Dining at F. Scott's with Sutherland and Streep. Brunching with Bacall. Bantering with Baryshnikov and Beatty, chumming it up with Chuck Heston, caring for Cary Grant, rubbing elbows with Richard Gere, museum-hopping with Richard Chamberlain and soothing Audrey Hepburn's nerves.

The Kennedy Center Honors Gala is once more upon us and several dozen Washingtonians have again volunteered for the hazardous duty of celebrity hand-holding.

In show biz they're known as "drivers" or "escorts" but in ordinary parlance the term might be "gofers." Not surprisingly -- given the threshold of fascination with power and prestige in the nation's capital -- Washington has a flotilla of otherwise well-paid professionals so fascinated with the famous that they would give up an entire weekend to pick up, drop off and dote on the Hollywood contingent who descend on this town in diamond-dripping droves.

"It's the Andy Warhol thing. Everybody wants to be famous for 15 minutes," says Roseanne McAlear, a 33-year-old video specialist with Woodward & Lothrop. "If you can't be famous on your own, it's neat to be around someone who is."

McAlear has been a volunteer driver every year for the past six years. She casually ticks off the names of her charges: "Gregory Peck the first year, Elia Kazan the second. [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green. Jean Stapleton, Richard Chamberlain and Meryl Streep, Perry Como. This year I have Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and his daughter."

McAlear says it's an honor to be chosen as one of the drivers, none of whom gets paid for the job. "It's really classy. And it's neat to meet these people in person. People show up in jewelry you only see pictures of.

"The biggest shock is how nervous they are. I was driving Audrey Hepburn to the airport one year and she was so depressed and nervous. She kept saying how her speech was terrible the night before. I kept telling her it was great. To see a woman of her stature be so insecure is amazing."

The five honorees (this year's winners are Lena Horne, Isaac Stern, Danny Kaye, Gian Carlo Menotti and Arthur Miller) are each assigned a limousine, chauffeur and official escort. The rest of the celebrities are assigned drivers provided with rented Volares and Toyotas, which usually wind up crammed with Louis Vuitton and Gucci luggage. The drivers are expected to meet the celebrities at the airport (usually Friday night or Saturday morning), drop them off at their hotels, pick them up for rehearsals Saturday, ferry them to the Saturday night dinner, chauffeur them to the White House Sunday afternoon and make sure they get to the Kennedy Center on time for Sunday evening's show.

In between, the drivers often fulfill unusual requests. "Jean Stapleton was doing a skit in a baseball suit and I had to rush home and get a pair of my husband's socks for her to wear," says McAlear.

Running on empty or fixing a flat, hunting down tuxedos or tuna fish sandwiches at midnight, the drivers deliver. It's a dirty job, they say, but if they don't do it one of their friends certainly will and get a leg up on the Washington cocktail circuit where the drivers get additional mileage from their experiences.

"I'm sure that's part of it," says McAlear.

There are rules and regulations the drivers must follow: they must be courteous, but not "gushy," according to McAlear. They are not allowed to attend the official functions or go through the receiving lines. They may not invite 40 of their closest friends to crash the Green Room during the gala to rub elbows with the honorees, or slip their family into the Jockey Club for a late-night supper at the star's expense, although it's been done.

"Some people have illusions about it. A number of them the drivers have aspirations to find a break," says one former volunteer. "That some star will take a shine to them. People have this fantasy that the star will say, 'I have an opening. Why don't you come out to Hollywood?' It does happen, but it happens very infrequently."

Sometimes the drivers end up getting closer to the stars than the organizers would like. Two years ago, one former driver became especially friendly with her celebrity. "I wouldn't call it an affair," she said. "More like a one-night stand."

"Of course that can happen," says Adrian Borneman, manager of administration and personnel for the American Film Institute, who has escorted James Cagney and Jerome Robbins. "You're riding around in a car with them all weekend."

"The role of the escort is to be there," says McAlear, who says she does not approve of such behavior. "You're there to help them get around town. A lot of celebrities really depend on you. They want you to tell them what to do and where to go." If the organizers "even hear, second hand, that someone has done something weird, there's always someone else to take their place."

Take the Case of the Chicken Salad Sandwich.

"Two years ago, I was assigned to Julius Rudel director of the New York City Opera Company ," says Bob Cerullo, a fortyish Washington attorney and store owner who said he signed up for the gig as a "giggle."

"He told the organizers to get him a chicken salad sandwich when he was picked up at the airport. I was supposed to pick him up. So I went to the Watergate and spent $15 on gourmet chicken salad and two croissants. I drove to the airport to pick him up and handed him the food. He sort of looked at it, and left it in the back seat. Then he got into another car -- a limo -- and drove off."

The next morning, Cerullo was awakened at 6:30 with a call from one of the organizers. "She was really upset. 'If you're told to get a sandwich, get a sandwich,' she said. I said, 'If you eat them rapidly together, you will get the same effect.' "

Cerullo was ordered to "turn in his keys."

"They thought I was insubordinate," he laughs.

Cerullo says he doesn't understand why well-heeled Washingtonians volunteer for the job. "I don't know what motivates people to do it. Here I am, I have a law practice that generates $1 million a year, I have a store on Connecticut Avenue Uzzolo, a high-tech furniture firm and here I am trying to inveigle myself with some half-weight celebrity. It's very depressing.

"It's hard to get fired from a volunteer job," says Cerullo, still laughing over the incident, "but I managed."

Lisa Parks, director of the American Film Institute theater, voluntarily dropped out of the program several years ago. "I didn't like being a driver. It's a very demeaning position to be put in."

Whatever the motive, most of the the drivers say it's a gas.

"The funniest one was Donald Sutherland," says Toni Lee Aluisi, a 37-year-old marketing coordinator for the Baltimore firm Deloitte, Haskins and Sells. Aluisi, who heard of the program through friends at the American Film Institute, has been a driver for the past four years. Sutherland "was real imposing at first. I started getting real nervous and I couldn't find my way to the State Department. I've lived here all my life and I know where it is, but that night I couldn't find it. I kept saying, 'It's here somewhere.' "

The next day, she drove him to the East Wing of the National Gallery. "I hit the curb and my hubcaps came off. Sutherland got out of the car, down on his knees on the sidewalk and started banging them back in."

The year she escorted flutist James Galway, she greeted him with a nervous, "I hear you live in Swiss."

That year, Aluisi ended up in the Green Room sitting between Jason Robards Jr. and Lauren Bacall, who were once married to each other. "I sat there, just listening. It was fascinating. That was the year Lauren Bacall refused to get into a rental car. She wanted a limo like the honorees had."

The year she was asked to escort dancer Gregory Hines she went to the airport to meet him and forgot his name.

"I kept calling, 'Gary! Gary!' "

A sharp-eyed bystander observed dryly, "He'd probably answer if you called him by his right name."

Says Aluisi with a laugh, "It's fun and it's exciting. But I wouldn't want to make a career of it."

Henry Spiegler, a 35-year-old grant specialist with the National Endowment for the Arts, has done almost that. He has been an escort for the Kennedy Center honors gala since its inception in 1978.

"It's an honor for me to be around them," he says. "And I'm honored that I'm asked every year to do it. There must be 5,000 people who'd like to do it. But it's hard to even recommend people because you don't know how they're going to react. I know when to shut up and when to talk. They feel comfortable with me."

Spiegler has escorted Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes ("we watched the football game together while she was in her bathrobe on the bed"), George Abbott and Frank Sinatra.

"I really didn't want him. They asked me if I would do it, and I wasn't excited about it. You hear all the horror stories. I wasn't looking forward to it. But from the very moment I met him, I was so impressed. He was probably the nicest person of all the honorees I've escorted."

After the gala, Sinatra asked Spiegler to dine with him and his wife Barbara at the Madison Hotel. Spiegler declined the invitation.

"It was a nice gesture, but you have to know your place."

One celebrity Spiegler is happy to avoid is Lauren Bacall. "She's difficult," he says. "If I had to escort her, I'd keep that in the back of my mind and act accordingly."

Roy Karten, 32-year-old photo editor for Washingtonian magazine, did escort Lauren Bacall several years ago and says the experience spoiled him forever.

"She was by far the most elegant. One reason I never did it again is because after her, everybody else would be a lot less interesting."

He says there was only one uncomfortable moment.

"We went out one night to a disco. She insisted I come with her. She had a few drinks and danced up a storm. At one point I suggested it was time to leave. She didn't like that too much."

Spiegler didn't like Julio Iglesias very much either. "I had to escort him one weekend for Bob Hope's 80th birthday gala. That was the worst weekend of my life. He was very temperamental."

"I can't imagine doing it for somebody I didn't want to give up my weekend for," says AFI's Adrian Borneman. "It got hairy with James Cagney because he's a very old man, but he was an absolute pussycat."

Says Roseanne McAlear, "They had to get golf carts from the Congressional Country Club to get the people around one year, they were so old."

The heavy hitters are generally escorted by Washingtonians who will pay the proper respect. Michael Clark, associate film reviewer for USA Today, escorted Cary Grant in 1981. "Saturday night before the State Department dinner, Cary Grant lost his glasses. He said, 'Would you help me look?' We looked around for what seemed to be 10 minutes and all of a sudden he reached in his pocket and pulled them out with this wonderful, Cary Grant look of befuddlement on his face. I thought that was a privileged moment."

"You really have to have a knack for it. It's one whirlwind of a weekend," says Stephanie Bradley, a 29-year-old Washington attorney who has escorted Agnes de Mille and Count Basie, both of whom were confined to wheelchairs. "I guess I specialize in the problem ones." One year, she escorted Benny Goodman. "He was the most active one I had. He could walk."

The drivers, expected to stay on the sidelines, nevertheless have a bird's-eye view of the backstage drama.

The best dresser? "Audrey Hepburn," says Roseanne McAlear. Best male dresser? "Donald Sutherland. Van Johnson always wears red socks and Richard Chamberlain wears a clip-on bow tie."

Best jewelry: "Claudette Colbert."

Nicest? "Perry Como."

She also remembers the night the Four Seasons hotel opened its restaurant at 11 for Richard Gere. She, the actor and his girlfriend were the only diners. "The treatment they get. It's really incredible. Even more amazing is the treatment they get at the White House. The politicians all stand around staring at the movie stars and the movie stars all stand around staring at the politicians."

Not all the celebrities are impressed with Washington.

"Virgil Thomson stayed in his room the whole time reading mystery stories," says Joan Seidel, a 32-year-old George Mason University student who was the composer/critic's driver two years ago. "He also said the wine at the White House tasted like lemonade."

Although many of the bigger stars grudgingly suffer an escort, just as many need their support. McAlear recalls the time she was escorting Gregory Peck through the State Department. "There were so many people there who wanted to talk to him. He whispered for me to take his hand. Then he said if someone approached him who was 'okay', he would press my hand once. If he pressed it twice, it meant, 'Get me out of here.' "

One star who never passes up an opportunity to speak to a fan is Charlton Heston, she says. "He never says 'no' to a fan."

Maggie Fogel, who works with Washington public relations czar Caroline Peachey's firm, has handled the escort assignments for the Kennedy Center for the past several years.

"It's funny how it started. It's sort of built up into a network of people. They have to know the city and have the personality to escort the people graciously."

Several escorts and drivers have been cut from the list for a variety of reasons, but mainly, she says, because "they overstepped their limits at a function and decided to behave as a guest. They were too pushy. When I find someone who starts throwing their weight around, they're not asked back."

When she engages an escort, "I say, 'Do not push yourself on these people.' "

Why would perfectly normal professionals go gaga for one weekend a year?

"They do it for the love of doing it. I know people who take vacation from work. Of course, after you've been dragged through a mill a couple of times you're less likely to want to do it for free." It may sound glamorous, Fogel laughs, "but it's not very glamorous at all."

Says volunteer Roy Karten, "Dammit, it's fun. But it's something you outgrow."

In the meantime, there will be more Washingtonians eager to take the place of the jaded. Fogel says she is amazed by the number and quality of the volunteers.

"Show business is something new to Washington," she explains. "I doubt this would happen in Los Angeles."