Gregory Hines danced for dancer Gene Kelly and Isaac Stern serenaded conductor Eugene Ormandy. Leona Mitchell sang for actress Lillian Gish and Lionel Hampton and his combo jammed for clarinetist Benny Goodman. Theatrical producer George Abbott got a chorus line of stars who have been in his plays crooning "You Gotta Have Heart."
The President and Nancy Reagan watched it all from their box in the Kennedy Center's Opera House, along with the five beribboned Kennedy Center honorees, the objects of all this affectionate performing.
Each one stood for the ovations, smiled, sometimes flashed thumbs-up signs and occasionally wiped their eyes on the occasion of the fifth annual Kennedy Center Honors, awards for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
It was an all-star version of "This Is Your Life." And earlier, on a night when there was plenty of opportunity to be upstaged by some of his former Hollywood colleagues, President Reagan seemed to know his place at the pre-Gala White House reception for the honorees and several hundred others. Speaking of Abbott, "the dean of showmen," Reagan called him, "Mr. Abbott." "I'm not sure yet about calling him George -- I'm temporarily between engagements." The guests in the White House East Room roared.
Washington was at its glittery best last night for the annual conjunction of movie and political stars that marks the weekend of the Honors Gala. From the White House reception, the crowd moved to the Gala performance that fondly reviewed the achievements and milestones in the five careers.
It was a colorful, exciting mixture of film, commentary and performances by old friends. Walter Cronkite was the host, and the show began with the voice of Ronald Reagan.
"Someone once said an artist is a dreamer," said Reagan, and " tonight we honor five American dreamers who made their dreams come true for the rest of us."
When the 2,300 people in the house rose time after time to give standing ovations to the five honorees, the Reagans applauded. And at one point the president embraced Gish.
Abbott was treated to a rousing rendition of "You Gotta Have Heart" by Eddie Albert, Tom Bosley, Van Johnson, Hal Linden and Jean Stapleton -- Stapleton complete with "Damn Yankees" uniform. For the last verse they changed the lyrics to "We've got George, miles and miles and miles of George." The crowd loved it.
Eva Marie Saint made the presentation to Gish. Saint recalled Gish's many kindnesses throughout her 100-film, 68-year career. The film on Gish included many clips from her movies, beginning with "Birth of a Nation." Opera singer Leona Mitchell, who is soon going to Paris to open in "La Bohe me," sang an aria from that opera. Gish appeared in the silent-movie version of "La Bohe me."
Conductor Andre' Previn recalled Goodman's "monumental absentmindedness," saying that Goodman once kept right on playing and prevented Previn from performing his own solo. Previn said he didn't mind at all because Goodman was so good. Peggy Lee, once a member of his swinging big band, looked warmly up to Goodman and sang "and so it seems we have met before."
After the intermission, the audience was treated to a preview of "On Your Toes," which Abbott had first directed in 1936 and which he is again directing in a revival scheduled to begin previews this week at the Kennedy Center. Claudette Colbert came on stage to announce that last night's performance had raised $500,000 for the Kennedy Center.
The praise for orchestral genius Ormandy was conducted by pianist Eugene Istomin, who said, "He is very simply one of the greatest conductors of this century." Istomin recalled how Ormandy "enveloped the soloist in a cushion of warmth and love," giving confidence at needed moments.
Then violinist Isaac Stern, in perhaps the most riveting performance of the evening, played Mozart in Ormandy's honor.
Stern then addressed the audience and proclaimed that last night's event made Washington "a musical capital worthy of the capital of this nation."
For Kelly, Yves Montand strode onto the stage singing "Long Ago and Far Away." Montand declared that "Gene Kelly . . . put the dance on the street" by appearing for the first time as a dancer in trousers and normal street clothes. "Gene," he said, "will always be our American in Paris."
The film clip of Kelly "Singin' in the Rain" -- the scene played in its entirety -- brought Kelly perhaps the biggest ovation of the evening. He kept trying to sit down, but the audience roared him back to his feet, and Kelly had to wipe away a tear.
Dancer and singer Gregory Hines, the star of "Sophisticated Ladies," declared, "I was raised on Gene's films," before he danced in Kelly's honor.
Then, in a takeoff on "Singin' in the Rain," Donald O'Connor and Cyd Charisse, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- the team that wrote the script for the classic film -- danced and sang "take Kelly's face/he has charm!/he has grace!"
Cronkite ended the evening by saying, "For the five honorees the show will always go on and that's the way it is."
And that's the way it was all night long.
After the performance, the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center became the scene of dinner for 1,500. But in this festive crowd there was table-hopping and dancing to the music of Buddy Rich and his Orchestra before the main course was served. Guests and waiters alike squeezed between round tables pushed closely together. There were lots of interesting seating plans: William Webster, director of the FBI, sitting at a table with Leona Mitchell, the soprano whose performance wowed him and the rest of the Kennedy Center audience; Ethel Kennedy huddled next to Cary Grant at Gene Kelly's table. "It's the answer to everyone's dream," said Kennedy about sitting next to Grant. "Certainly mine."
Hines embraced Kelly, and the two stood at the table talking. Hines wouldn't say what about. "You can't print it," he said.
Hines himself was a star of the evening, what with Cronkite having told the Opera House audience that Hines' wife had given birth to a boy Thursday morning. The gala's organizers had been worried about whether Hines would make it for the show. "I figured I wasn't going to come," said Hines who was dressed completely in black and wearing one gold earring, "because I wasn't going to leave my wife. But then everything started happening. I had a good time here .
"I love Gene. Every now and then we go out and have dinner and I like to drink beer and he likes to drink beer."
Kelly received a steady stream of well-wishers. "When it came to my part," said Kelly, "I had to get misty." Asked how many times he had seen that "Singin' in the Rain" clip, he said with a smile, "Perhaps once too often."
Abbott said he was pleased with the honors show and "apprehensive" about the upcoming premiere of the new version of "On Your Toes." "I heard Gene Kelly was crying," Abbott said of the gala. "I'm glad I didn't cry."
George Stevens, a co-producer of the show, received congratulations as he went from table to table. His response to Stern's on-stage recognition of him was "a combination of shock and gratitude," said Stevens.
"Isaac is a very spontaneous man," said former senator Abraham Ribicoff to Stevens. "As a neighbor of his in Connecticut, I can tell you he never does the expected."
Sitting at Ribicoff's table were Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and his wife. "This is the first one of these honors nights I have been to," said Glenn. No, he did not say when he would announce for president. But, he did say with a smile that there were some "big decisions" that would have to be made, probably around the first of the year.
He praised Ted Kennedy's decision not to run, saying, "I certainly respect his judgment in what's best for the family . . . He said he wants to be active in the causes he's worked on. I look forward to working with him" in the Senate.
Throughout, the dinner guests exclaimed that this was the best show ever. "It gets better every year," said actress Florence Henderson. "I'm going to come to all of them."
"I catch up on my culture through this show," said Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.).
"It's like having five different children," said Stevens of the five honors shows that he has co-produced. "Each year everyone says it's the best yet. I don't want to stop them."
The honorees said they were moved by the show. "It was the best that's ever been," said Gish. "Not because I was part of it -- they're learning how to tighten it. Like everything else in the theater, it'll be better next year than this, I bet."
"It was great," said Goodman. "They did it beautifully, really."
Stern walked up behind Ormandy and hugged him and pressed his hands on the conductor's shoulders. Stern spoke in Ormandy's ear. "Somebody asked me the other day, 'Do you play pops?' I said, 'Sure. I play Beethoven, Brahms . . .' "
Stern hugged Ormandy again and said, "It was a well-deserved evening. Treasure it, savor it!"
"Will you play with me?" said Ormandy.
"Of course I'll play with you," said Stern. "Relax! You've made it! You're here, and that proves you've made it!"
Ormandy's younger brother Martin -- almost identical to the conductor -- said the evening was "great -- one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I am so proud." Martin Ormandy was, for many years, a cellist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
At a nearby table, Mary Cunningham was chatting with Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), who chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the arts. McClure said he would attempt to restore funds for the Presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities axed last week by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.).
"I hope we'll be able to get the committee," said McClure. "I know the first lady thinks that's very important . . . In any legislative process a certain amount of bargaining goes on."
Cunningham, who was there with her husband, William Agee, had high praise for the show. "It really built as the evening went on," she said. "It was well paced . . . They chose each of the recipients terrifically well. There wasn't a dull spot."
"It wasn't like a variety show," said McClure.
Ed Meese got to meet Kelly, and Cunningham got to meet Helen Hayes. "She's a very interesting lady," said Cunningham. "I asked her what she thought would be the most important art form 50 years from now. She said, 'I'd like to say theater, but I think it will have to be music.' "
But for most of the evening the focus was on the five who received the honors. When Reagan, at the White House reception, talked of the tremendous response that Goodman, "The King of Swing," got on a trip to Moscow, the president paused and said, "How'd you like to make a return trip?"
Gish swept through the East Room receiving line in a pale peach gown and had a lengthy chat with President and Mrs. Reagan. Kelly went through, and several feet out of it he greeted friends with a clap of his hands and a smile. "Now," he said, "we can have a drink."
Cary Grant and his wife, Barbara, chatted with Secretary of State George Shultz and his wife, Helena, as they all walked toward the receiving line. "It's always exciting to be in the White House," said Grant, who was to be in the audience but not in the Kennedy Center show.
"He stopped when he was absolutely ahead," Eva Marie Saint said admiringly of Grant, her former movie co-star. Saint, in royal blue silk, was accompanied by her husband Jeffrey Hayden. "The first play I was ever in was with her," said Saint of Gish and the play "The Trip to Bountiful." "I just finished a film with Karen Valentine about a lady psychiatrist. It's kind of nice to get out of the hospital."
Shultz said he had met Cary Grant before. "We happened to be at a dinner party that President Ford gave in Los Angeles a year ago . . . Cary Grant and his wife were there. My wife sat between Cary Grant and Bob Hope. She hasn't come down since."
As for the Latin American trip with the president, from which Shultz just returned, he shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it. My mind is idling at this point."
OMB Director David Stockman, with his fiance' Jennifer Blei, simply strolled around and took the whole scene in. "I haven't met anyone I was dying to meet. I've just been kind of walking around looking at people," Stockman said.
The White House made two impressions upon Jean Stapleton. First, she was awed. "I walked in and I, you know, I tear up," said Stapleton, elegant in a black and gold chiffon overblouse and black skirt. "It's so beautiful, and with people it comes alive."
And, second, she was taken aback. "As I was on the receiving line with Bill her husband ," said Stapleton, "the social aide said as we approached the president, 'The gentleman first,' and I said, 'Why?' and the aide shrugged his shoulders. I said 'Oh,' but I'll write a letter." Of this bit of protocol, Stapleton said, "It doesn't belong today."
At the entrance to the East Room, as guests began taking their seats, actor Van Johnson said he was nervous about the speech he was going to make during the show for Abbott. "I just finished doing a 'Fantasy Island' and I went back to New York to get a dinner jacket for tonight," said Johnson. He had mugged for photographers as he entered the White House, opening his jacket wide to reveal a red silk lining. "We're doing a special number for George Abbott -- Mr. Abbott," Johnson had said upon arrival at the White House, "one of my old bosses."
Sitting in the back row of chairs in the East Room, playwright Edward Albee beckoned for actress Maureen Stapleton to come sit next to him. Both are on the committee that nominates artists for the Kennedy Center Honors. "I nominated George Abbott and Lillian Gish," said Maureen Stapleton.
"They never take my advice," said Albee with a rueful grin. "I always nominate very obscure and very serious people that no one has ever heard of."
"Well, you shouldn't," said Stapleton in mock admonishment.
When the pomp and ceremony at the White House was over, guests headed for the Kennedy Center, where they were processed through four metal detectors manned by 25 uniformed Secret Service agents.
Upstairs in the atrium, CBS, which will air last night's show on Christmas night, was throwing a bash. There were mountains of shrimp and crab claws on ice, and two chefs carving from huge rounds of roast beef.
"It's very good; we're very proud of it," said CBS Chairman of the Board William Paley. "It's the best presentation of its kind I know of anywhere."