"Last year we had Luciano Pavarotti, you know," guests kept saying. Pavarotti, Pavarotti, Pavarotti . . . They were very proud of that. This year they got Diahann Carroll.

And she charmed the starch right out of their shirts.

Every year the Women's Committee of the Washington Performing Arts Society brings in an entertainer and has a big, fancy formal dinner. The Pavarotti show sold out last year -- about 800 tickets. This year a few more than 500 tickets were sold for Saturday night's show.

"I am not Pavarotti. I'm not Placido," said Diahann Carroll after she had done a few numbers. "You should see how silly they look in four-inch heels. That's how they can hit all those high notes."

Carroll came on before the dessert and sang for more than an hour, including a medley of love songs.

"Everyone has to fall in love. No one is exempt," she told the crowd. ". . . Jimmy fell in love. You remember. He had a brother named Billy. Jimmy fell in love with Rosalynn and they begat Amy. And that was their punishment, you see."

The crowd liked it, but comments like "Oh, that was cold" and "Oh, she's so bad" were heard.

"Now we have Ronnie," Carroll said, "And Ronnie has Nancy. And Nancy said to Ronnie many, many years ago . . . MANY . . . a long time ago, she said, 'I am going to be first lady. You may come along with me if you want.' "

This was when you knew the crowd was becoming hers. Pavarotti or not.

So how was it, anyway, that she was picked as performer this year?

"Because we tried to do something fun, and sparkling, and gay," explained Judith Newton, chairman of the gala, which took place at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. Carroll, according to one WPAS board member, couldn't make the first date they set, so the WPAS changed the date of their event.

"This is fundraising, pure and simple," said Betryce Prosterman, director of the Concerts in Schools program, the beneficiary of the $500-per-couple tickets.

One guest brought a tiny TV and was reportedly watching the Georgetown-St. John's basketball game in one corner of the reception room. She stuck it in her purse after the game, when the dinner of cream of asparagus in puff pastry and cornish game hen started. John Dixon, general manager of the hotel, said he had a room there for the night where he watched the end of the game, missing the reception.

It also didn't seem to matter that some people in the audience, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his wife Jane, who was walking with a cane because of a foot operation, and Mayor Marion Barry don't watch "Dynasty," the ABC nighttime soap in which Carroll appears. Some remembered her from her NBC comedy, "Julia," which ran from 1968 to 1971.

"I remember her from civil rights days in the early '60s," said Barry. "I'm a fan of hers." He said he's never home to see the show. "I don't have a TV in my car so . . ."

"She has a wonderful voice," said Weinberger.

Several of the women at the dinner said they watch the program. Before Carroll came on the stage, the orchestra struck up in full force. Women whispered to their husbands, "That's the theme from 'Dynasty.' "

Carroll joked about her TV career throughout the performance.

"The period of time between 'Julia' and 'Dynasty' has got to be 57 years," she said.

And later in the show, she pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her forehead. Then she looked at the handkerchief.

"Oh no," she said. "This is terrible. The brown is coming off. This is a hell of a time, now that I've just become a Carrington."

She also talked about how she is a saloon singer. Has been all her life. And likes it.

"It's always a strange experience to come into a ballroom. It's not a saloon. But you've transformed this into a Disney World."

For this remark, the black-tie crowd was quiet and Carroll realized it.

"But then, I love Disney World."