Though the artistry of every honoree was praised by glittering celebrities at last night's Kennedy Center Honors gala, no one had as many tributes as the combined team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

In honor of these two, whose collaborations began in 1942 and continued for more than a quarter century, they could have sung, sung, sung all night.

Robert Goulet warbled "If Ever I Would Leave You" ("Camelot"). Anthony Newley pranced around the stage singing "With a Little Bit of Luck" ("My Fair Lady"). Maureen Stapleton and Don Ameche shared a delightful duet, "I Remember It Well" ("Brigadoon"). Michele Lee sang "Almost Like Being in Love" ("Brigadoon"). And Liz Robertson, actress and Lerner's wife number eight, sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" ("My Fair Lady" again).

As has become tradition, it was a night when the Kennedy Center tried to match the reputations of those it honored with the size of the spectacle it offered on stage.

For Lerner, 67, and Loewe, 84, there was a host of singers. For Bob Hope, 82, there were military choirs singing "Thanks for the Memories," with veterans from every conflict since World War II recalling Hope's USO tour shows.

And if the reputation couldn't be matched with spectacle, it was matched with emotion, such as when Mikhail Baryshnikov talked about choreographer Merce Cunningham, 66. "At first I did not understand his work," Baryshnikov told the audience. "Now I am a wild fan."

Or when Carol Burnett said of friend Beverly Sills, 56, "If she couldn't sing a note, she'd still be a star."

Or when opera singer Frederica von Stade sang "Only Make Believe" in honor of Irene Dunne, 80, who was too sick to be there. It was the first time a Kennedy Center honoree didn't make the show.

Dunne began her career on Broadway in such productions as "Show Boat" and "Irene," and went on to star in 36 movies, including "Anna and the King of Siam," "The Awful Truth," "Cimarron" and "I Remember Mama."

According to Honors coproducer George Stevens Jr., Dunne had been suffering from a bad back and a sick stomach because of the medicine she takes for the back pain.

In the weekend of festivities surrounding the Honors, she had been able to make only one appearance, at the awards ceremony Saturday night. Stevens said he spoke to a friend in her hotel suite at 10 minutes to 7 yesterday, still hoping she'd be able to make the 8 p.m. curtain.

Actor Jimmy Stewart said he had talked to Dunne on Saturday. "I know how excited she was about being here," he said. "But it wasn't to be."

But her tribute went on. Said Stewart of her screen persona: "She could sass back, she could soft-shoe, she could sashay, and boy could she sing."

The other five honorees watched the proceedings from the President's Box, with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, George and Helena Shultz and other luminaries. As each was honored, each stood to acknowledge the tribute. All received standing ovations.

In addition to all the singing for Lerner and Loewe, there was talk. Rex Harrison recalled meeting with the two in London, "all sitting around an upright piano," as the song-writing team put Harrison through what the actor ruefully called "a sophisticated audition" for "My Fair Lady."

"I had four or five notes they could use," said Harrison, who will open at the Kennedy Center tomorrow in "Aren't We All?" with Claudette Colbert. "They produced a song embracing just those four or five notes and it was called 'I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face.' "

Louis Jourdan, who came to fame in Lerner and Loewe's "Gigi," saluted the duo's "perfect marriage" of words and music. And a pair of Clydesdale horses kicked off the musical medley by pulling on stage a wagonful of singers to sing "Paint Your Wagon."

Burnett, who introduced herself to Sills 10 years ago by calling her on the phone and asking if she wanted to do a two-person show, called Sills "the matchless diva of our day."

Burnett narrated the brief film on Sills that was part of the show, noting that Sills had auditioned for the New York City Opera -- which she now directs -- seven times and was rejected each time. " 'Great voice,' they said, 'but no personality,' " Burnett recalled. Then, as a picture of a young, sultry, voluptuous Sills flashed on screen, Burnett said that the eighth time, Sills said, "I made sure they saw my personality."

Members of Cunningham's company danced in his honor, and Baryshnikov narrated the choreographer's life story. "The elegance, simplicity and force of his work is unique," said Baryshnikov.

In one of the more unusual tributes, Chevy Chase stumbled onto the stage and made his way to the podium to praise Hope. "Very sorry," Chase said about his entrance. "Wrong president." The audience laughed. "Where I come from people don't usually laugh when a person hurts himself, but in Washington, D.C. . . ."

Chase noted, "Tonight I've been given the honor of honoring a person who's been a major influence in my life," then went on to say he mistakenly thought he himself was getting the honor. "Over the phone they said they were honored to have me . . . "

Chase said his generation of new comics had been told that "Bob Hope was a cold, inaccessible man, a stand-up comic whose lines were always written by others . . ." And somewhere in there, Chase interrupted himself to ask, "Is my fly open?"

But he added about Hope, "I find him to be one of the nicest and kindest and sweetest men I've ever met. I've stolen much of his work, and by now I'm sure he knows it."

One of the more dazzling moments of the show had little to do with the honorees. It was a rendition of the tango by Gloria and Rodolfo Dinzel from the New York show "Tango Argenteno."

Watching from the audience were other stars. Television actor Emmanuel Lewis, who is about as tall as the armrests on the opera house chairs, took pictures of the honorees. Sitting together were cast members of American National Theater's production of "A Seagull" -- Colleen Dewhurst, Paul Winfield and Kelly McGillis. "We're a little bit tense," Dewhurst chuckled about the play, which opens next weekend. "It's called not being sure where you are."

At the conclusion of the tributes, Walter Cronkite, the evening's master of ceremonies, took center stage and addressed the honorees: "You have graced our stages, you have graced our lives, and you have graced our history."

After the show, there was dinner for 1,749 at round tables covered in red in the Grand Foyer. During dessert, the Count Basie Orchestra started to play and guests took to the dance floor. Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade danced to the jazzy beat near members of Cunningham's dance company.

Meanwhile, at a nearby table, a man who called himself Rainbow Heart was putting eye makeup on Brooke Shields. For the finishing touch, he added a rhinestone by the corner of her eye.

"Oh, my goodness. I love that," said Shields. "I'd put it in my bellybutton, but I'm wearing a dress."

The famous wandered in search of each other. Opera singer Sherrill Milnes, in search of Chase for an autograph for Milnes' 13-year-old son, said, "Children of famous parents don't consider their parents famous. But they like it because their parents know really famous people."

The military salute wasn't the first time Hope's signature song had been used during the weekend of festivities surrounding the Honors. "It seems fitting that a president should stand in this room rich in history and say on behalf of a grateful nation, 'Thanks for the memories,' " President Reagan had told Hope earlier in the evening at a White House reception for the six artists whose lifetimes of achievement had brought them the honors.

The tribute was, of course, the perfect one for Hope. But it suited the occasion and the other artists being honored as well.

It was a night full of memories for the six and the guests who came to pay tribute to them.

For guest Rex Harrison, there were memories of Lerner and Loewe's songs from "My Fair Lady." Lerner himself called the weekend and the memories it evoked "overwhelming."

"It will probably take me months to digest all of this. It's the first time I have looked back over my life happily," he said.

For Hope, standing in the foyer of the White House, not far away from a sumptuous buffet, an orchestra and resplendent Christmas tree, the reception brought back memories of preparing to receive an earlier award. "I stood in a room here all by myself," he said soberly, "while President Kennedy was setting up the scene to give me the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rose Garden. I was standing in that room thinking about being in Chicago in 1928 starving and not getting any work."

Swirling through the White House rooms was the mix of political and Hollywood stars who have made the Kennedy Center Honors gala a prime social event for both spheres.

You could find Brooke Shields with her mother Teri not far from White House chief of staff Donald Regan and his wife Ann. Plus dancers Jacques D'Amboise, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade; actors Kirk Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Helen Hayes and Jane Alexander; playwright Edward Albee; Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and his wife Catherine; Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) and his wife Adeline.

Actor Van Johnson grandly entered the White House reception by opening his black tuxedo jacket to the assembled cameras and showing off a red lining that matched his red socks. "Welcome to Poverty Row," Johnson said obliquely.

Larry Hagman, better known as J.R. Ewing, nodded to the members of the media as he walked by and said quietly, "How are y'all tonight?" When Chevy Chase walked through with his wife, flashbulbs popped everywhere. "Look at the cameras, honey," Chase deadpanned.

Standing at the edge of a crowded room, watching his friend Cunningham honored, artist Jasper Johns said of the event, "It's pleasant so far."

Of course, American National Theater director Peter Sellars, in black tie and kimono, who is never at a loss for words, laughed and said, "Having a wild time." He shrugged. "Only way to live," he said.

Reagan, toasting all of the artists, said, "You have made our souls soar."

He called Cunningham "one of the dance world's few active revolutionaries."

He said of Dunne, "In Hollywood they were so struck by her acting talents and comic gifts that they forgot she could sing."

Reagan said that "Bob Hope is that much overused phrase -- he is truly a national treasure."

Of Lerner and Loewe, the president said, "Their shows were hits and their songs were legends . . . thank heaven for Lerner and Loewe, thank heaven for them both. No matter where, no matter who, without them, what would music lovers do."

And he ended his tribute to Sills, whose voice he called "magnificent," by saying, "Beverly Sills is hot stuff."

To kick off the weekend, Secretary of State Shultz hosted a black-tie dinner in the diplomatic rooms of the State Department Saturday night. As Shultz stood in a receiving line to give his greetings, the queue of guests quickly backed up, resulting in a bottleneck of the rich and famous.

Politely cooling their heels in line were Mikhail Baryshnikov and, farther back, Larry Hagman, who was wearing rose-tinted glasses and carrying a gold-handled walking stick. "I have so many beautiful women who throw their bodies at me, I have to carry a stick," he explained in the Texas twang that has become known worldwide as that of J.R. Ewing, a persona of which he says he has yet to tire. "Not for another two decades, my dear," he said.

Baryshnikov, scheduled to introduce Merce Cunningham, shrugged off the frosty reviews of "White Nights," the new movie he's in. "I'm not a movie critic," he said of the reviews, which do treat Baryshnikov favorably. "Life is going on." Glancing back at the line, he caught the eye of opera singer Leontyne Price, a former honoree. He bowed deeply, darted over to Price and kissed her.

George Stevens Jr., a coproducer of the Honors gala and cochairman of the American Film Institute, wandered among the guests, chatting and making introductions. "Edward Albee, this is Don Ameche," Stevens said, introducing playwright to actor.

"I'll never forget the evening I saw 'Virginia Woolf,' " Ameche said with awe to Albee about his play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "Wow! What a thrilling evening it was for me."

Meanwhile, Brooke Shields, in black velvet and green taffeta, had singled out John Denver for a chat. Joseph Califano, former secretary of what was once Health, Education and Welfare, looked on. "She did a poster for us with cigarettes in her ears," he said, referring to an antismoking campaign advertisement. "I wonder if she remembers." (She did.)

Shields -- who was accompanied by her mother Teri -- is a junior at Princeton majoring in French literature. Her junior paper is due next week and here she was attending the Honors festivities.How does she do it all? "I really don't make too many professional appearances," she said. "I've been working considerably less than I used to . . . I have a reputation in school for spending most of my time in the library."

Shields is 20 now. "Still not old enough to drink in New York," her mother noted.

Nearby was actress and singer Michele Lee, who would sing "Almost Like Being in Love" at the gala as a tribute to Lerner and Loewe. "When they played me the orchestration, I became very emotional," she said of the Saturday afternoon rehearsal. "I just imagined myself singing for the president and Lerner and Loewe and I got very teary-eyed."

Lee, one of the stars of television's nighttime soap "Knots Landing," said she's always besieged by questions about the show. On the plane from California, she said, everyone asked her if her television husband is having an affair. "All the stewardesses wanted to know," said Lee, who was accompanied by her boyfriend, Fred Rappoport, vice president of specials for CBS, which will broadcast the two-hour Kennedy Center gala Dec. 27.

"I used to watch 'Hill Street Blues,' " Rappoport said of the NBC show that's opposite Lee's show. "Then you fall in love. What do you do?"

Also on hand from television land was actor Ken Howard, who's now on the new "Dynasty II: The Colbys." "It's great," he said of the show. "I get to play golf all the time. I only have to work a couple of days a week."

And how did all this glitz affect Secretary Shultz? "Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Beverly Sills, oh, it's fantastic," said Shultz, rarely known as a live wire at parties, in his usual reticent conversational tone.

After the receiving, Shultz mingled with his guests, political and artistic. "WHERE'S YOUR RED CUMMERBUND?" asked Carol Burnett, pointing a finger directly at Shultz's middle. Shultz just grinned and mumbled an answer. Later, he chatted up Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) for quite a while, but afterward refused to divulge the topic. "Go ask him," Shultz grumbled.

But the after-dinner moment really belonged to the artists who delivered toasts to the honorees.

"Modern dance in America is so young . . . that its pioneers are still working," Albee said of Cunningham. Albee said Cunningham and Martha Graham "took us by the mind and gut" and changed our perceptions of dance "the same way that we didn't know trees were blue until Ce'zanne showed us."

Stewart, in his words of introduction for each honoree, called Hope "the immigrant who became an original."

And in toasting Alan Jay Lerner, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. said, "Is there present a man who hasn't said to himself, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?' . . . What woman here hasn't been so grandly ecstatic that she could have danced all night? . . . In this temple of government where we sit, who has been able to legislate a limit to snow or to the rain which must not fall before sunfall . . . and who could have forgot that once there was a spot called Camelot?"

And of Irene Dunne, who arrived Saturday night with a stomach illness and spent most of dinner lying down in a reception room, Roddy McDowall said that when he first saw her in the film "Roberta," "she changed my life forever."

With come assistance, Dunne managed to stand for the roomful of guests -- already standing in ovation -- who broke into cheers and whistles for her.

Afterward, the honorees posed for cameras in a reception room as other guests filed by. Brooke Shields and her mother, who was holding a small camera, giggled. Teri Shields sheepishly whispered something to Kennedy. He immediately took the camera, fiddled with it and strode over to the group of photographers taking pictures of the honorees. "ONE MORE," the senator boomed, holding up the camera and snapping a picture. Then he strode over to Brooke and Teri and handed them their camera.

"Hope it comes out," he said, laughing.

At brunch yesterday morning, there was Brooke Shields, being waved to by Jimmy Stewart. And Hagman, being blown a kiss by Burnett. And Sills, being embraced by Barbara Walters.

"Too bad nobody comes to Coleman's parties," said Ann Landers.

Nobody but Chevy Chase, Ameche, Sid Caesar, Fairbanks, Goulet, Florence Henderson and Anthony Newley, to name a sampling among the jampacked party. John Coleman, owner of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, was cohost of the mini-lamb-chop and egg Florentine brunch, along with George Stevens Jr. and his gala coproducer, Nick Vanoff.

"The food is delicious, but it's so crowded that if the food fell off the plate, it would never hit the floor," Chase said as he elbowed his way out.

"This is ridiculous," said Michael Deaver, former White House aide, as he tried to juggle two full plates of food through the crowd. Most of the 200 or so guests dropped by for a bite or a Bloody Mary before resting up for the Big Event.

Hagman came with the cane again, and what looked like two small black saddlebags thrown over his shoulder. Asked what was in them, he replied "money" and whipped out a piece of play money with $1,000 stamped on the front over a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat.

"Spend it wisely, my dear," he said, and walked on, emptying his bags as he moved through the crowd.

Having fun in the back room was McDowall, who was taking snapshots of Brooke and Teri Shields.

"I'm a shutterbug," he said by way of explanation.

In the front room, Kirk Douglas bumped into CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl, turned to his wife and said, "This is Diane Sawyer." Then, in jest or apology, he kissed Stahl's hand.

Near them, Walters was making her way through the crowd with her fiance, Merv Adelson. She bumped into honoree Sills.

Said Sills: "This is a lovely dress. Who is it?"

Replied Walters: "Bill Blass."

Asked who would be the the one person among all the celebrities she would most like to interview this weekend, Walters said, "The president."

Another honoree, Lerner, described the weekend so far as "splendid. There's nothing comparable to this." He had flown in from London and said he spent Saturday with former partner and fellow honoree Loewe.

Comedian Caesar, between bites of brunch, judged the party "glorious." And then in a burst of patriotic fervor, he gushed: "It's the only time you can be one-on-one. It's a rare feeling. If you can't enjoy this, my God, don't vote for anybody."

On the other side of the room, actor Jose Ferrer boomed out a greeting ("My fellow Princetonian!") to Brooke Shields, who had just finished being interviewed for an Italian television show.

*Shields, who wore a white suit, was soon corraled at the bar to pose with a bartender who was dying to get a picture of himself with her. She said that unlike many college students, she didn't have to study for exams this weekend because Princeton's tests are not until after Christmas.

"And I've done all my homework for next week, anyway," she said. She didn't mention her junior paper.