It was celebrity gridlock at the diplomatic entrance to the White House last night as movie stars arrived one after the other to attend a reception before the fourth annual Kennedy Center Honors Gala. Audrey Hepburn swept in and stunned the waiting reporters. A few gasped and applauded. Regal in velvet and taffeta, she posed for photographers. Cameras clicked furiously. Donald Sutherland came through almost on her heels. A few minutes later presidential counselor Edwin Meese and his wife slipped through without fanfare.

There were many to be oohed and ahed over, the honorees among them -- Count Basie, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and concert pianist Rudolf Serkin. Usually celebrated Washingtonians stepped aside in deference. It was also a night to take in all the White House Christmas regalia.

"Oh, look at the tree!" exclaimed actor Richard Chamberlain, breaking into a smile as he walked into the grand foyer.

"Oh, nooooo!" said Meryl Streep, in white chiffon, walking between Chamberlain and her husband, artist Don Gummer.

"I wonder if they'll ever light those candles," said Chamberlain, taking in another Christmas tree with candles on it. "We'll have to stand by with a hose."

"Yes, they've redecorated," said Sutherland, making his way through the reception line. Sutherland said he hadn't met any of the honorees. "This is a wonderful celebration of what we do," he said.

And among those celebrating: Rex Harrison, Lillian Gish, Seiji Ozawa, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Jimmy Stewart. There were also some ghosts of Christmas past. One of them was Gerald Rafshoon, President Carter's media adviser. "It's always nice to be back in the White House," observed Rafshoon, who is working on a six-hour mini-series about the Iranian crisis for CBS.

Rafshoon's cohort, Jody Powell, wasn't at the White House ("That would have been too much") although he did attend the dinner at the Kennedy Center later.

Rex Harrison would be giving the tribute to Cary Grant at the honors gala after the reception. "I've got a lot of things to read," Harrison said in his trademark British accent. "I'd rather act. I'm not a good reader."

Ronald and Nancy Reagan stood behind the Christmas tree shaking hands. In the president's address to the honorees, he drew laughter when he said of Helen Hayes, "Her first work at the age of 8 was 'Old Dutch' . . . That's what they call me!" Of the honorees' contributions, Reagan said, " . . . It is our spirit they captured when they danced . . . Our hopes played out on stage and screen . . . because of their talent, our imaginations have been set free."

After Reagan's speech, a sea of celebrities parted to make way for the honorees. Count Basie, who due to health problems arrived on a motorized scooter , rode through the crowd tooting his horn. "I don't know how I feel," he said. "I just don't want to wake up."

"I was surprised to be invited, in a way," said comedian Robert Klein, sipping a drink as he and his wife, opera singer Brenda Boozer, waited in the receiving line. "I supported Carter." He narrowed his eyes and scanned the foyer in mock serious scrutiny. "I haven't seen a liberal in the room. No, that's just a joke." Klein spotted Count Basie. "He's pretty liberal."

Several people behind Klein stood actress Meryl Streep. She has been working on the movie version of "Sophie's Choice." Asked how it was going, she replied in Polish. "That means pretty good," she said when asked for a translation. "I'm not actively working on it. I'm studying for it -- very, very hard. Three hours a day."

Elsewhere in the receiving line were playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee talking about honorees whom they knew.

"You know Jerry choreographer Robbins ," prompted Albee, as Williams tried to decide which of the honorees he knew.

Williams nodded, "Yes, he dropped in at Key West."

Asked why he was attending, Edward Albee, munching on a shrimp he plucked from a bowl on the buffet table, responded, "I don't know. I think I was in the neighborhood."

At the dinner for 1,680 that followed the presentation of honors, Audrey Hepburn sat with Cary Grant, Helen Hayes sat with Rex Harrison, Ella Fitzgerald sat at Count Basie's table, and Sissy Spacek chatted with Meryl Streep. Through the aisles, people rubbernecked. The waiting list, said one Kennedy Center official, "read like a 'Who's Who.' " In attendance were the Reagans and the Bushes, who were wisked away immediately after the performance.

Throughout the evening there was a parade of velvet, taffeta, sequins and tuxedos along a red-carpeted walkway. All the honorees wore rainbow-colored ribbons. The lights were turned down to a warm glow. It felt a little like a posh department store the day before Christmas.

"I wept at mine," said Helen Hayes. "I didn't weep at the others. We're a group of people who've had a lot of honors in our lives, but we were all overwhelmed tonight. We kept saying 'Did you ever, did you ever . . .' " At a nearby table Rudolf Serkin and pianist Eugene Istomin toasted with raised glasses.

"Eugene was Rudolf Serkin's first pupil," said Marta Istomin, aristic director at the Kennedy Center, who taught Serkin's daughter Judy cello at one time. "I've known Rudy since I can remember. He's like a member of my family."

"It's very exciting," said Eugene Istomin, who has been to each of the Kennedy Center honors galas. "Sort of like the World Series."

Meanwhile, Walter Cronkite, who was emcee during the show, spoke with CBS colleagues about what he considered a subdued audience response. "I think there ought to be an announcement at the beginning," he said in reference to CBS taping the program to be aired later this month.

But his successor, anchorman Dan Rather, said he found the spirit "terrific. That might be a little heady, but I believe it," he said.

Over at another table, young dancers Amanda McKerrow and Simon Dow talked about what it's like to mingle at the White House with accomplished artists. "I feel like a groupie," said Dow. "When I see someone I recognize I get all excited," said McKerrow. "And when I'm introduced to them, I'm speechless."

Richard Allen, too, got a chance to talk to two people that he admires -- Meryl Streep and Donald Sutherland. "Oh, I just said, 'Hi there.' "

At one point the crowd surged around Cary Grant's table. "It's marvelous," said Audrey Hepburn, who lives in Rome and Switzerland. "I've seen a lot of old friends."

So did Grant. "Oh, awfully nice to see you," he said to one friend as another, actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., took him by the arm to whisper something in his ear.

"Of course I was moved," said Grant. "I had tears in my eyes."

Jerome Robbins, sitting at his table, was asked if he regretted changing his name from Rabinowitz to Robbins. "My family changed my name," he said. "I'm proud of the family name and the name I made."

Dancer Jacques d'Amboise and choreographer Arthur Mitchell and dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Virginia Johnson raved about the gala. "It was wonderful," said d'Amboise. "It was terrific. What's next year?"

Sissy Spacek, in a gold lame' jumpsuit, sat and held the hand of her husband, Jack Fisk. "I didn't know what I liked more," she said of the performance and of the honorees. "Watching them on stage or watching them watch themselves on stage."