"My mother would die!" said a young man standing next to Helen Hayes for a photograph at a dinner before the Helen Hayes Awards last night.

The point of the evening was to celebrate Washington theater but the Washington-born Hayes proved to be the biggest draw.

In fact, several, such as her son actor James MacArthur Jr., came just because of Helen Hayes.

"I suppose I came because Helen Hayes is my theatrical godmother," said Jose Ferrer at the dinner at the National Press Club. "Everywhere she went when I was a young actor she said, 'You've got to use Jose Ferrer, no matter what the part, you've got to use him' . . . and she's never stopped. To this day she says foolish things about what a great actor I am and I, like a fool, believe her."

White House chief of staff Donald Regan and his wife Ann also showed up at the dinner because of Hayes.

"She's my godmother," Ann Regan said as she and her husband gave Hayes one last smile and prepared to dash off.

The awards ceremony, like all awards ceremonies, went on longer than anyone expected or hoped. The party after at the National Press Club, like any party with hundreds and hundreds of guests hungry from a night at the theater where no candy was sold, revolved around anything edible or drinkable.

Halo Wines, who won the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Production for her role in "Cloud 9," stood in the midst of laughing friends at the postceremony party The Hayes Award, a black triangle, hung around her arm like some new-wave handbag. "Awards are hard because people have to win and people have to lose," she said. "Is it a community or is it a competition? If it is a community where we are congratulating each other, then it's good, and that's what I felt it was tonight."

"This is a dream come true," Hayes had told the audience earlier as she got a standing ovation, "a dream that goes back 75 years when I sat up there and thought I wanted to be here."

From Helen Hayes on down, the more familiar faces came from Washington originally via Hollywood and New York.

"This is the city where I first discovered the theater," said Karen Allen of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Washingtonians who had gone on to other stages and screens included George Grizzard, Karen Akers, Robert Foxworth of "Falcon Crest" and Robert Prosky and Bruce Weitz of "Hill Street Blues." Some said how much things had changed.

"I'm very moved because 10 years ago, you know, it was quite different," Anthony Abeson told the audience. Abeson, who now teaches in New York, was once artistic director of the Washington Theater Laboratory. "Many of the gifted were leaving for that place called New York. The tree now is true because its roots are in its own soil."

Lynda Carter of "Wonder Woman" fame sat with her husband, Washington lawyer Robert Altman, at the dinner and talked about how much she loves Washington.

"She renamed her production company Potomac Productions," Altman said, "which may be some indication."

"I'd very much like to be involved as an actress, to produce some things here," said Carter. But she's in the midst of a summer tour of Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and Reno, so it doesn't look like she'll be appearing in Washington soon.

The ceremony was sort of like a Tony Awards Goes Washington, with lots of razzmatazz music and "I'd like to thank . . . and . . . and . . . and . . ." speeches. One sign that the whole thing was taking place in Washington and not New York was the speech given by teen-age actress Tami Tappan when she received the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Resident Production for her part in "Lydie Breeze."

"I want to thank my mom and dad and brother for all their support," she said, "and driving me to rehearsals. And my friends at school, I guess."

Everyone said the awards will help the Washington theater community. Then they said it again.

"It's a thriving community and it's important for people in it to recognize others are engaged so passionately," said Akers soon after she sang "Unusual Way" from "Nine" for which she was nominated for a Tony Award several years ago.

Weitz agreed but with one qualification.

"It's important to recognize the talent in this city," said the actor, who appeared at Arena Stage for three years. "They deserve an evening -- no more and no less," he said, smiling. "Twice a year would be too much."