrs. Reagan blew him a kiss for his efforts.
Reagan, in his remarks to the crowd, quoted the writer Irvin S. Cobb in praise of show-business people for "the pure pearl of tears, the gold of laughter, and the diamonds of stardust they spread on an otherwise dreary world."