It used to be The Carolina--an ornate art deco vaudeville palace in downtown Winston-Salem, once "the biggest theater between Richmond and Atlanta"--but tonight it reopened bearing Roger L. Stevens' name as his show business and Washington friends gathered to honor him.

The Roger L. Stevens Center for the Performing Arts is the official name now, named for Stevens, the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who confessed to "mixed feelings" as dedication time approached.

"I don't know if I'm going to get a big kick out of standing there and being the number one attraction," he had said. But when the spotlight picked him out of the audience and the crowd of 1,400 rose in a standing ovation, there were tears in his eyes.

If Stevens was the number one attraction, there were plenty of runners-up to bring out the gawkers and autograph seekers in this quiet southern city of 140,000. Gregory Peck had flown in from Hollywood to be the emcee at the $250-a-ticket opening-night gala, and such Stevens friends and supporters as Jean Stapleton, Zoe Caldwell, Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein were on hand to contribute their talents to the inaugural program.

Stapleton clowned with a viola and sang a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty, "Sad Is That Woman's Lot," perhaps a reflection of her preoccupation these days with women's rights.

After the gala, she was telling people that she would be appearing as Eleanor Roosevelt on a nationwide telethon next month for the national Democratic Party, but she denied any intention to make political endorsements. "I just stick with the issues--women's rights and the arts," she said. "The reason I'm doing the Democratic telethon is because Eleanor Roosevelt was a Democrat. If she had been a Republican, I'd do her telethon, too."

The evening was scrupulously nonpartisan, even with former president Gerald R. Ford and Betty Ford, Joan Mondale, Lady Bird Johnson and Selwa (Lucky) Roosevelt, the State Department's chief of protocol, taking bows from the audience.

Mondale had flown in Thursday from Iowa, "one of the early states," where she has been campaigning for her husband. "I don't know where Fritz is," she admitted. "The last time I saw him was Monday morning. He went one way and I went the other. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and boy, is mine fond about now."

The Fords were doing extra duty this weekend, visiting their son Michael, who lives here. The Stevens gala also coincided with the birthday of their oldest granddaughter, Sara, and the baptism of their newest one, Rebecca.

Choreographer Agnes De Mille, who suffered a severe stroke several years ago and has been largely confined to a wheelchair, brought the audience to its feet when she walked out on the stage, escorted by British ballet impresario Sir Anton Dolin. Reminiscing about her days under Stevens as a member of the National Council on the Arts, the precursor of the National Endowment, she cracked, "Everyone was waiting for us to make a mistake. But we didn't make it. We didn't have enough money to make it."

The gala also featured actress Zoe Caldwell re-creating her Tony award-winning performance as Medea. In recognition of Stevens' ecologically minded wife, Christine, Caldwell imitated the song of the humpback whale.

Outside the Stevens center, the floodlights burned bright and the crowds were five deep, waiting for a glimpse of the celebrities as they streamed over to a nearby convention center for a sit-down dinner of squab and chocolate mousse.

"The last occasion of this magnitude I can remember was when Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh came to town," remarked Phil Hanes, the local philanthropist and textile millionaire who masterminded the $10.6 million renovation of the theater and then hatched the idea of naming it after Stevens.

The 11-story complex houses rehearsal halls, offices and (eventually on the top floors) a number of posh condominiums. The theater itself is handsomely decorated in dark green and deep coral, seats 1,382 in plush comfort and boasts the kind of backstage technology that guides kept describing breathlessly as "state of the art."

The Stevens Center will be the official performing space of the North Carolina School of the Arts, a combined high school and college that has been training actors, dancers, musicians and backstage personnel since 1965. It will also be the residence of the North Carolina Dance Theatre, the Piedmont Opera Theatre and the Winston-Salem Symphony.

"Putting Roger Stevens' name on the building is the statement. He represents all the arts. This is our way of indicating that the arts in Winston-Salem are of national importance," said Hanes.

Hanes was quick to point out that "Roger didn't give a nickel" toward the renovation, although many of Stevens' well-heeled friends did. And it was acknowledged by one observer of the local arts scene that the Stevens name certainly wouldn't hurt when it came to procuring federal funds in the future.

The center is part of an overall effort to revitalize downtown Winston-Salem through the arts. A block away is a renovated textile mill that serves as the headquarters of the Winston-Salem arts council. A pristine urban park with a cascading waterfall will be used for outdoor concerts, as soon as the weather permits.

"We want Winston-Salem to have the same reputation in America that Salzburg does in Europe," said Hanes. It seemed that most people last night thought it already did.

But one practiced onlooker, contemplating the rapid escalation of costs (the center was originally budgeted for $6 million) and hometown ambitions, wondered if it weren't "a case of an anthill trying to support an elephant."

Repeatedly Stevens heard himself decribed as a "shrewd man" and "sometimes crusty, but always wise." The best line belonged to Peck, however. "Roger is a man easily misunderstood," he said. "He mumbles."

Stevens maintained an air of calm throughout the day, and in the afternoon even found time to take his daily constitutional.

"It's marvelous," he said while gazing distractedly at the bronze bust of him that occupies a special niche in the lobby. "I haven't had to lift a finger."