Isaac Stern's round, intense face loomed on the movie screen in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Violin tucked under his cheek, he was telling a young Chinese musician not to be afraid to show his feelings. "Do what your heart tells you," he said.

And that one brief glimpse at one Kennedy Center honoree's philosophy seemed to symbolize the individuality and achievements against the odds that marked the careers of all of last night's artistic greats.

It was the night of several thousand stars, as performers from all over joined political and social Washington to celebrate the seventh annual Kennedy Center Honors. This year the prestigious awards for lifetime achievement went to Stern, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, singer Lena Horne, entertainer Danny Kaye and playwright Arthur Miller. Earlier, the five had been saluted at a White House buffet reception given by President and Mrs. Reagan.

There, when the president began talking about Danny Kaye's movie credits, the former actor looked wistful.

"Forgive me, Danny, I can't help wishing I had one or two of those," said Reagan, as the overflow crowd in the East Room laughed appreciatively.

Almost 440 guests shook hands with President and Mrs. Reagan before the speeches. About two dozen celebrities were standing in the back of the room, including Leonard Nimoy, Debbie Allen, Michelle Lee, and Karl Malden, as well as Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens.

Director Frank Capra, after going through the receiving line, recalled his relationship with Reagan. "He organized the Screen Writers Guild at the same time I organized the Screen Directors Guild, so we just traded notes." Capra described the president as "a big hero to me," but he added quickly that Reagan had never worked in one of his movies. "He was not such a hell of a good actor, you know. He's a better president," said Capra.

When playwright Edward Albee moved away from the receiving line, he said he told the president, "Have a great four years." On his own political feelings, Albee said, "As Mr. Mondale said, he's our president, let's get behind him." At that moment Secretary of State George Shultz walked up and congratulated Albee on his toast to Miller Saturday night. Albee then returned to a political question, one about the administration's support for the arts. "Our arts budget keeps going down while this party gets more expensive."

Actor George Segal applauded Reagan's ease in meeting so many people. "He knows how to connect in four seconds," observed Segal. The administration's record on the arts, said Segal, looked good. "Based on this evening, I feel wonderful to be included in all these festivities. I feel good to be an actor."

And then the party moved on to the Kennedy Center.

There, while a white-and-silver-clad couple on towering stilts guided them towards the metal detectors, the entering guests walked past crowds of eager fans. The guests included Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Ethel Kennedy, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his son Teddy and daughter Kara, White House Counselor Edwin Meese, designers Oscar de La Renta and Karl Lagerfeld, Attorney General William French Smith, actors Donald Sutherland and Jeanne Moreau, Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles T. Manatt, White House Chief of Staff James Baker and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, Sens. John Warner (R-Va.), Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), singer Dionne Warwick, NBC's Roger Mudd, CBS' Morley Safer and Lesley Stahl, choreographer Arthur Mitchell and a tuxedoed man wearing a huge papier-ma che' Bob Hope head.

With the audience gathered in the Opera House, the evening's program was one of song and dance saluting the honorees for what emcee Walter Cronkite called "their wit, their gifts and their grace." And their hard work. In the film biographies of both Horne and Stern, the artists appeared in performance with sweat dripping down their faces.

President and Mrs. Reagan, who also attended the gala, sat with the honorees in the Presidential Box. Mrs. Reagan wore a gold and black gown by Oscar de la Renta. The whole evening was taped by CBS television and will be shown during Christmas week. At the gala's beginning, a tape highlighted some of the remarks Reagan had made at the White House earlier.

Every one of the 2,250 seats in the Opera House was taken, and the prices for this most coveted event ranged from $50 for a rear second-tier seat to $1,000 for a front orchestra seat and $2,000 for a box seat -- the latter up $500 over last year. The center hoped to clear $800,000 for its public service and special programs from the evening.

In what may have been this year's most inventive gimmick to encourage financial contribution to a good cause, Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton leaped across the stage and flew through some impressive moves on a set of uneven parallel bars. The point of this, Roger Stevens told the audience, was that the arts are just as important and exciting as sports. "And I hope the country will soon feel that way."

With the presence of humorist Art Buchwald, the mixture of politics and humor was inescapable. "Here I go again," said Buchwald as he started his soliloquy. "Why are we charging a thousand dollars a seat? Like our brave athletes at this summer's Olympics, the Kennedy Center is going for the gold."

The nation's cultural center and it's financial problems did not escape the Buchwald slings. He said the Kennedy Center deficit was "only $2 million or to put it in Pentagon terms only 8,100 coffee pots." In the Presidential Box, the president, Horne and Miller seemed to particularly enjoy the jest.

In the performances the legacies of the honorees were emphasized. Dionne Warwick recalled how her father had taken her to see Horne on her 16th birthday at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "She became my inspiration," said Warwick. When Itzhak Perlman took the podium, he recalled playing for Stern in Tel Aviv when he was 12 years old.

As all looked on, Warwick told Horne, "You were known as a symbol and I know you didn't like that much. I call you our trouble-shooter," referring to Horne's contributions to the civil rights movement. On stage Warwick sang a medley of "Watch What Happens" and "I Want to Be Happy," which Horne acknowledged by reaching her arms out over the audience to much applause.

In the film biography of Horne, her route was documented from her first steps in the Cotton Club to her job as a soloist with the Charlie Barnet orchestra to her historic signing with the MGM studios. When, in a film clip, she leaned back and started singing her signature "Stormy Weather," the audience erupted in applause. But as the biography noted, Hollywood closed as many doors as it opened. For a long time, her voice was only raised to fight injustice in the country, but she made a tremendous comeback in 1981 when she opened her one-woman Broadway show.

Lillian Gish, a past Kennedy Center honoree, recalled her backstage visit to Horne when the singer was in the process of making that show the longest running one-woman show on Broadway. "What magic to hold an audience all alone and to hold them for two hours," said Gish. She also acknowledged Horne as one of the world's most beautiful women.

Ending the segment was a contemporary dance routine, choreographed and performed by Debbie Allen and Otis Sallid. Horne's renditions of "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine" and "From This Moment On" echoed through the Opera House with Horne joining in the laughter and the standing ovation for the dance.

As John Williams conducted and Itzhak Perlman played the violin in honor of Isaac Stern, Stern watched with a proprietary smile on his face and Kaye moved his hands in the motions of a conductor.

"He is a great violinist," Perlman said of Stern. "He is a great musician but more, Isaac Stern is a towering figure. He is an American institution.

"He is a dynamo of applied energy," Perlman continued. "Isaac, you have never rested on your laurels. In fact, you have never rested. You play like an angel, but you are honored tonight for being an angel as well."

Perlman then joined the orchestra in playing Sarasotti's "Carmen Fantasy."

The reviews portraying Stern as a young genius flashed on the screen as the film chronicled Stern's journey from his birthplace in Russia to his childhood in San Francisco and on to his conquering of the New York City music halls in the 1940s. Once Stern's reputation as a premier musician was established, Stern added other passions to his reputation. Almost single-handedly his preservation efforts saved New York's Carnegie Hall from destruction, and he has been a bridge between American culture and the culture of Israel, China and the Soviet Union.

In the tribute to Arthur Miller, the universality and the Americanism of his life and works were stressed. Miller grew up in New York and before he had finished college he was winning awards for his plays. His first Broadway venture, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," failed. But his second attempt, "All My Sons," firmly established him as a significant playwright.

For more than 40 years, especially from the debut of "Death of a Salesman" in 1949, Miller has had many writing and theatrical achievements and has been ranked with Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and the Greek dramatists.

Ying Roucheng, who played Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in a Chinese language production of "Death of a Salesman" in Peking, came out on stage and said, "We were standing in the wings on opening night, not certain what the reaction would be. There was a long, long pause, and then the applause burst forth and grew and grew and grew into a steady roar.

"There I saw the future of mankind. We can communicate not only intellectually, but emotionally. We are one humanity. We laugh at the same jokes. We cry the same tears. And we all love Arthur Miller."

Miller's sister, the actress Joan Copeland, and actors George Segal and Eli Wallach joined in a reading of excerpts from Miller's works ending with "Death of a Salesman."

Tragedy then segued into humor, as Carl Reiner toook the stage and confessed, "As a youngster, I wanted to be Danny Kaye . . . the man is the prime goofball in America."

Kaye, as speaker after speaker and a sustained standing ovation proved, had "made the whole world laugh." But not only his humble beginnings in his first school production as a watermelon seed were chronicled but his long career as a humanitarian. For the past 31 years, Kaye has been UNICEF's ambassador-at-large. In the movies he has played Walter Mitty and Hans Christian Andersen.

Then, as Kaye threw kisses down on the stage, the United Nations international School Junior Chorus, made up of small, extremely cute children, sang a song with the reprise "long live Danny Kaye."

The performance ended with a song diva Roberta Peters directed to Kaye "and you Mr. President." The song was "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Singers filled the aisles and stage and when the song was over, Reagan was the first to jump to his feet and applaud.

One of the themes of the evening was that these giants of culture had all had difficult times getting recognized. In 1946, actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. recalled, he had helped raise money so Menotti's operas "The Medium" and "The Telephone" could be produced on Broadway. Then, said Zimbalist, "One critic castigated us for bringing opera to Broadway." The works ran for seven months, a record at that time for opera.

Menotti, who was born in Italy, has been a resident of the United States since 1927. By 1938, after studying at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Metropolitan Opera was performing his first opera "Amelia Goes to the Ball." His work has become well-known to even the casual music-lover through radio, television and particularly the two festivals he has organized, one in Spoleto, Italy, and its counterpart in Charleston, S.C.

To salute Menotti, members of the Washington Opera Company, conducted by Julius Rudel, performed his classic "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Zimbalist called the Christmas work "the most performed opera in the world."

After the performance, everyone adjourned for dinner in the broad lobby bordering on the Potomac. While the Count Basie Orchestra played swing music in the background, the thousands of guests sat down on formal silver chairs to eat chicken pot pie and rehash the evening. Wandering through the eating crowd were members of the mime troupe Le Cirque. Their costumes ranged from a television anchorman complete with cardboard television set and microphone to something resembling a rabbit gone wild. The reaction ranged from delight to confusion.

Joe Williams, the singer, walked back and forth with his music in a brown briefcase. Barbara Howar stood in a corner interviewing singer Warwick, who said, "Everything went amazingly well."

Fans came in three types: the adoring, the grateful and the adoringly grateful. Among the adoringly grateful was Debbie Allen.

"She has broken ground," Allen said of Horne. "And she has survived her struggles. It has never broken her down. She is still the queen. That's certainly something to respect and for me to be grateful for especially as I break in as a choreographer and as an actress."

Then one of the adoring ones approached Allen for an autograph. "Oh, you're so wonderful," the woman cooed at Allen.

As the evening progressed, a few began to look a little eager for rest.

"It's a large social event," said Miller's sister Copeland. "You go to lunches and stuff, rehearsals. But it's an incredible honor for your big brother to get this. And Danny -- of course, I've played with him. I played his wife in 'Two by Two.' To see them both honored in the same night -- it's a tension-making event, but it's over now and all very exciting. Sometimes it pays to stay alive, if you have the choice."

The shows finale with its international chorus of children lingered most in many minds, including that of choreographer de Mille, who called it "incredibly moving." And honoree Miller, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and actor Ying Roucheng echoed that review.

Everything had gone smoothly, said co-producer George Stevens Jr. "It's hard to go wrong with that talent. The end was magnificent. Perlman has such magic."

Passing a telegram around his table from Mikhail Baryshnikov, Miller was still stoic after all those hours of tributes. "I don't weep in the theater, but it was touching," said Miller. At an adjoining table Roucheng recalled working with Miller. "No, he wasn't easy. It is not good when you have a director who is easy to work with. He was very demanding, but at the same time he was exhilarating."

The evening has become so important to the arts community that Schuyler Chapin for one, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, attended Saturday night's dinner, flew to New York yesterday to attend the wedding of Leonard Bernstein's daughter and got back in time for the show. He had worked with every one of the honorees except Horne. "I wondered how they were going to get across the qualities of Menotti, and they did it so elegantly. He is exactly what he seems to be. He knows English can be the language of opera and he gives accessibility to the text and a combination of words and music that stirs the emotions."

However, one of the evening's secondary enjoyments -- meeting other celebrities -- never stopped. Mary Lou Retton stopped gazing around the room long enough to say, "I met Walter Cronkite, which was a big thrill."