To say that some of last night's performers at the gala for Ford's Theatre played to the crowd -- particularly the front-row center section where President Reagan and his wife Nancy were seated with their party -- would not be unfair.

For example, when Paul Anka crooned "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," he walked down to the front, took Nancy Reagan by the hand and led her to the stage -- she gamely waved goodbye to her husband -- for a whirl around the dance floor. And in the middle of a particularly clever piece of footwork by Lawrence Hamilton, who sang and danced the role of the Mikado last night with other cast members from Ford's production of "Hot Mikado," he looked out and asked, "You like that, Nancy?" (She nodded enthusiastically.)

In addition, rotund comedian Louie Anderson thanked House Speaker Tip O'Neill, sitting with the Reagans, for tips on where to get an extra-large tuxedo. And comedian Freddie Roman, doing a bit on the boredom of retirees in Florida, said, "Mr. President, I implore you, at the end of this term, don't retire. Get another job -- even if it's a part-time job."

*"A Festival at Ford's," to be broadcast on CBS June 25, was truly a festival of moments, with dancers ranging from Cynthia Harvey and Ross Stretton in a pas de deux from "Swan Lake" to Sandy Duncan and Tommy Tune in their own top-hat-and-tap-shoes brand of pas de deux.

* "We started rehearsing this new number Monday," Tune had said at the White House reception the Reagans hosted before the gala. "We're using President and Mrs. Reagan as a tryout audience."

Fernando Bujones danced a solo, "Greek Dances," choreographed by Maurice Be'jart, Metropolitan Opera Company soprano Kathleen Battle sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," country/pop singer Sylvia sang her hit "Nobody." Victor Borge clowned with opera singer Marylyn Mulvey and then did his famous vocal punctuation (every comma, quotation, question mark becomes a sound effect), which so delighted the audience that when the Reagans came on stage at the end, the president said, "By the way, Victor Borge, can I try that with the Congress?" And then he proceeded to imitate Borge. (The audience was in stitches.)

*Joel Grey performed a George M. Cohan medley and, of course, songs from "Cabaret." Magician Lance Burton performed illusions, actors Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith played host.

"Ford's Theatre is a theater set apart," Reagan said. "Seriously, it is a kind of shrine -- one of the rare buildings that put us in touch with our past." With the cast assembled behind him, Reagan went on to tell the moving story of why Ford's is so famous. "Up there in that box, on the evening of Good Friday 1865 . . . " Reagan began as all eyes on stage followed up to the box, now eerily empty and draped in American flags, where President Lincoln and his wife sat the night he was killed by John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln, said Reagan, "loved the theater and nothing would have pleased him more than the performances on this stage."

The event brought Ford's Theatre $527,000. But there was even more money to celebrate over. And Ford's Executive Producer Frankie Hewitt, a magician at raising money, devoted most of the intermission to thanking people who had either contributed or helped raise a newly acquired $1.5 million to build Ford's Endowment Fund. The goal is $5 million by 1988, the 20th anniversary of Ford's reopening; and last year the theater raised $1 million.

* In fact, Ford's acquired the $1.5 million in the nick of time. Less than three weeks ago, Cincinnati businessman Carl Lindner told Hewitt and Mary Jane Wick (chairwoman of the gala and the wife of U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick) that he would donate $500,000 if the fund could raise $1 million by the night of the gala. In a week, it raised $430,000, then called industrialist Armand Hammer for help. He gave $100,000 (as he did last year) and then called his friends for help. "I got it up to $980,000," Hammer said earlier at the White House reception. "When Mrs. Hammer heard me talking about it on the phone, she said, 'Put me down for $20,000.' " The fund will be named in honor of Mary Jane Wick.

sk,3 Ford's has been highly successful at fund raising, though the theater has never been considered, in the eyes of critics, to be an artistic trend setter.

sk,2 "The fact is that Ford's Theatre is a family theater," said Hewitt. "People from all over the world can come here and know they can bring their children to Ford's. We do plays with historic themes, we do musicals, we do black shows. We serve the inner city . . . Ford's is filled with happy people. We don't serve the critics. We serve the people."

Few of the performers last night had ever played Ford's before. "It's one of the most charming theaters I've ever seen," said Chamberlain. "It's exactly the kind of theater an actor wants to play." Chamberlain -- like the other performers -- said he was paid scale for his work last night. "$430," he said. "Which is all right. I've never turned down $430."

*"It's certainly not something you do for money," said cohost Jaclyn Smith. "You do it for history." In addition to her acting work, Smith has branched out into fashion: "Have you see my dress line for K mart? The clothes are really nice." Smith says she herself wears the sportswear.

Mingling at the reception, magician Burton, 26, looking vaguely like James Dean, held up a half-smoked cigarette, ash about to drop off. "Do you have an ashtray?" he asked nonchalantly before sticking the cigarette into the clenched fist of his left hand. He smiled and opened both hands wide. Nothing. Nothing up his sleeve either.