A Kennedy Center Honor comes, by definition, to an artist who has made a brilliant career and has established a great name. The fifth annual crop of honorees, just announced, fits the formula perfectly: theatrical producer, director and author George Abbott; actress Lillian Gish; band leader and clarinetist Benny Goodman; dancer and choreographer Gene Kelly; and conductor Eugene Ormandy.

But what place does this Honor have in those lives? Generally, it comes at the tail end of a career -- Kelly, at 69, is the youngest recipient this year. And then there's Abbott -- theatrical director and coauthor of such Broadway shows as "On Your Toes," "Damn Yankees," "Fiorello"; director and producer of "Best Foot Forward," "Room Service," "Pal Joey." At 95, a theatrical legend in several of his own times, he is the oldest of this year's recipients, yet he is planning a collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine on a remake of the musical "On Your Toes." It's slated to open at the Eisenhower Theater in December, the week after Abbott receives his Honor at the now-traditional black-tie gala.

And just what does this mean to Abbott?

"It's a little salt on the eggs," he said via telephone from his sum- mer home in Upstate New York.

And, from Gene Kelly, this: "It ranks with the big moments of my career -- and maybe outranks them. I don't know if you can compare it to a French Legion of Honor or an Oscar. It's distinctly American."

And distinctly Washington. The gala is the one time each year when this city -- so accustomed to the sight of limousines delivering the politically powerful -- suddenly swoons when, instead of a mere Cabinet member stepping out at the click of a Cadillac door handle, It's a Movie Star.

"I don't know where we thought it was headed when we first started it," said George Stevens Jr., chairman of the American Film Institute, and coproducer, with Nick Vanoff, of the gala performance as he has been the last four years. "It really does reveal a richness of American culture. We now have 25 individuals and it's quite a tapestry."

Each year recipients are chosen for their achievements -- the award is not designated by art form. Past winners include Fred Astaire, Marian Anderson, Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Martha Graham, Count Basie, Cary Grant, Rudolf Serkin, and Henry Fonda. When Fonda was saluted at the 1979 Honors, the Navy Choir sang "Red River Valley," the theme from "Grapes of Wrath," and one of his favorite songs. "He was overwhelmed in a wonderful way," said Stevens.

Reaction to hearing that you've received the Honor varies.

"They sent him an Express Mail letter," said Benny Goodman's secretary and assistant, Wendy Chamberlin. "He called from his house in Connecticut -- or was he in Europe? I opened it and read it to him. 'Oh, that's very good, isn't it?' he asked me. I wrote a letter to Mr. Stevens Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center for him. He asked me to write, 'I am very happy to accept with great pride your invitation to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.' "

Goodman, 73, was at his home this weekend in Stamford, Conn., briefly before going to the Shakespeare Festival in Canada to perform. Besides touring, he's planning a party to send off his daughter, Rachel, to Europe. The famous clarinetist will be playing for that party, too.

"I'm delighted, ecstatic, and highly pleased," said Gene Kelly, who has been vacationing with friends in Arizona and riding horses in Mexico. "I've known for a couple of weeks. The excitement still hasn't worn off. When George and Nick came and told me," said Kelly, "I wanted to call all my friends, but they swore me to secrecy."

Lillian Gish is taking the news well -- she's vacationing at a spa in Vienna, Austria.

Ormandy could not be reached for comment. Louis Hood, director of public relations for the Philadelphia Orchestra, said the conductor was "thrilled and honored when he received the letter and that he would be delighted to accept the award."

Among the honorees, there are some coincidences: Kelly was dance director for "Best Foot Forward," which Abbott directed, and he became a star in "Pal Joey," which Abbott also directed. "I'm so tickled at that," said Kelly about Abbott. "Most people in artistic circles have been saying for years, 'When are they going to honor George?' "

Abbott, when told that Lillian Gish was a recipient, said, "Oh, how nice. She's an old friend."

Abbott has been classified in the press as very different from the usual theatrical producer and director. "If there is such a thing," Abbott commented with a chuckle.

"He seldom swears, never smokes, and he drinks only in emergencies . . . ." a story printed in 1939 related.

"I swear in emergencies and on the golf course," Abbott said by way of update. "I have a little wine with dinner."

He plays golf and swims, loves tennis but has given it up. "Too blind to play," he said. "That little ball moves so fast. You have to have good eyes. When you see that people don't want to hit the ball at the net because they're afraid they'll hurt you, why then it's time to quit."

There was a time -- 10 years ago -- when Abbott thought nothing of hopping on a bus with the cast of a show he was directing traveling from New York to Washington. He'd do it again with the cast of the "On Your Toes" remake, he said, but added, "I imagine they'll be on the shuttle."

He claims he has no favorite among his plays -- "They're all different. It's like asking 'Which do you like better? Oyster soup or mince pie?' " And he chortles when asked which was the worst. "You like them all when you're doing thm," he said.

A brief recounting of the other Honorees' careers:

Lillian Gish, 85, has been known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen." An actress since the age of 5, she starred in the film classics "Birth of a Nation," "Broken Blossoms," and "Orphans of the Storm." She became a star at MGM in films such as "The Scarlet Letter." In the '30s she went back to the stage, but occasionally made an appearance on the screen, including in Robert Altman's 1978 film, "The Wedding."

Bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman was christened the "King of Swing," in the '40s with his Big Band sound. He became one of the top-rated clarinetists in ballrooms, recording studios and concert halls worldwide. Although he does not play clarinet full-time anymore, he still tours in Europe and appeared in Washington at the Kool Jazz Festival last May.

Eugene Ormandy, 82, Conductor Laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, served as its music director for 44 years. Under Ormandy, the orchestra became the most recorded of any in the country. Ormandy was born in Budapest, and came to the United States in 1921. When he arrived in this country, he already was a leading violinist in Europe.

Ormandy became concertmaster of the Capitol Theater Orchestra in New York and made his conducting debut with that orchestra in 1924. He later became conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and then associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. He became permanent conductor in 1938 and led the orchestra on tours around the world, including a 1973 visit to the People's Republic of China -- the first made by any American symphony.

Gene Kelly is the embodiment of the words he sang on screen: "Gotta Dance." That film, "Singin' in the Rain," (which he starred in and co-directed) is an American classic now, and so is the image of Kelly dancing. He made his film debut with Judy Garland in "For Me and My Gal," and starred in and choreographed "An American in Paris," which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1956. Kelly was awarded a special Oscar for his film achievements that year.

Kelly introduced Martha Graham, whom he said was a source of inspiration to him in the '30s, at the Honors Gala in 1979 when she was an honoree.

It was suggested to Kelly that perhaps Stevens and Vanoff -- in the tradition of playing out "This Is Your Life," for honorees -- will bring Graham back to introduce Kelly.

"I think she's too busy," Kelly replied.

Well, maybe they'll get Leslie Caron, his discovery and co-star in "An American in Paris."

He chuckled. "I dare not ask."