Smoke rich with the smell of barbecuing chicken and simmering chili billowed toward the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. A man who looked suspiciously like "Rifleman" star Chuck Connors mounted a glistening horse and galloped off across the grass of the soccer field. Women with feathers in their hair and ribbons on their frilly dresses posed in front of a stagecoach.

And wary tourists, wondering perhaps if this was a routine Washington occurrence, stood at a distance Saturday night and stared as the American Film Institute's "Once Upon a Time in the West" fundraiser rolled on.

"I think it's great AFI would go to a western theme," said the man who actually was Chuck Connors. "The West is a part of the American culture and tradition. The Irish have their leprechauns. The West is the American fairy tale. It's the pure distillation of good and evil.

"That may be corny, but you know what people mean when they say, 'He's corny?' They mean he's like the corn 'that's as high as an elephant's eye.' Corn is the staple of this country."

And so it went throughout the night.

There was one Cabinet cowboy: Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, scheduled to compete in a rodeo the next morning and wearing a fringed leather jacket that looked mighty authentic.

There were many California cowhands: Nancy Reagan's pal Betsy Bloomingdale in black flounces and heavy gold jewelry, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick in corduroy, former attorney general William French Smith in khakis and his wife Jean in well-starched denim.

And there were a few men who would be cowboys.

"This is when you really get to play cowboy," said Mike Jennings, a horse auctioneer from Leesburg, who provided some of the mounts. "Especially when you get to ride with Chuck Connors and Secretary Baldrige. This is the kind of thing you dream about as a kid."

The Search for a Grand Concept is one of the constant preoccupations of the people who spend their time organizing one charity event after another.

"We wanted to do something different," said dinner coordinator Ann Hand. "There are so many black-tie events."

So AFI got three film studios to donate $150,000 worth of props, including the stagecoach, two dozen costumes, a 60-foot bar and a painting of a nude woman to go above it, and a bunch of chandeliers to hang in the tent. AFI also brought in actors Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty from "Gunsmoke"), Robert Stack, Danny Glover (who appeared in "Places in the Heart" and in "Silverado," a new western coming out this summer) and Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes on "Dallas").

The 500 guests, who had paid $200 apiece, were each given silver sheriff's badges and were then entertained by a can-can troupe, a barroom brawl during dinner and a strolling woman with a basket of Handi-Wipes in case the barbecue got out of control.

"I have a lot of hair, but this is two falls in addition to it," said Cece Zorinsky, wife of Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), fiddling with the blond ringlets cascading down her neck. "It was so embarrassing walking down the street. The man who works at the salon said, 'There are women in Tennessee, in Little Rock, who wear their hair like this all the time.' "

Cece Zorinsky and Nancy Rosebush, wife of Nancy Reagan's chief of staff James Rosebush, who was in Europe with the first lady, were both wrapped in snug dance hall dresses provided by Warner Bros.

"Her husband is with the pope and look at her!" said hairdresser Robin Weir as he greeted Nancy Rosebush, who was awash in curls and feathers. Weir had spent the day teasing and curling and lending western jewelry.

"The hair is for sale!" he shouted over the country-western music. "The jewelry is for sale!"

With this summer's release of Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" and "Silverado," the western will be making its first appearance in years. For the last couple of decades, no one, it seemed, was interested in riding off into the sunset.

"I don't think they'll come back, not in the sense we had them before," said Glover. "They became part of the country's spirit, the kind of spirit you needed in 1936 to deal with the Depression. Some movies now -- 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' space-age westerns -- have the same spirit."

But Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti wasn't so sure the new westerns would be unlike the old.

"I tell you, this is a harbinger of things to come," he said. "If Eastwood's movie is a success, the western will have risen again. People want to feel good about themselves. The western is constantly retelling the old legends -- it makes us feel good. There was a time when a man either survived or he didn't on his own character and his own resolve, and people want to see that again."

People like Baldrige.

"Some of them are glamorized and overdone, but essentially they're truthful because that's the way present-day ranchers and cowboys are," the commerce secretary said. "The ideas of self-reliance are just as important now as they were then.

"I haven't seen a movie since John Wayne's last movie, so I hope it comes back."