If Nancy Reagan doubted the results of that recent Gallup poll -- the one calling her the woman American men would most like to spend an evening with -- she should doubt no longer: Last night's annual Ford's Theatre Gala proved the point.
The first lady, who received a special tribute as the honorary chairman of the theater fundraiser for the last five years, was escorted on stage and led in a special pas de deux by American Ballet Theatre Director Mikhail Baryshnikov, while Oscar-winning songwriter Sammy Cahn serenaded her with his new lyrics for Cy Coleman's "Real Live Girl." For good measure, there was "Miami Vice" star Don Johnson standing off to the side, beaming admiringly.
Mrs. Reagan, dressed in an orange and white polka-dot gown with layered ruffles, smiled gaily as Baryshnikov gazed into her eyes. And she tossed her head back in a mock swoon when the ballet star held her close and guided her through a fancy maneuver.
"I'm very appreciative," she told the crowd when Johnson presented her with the Lincoln/Ford's Theatre Medal. "Although I feel a little guilty about getting an award ... for doing something I've enjoyed as much as I have.
"I don't think you can come in here without feeling a certain something," Mrs. Reagan continued. "When you look up there at this box," she said, gesturing to the balcony box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, "you have to feel a certain tummy freeze." She patted her stomach to emphasize the point.
Sitting front row center was President Reagan, who was joined by House Speaker Jim Wright and his wife Betty, USIA Director Charles Z. Wick and his wife Mary Jane, former House speaker Tip O'Neill and his wife Millie, former senator Paul Laxalt and his wife Carol, and Ford's Executive Producer Frankie Hewitt.
The black-tie affair, which was emceed by actress Bea Arthur and raised about $500,000 for the theater's production fund, included performances by singers Glen Campbell, Cab Calloway and Maureen McGovern, magician David Copperfield, ABT principal dancers Alessandra Ferri and Kevin McKenzie, jazz musician David Sanborn and comedians Norm Crosby and Bob Nelson.
Nelson in particular got a rise out of the president. The comedian, who mimicked football players of varying backgrounds as they introduced themselves in front of the microphone, went into a lisp for one of his characters. "I'm from the University of San Francisco ..." he began. The joke prompted Reagan to double over with laughter and look down the row at Laxalt.
Sammy Cahn, singing a medley of songs he wrote for Frank Sinatra, encouraged the audience to respond with the words "Chicago is" when he sang the cue "My Kind of Town," and the Reagans and the other luminaries gamely cooperated. For the most part, though, the less than full house of about 500 sat through the early part of the evening rather stiffly, offering little more than polite applause.
But the second act seemed to revive the audience.
Copperfield began by announcing a trick called "On the Edge" -- a mystifying routine in which he lay flat above the stage, seeming to rest only on the blunt point of a sword that was balanced on a mirrored ball. Two of Copperfield's assistants proceeded to twirl him around while the tip of the sword appeared to rise out of the middle of his torso.
Unexpected entertainment came from a well-dressed group of stagehands and producers who attempted to clean up after Copperfield's act in preparation for the next -- dancers Ferri and McKenzie in a pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet."
A fine spray of oil had covered the stage during Copperfield's balancing illusion. One stagehand took a mop to it only to worsen the condition of the floor. At the height of the clean-up drama -- and to the delight of the front row -- there were 10 men down on their hands and knees, frantically pouring out Formula 409 and wiping the floor with white rags.
After the dancing, the guests gave themselves over to riotous laughter. Bea Arthur assumed a Sophie Tucker pose and sang "You've Got to Be Loved to Be Healthy." Comedian Crosby had the Reagans, the Wicks and the O'Neills rocking in their seats as he mocked the language of official Washington and took up the favorite subjects of the day, including Gary Hart, Donna Rice and the Bakkers. When Calloway reached the stage, he found an audience clapping steadily and ready to sing along with "Minnie the Moocher": "Hi de hi de hi, Hi de hi de ho ..."
Last to entertain was the president himself, cracking jokes, telling stories and playing to cameras. "I didn't know I was going to be called upon," he said, "so I prepared."
But he was happy to be up on stage. "It is a pleasure," he said, "especially now that I know I'm with the hottest date around."
During a postgala buffet at the Organization of American States, theater supporters and celebrities crowded the dance floor to bop to "Johhny B. Goode." But not Maureen McGovern. "My feet are killing me. I've been in high heels all day," explained the singer, whose legs were propped up on nearby chair. The high heels had been replaced with (presumably more comfortable) plastic-fruit-adorned footwear. "These are my Carmen Miranda shoes," McGovern said with a laugh.
David Copperfield had made his jacket disappear somewhere between theater and party. "This is my presidents week," he said, noting that "two days ago I was with the president of Mexico." Then he whipped out a billfold that contained a badge and an I.D. "I'm now a police officer in Mexico," he chuckled.
Cab Calloway, dining near the fountain in the building's atrium, reviewed the Washington audience: "Very good," he said. "Very, very, very good."
The Reagans and the O'Neills passed on the dinner, but the Wrights, the Wicks and the Laxalts were there. "Norm Crosby used to be one of my favorite comedians in Las Vegas when I was governor of Nevada," said Laxalt. "He was operating on all cylinders tonight. He was fantastic."
Crosby was pleased with the response. "The president and Mrs. Reagan were a fantastic audience. They laughed at everything ... Nancy said I ruined her eyes," he said, miming running mascara.
Passersby agreed: "You were wonderful" ... "You were so great" ... "I've seen you 112 years. You're unbelievable," they told the comedian.
"That's been happening to me all night," said Crosby. "I should come here again."
Earlier in the day, for a few hours, the White House had opened its doors as part of the weekend-long "Festival at Ford's." More than 200 top-dollar patrons found themselves waiting in the East Room for a handshake with the First Couple, nibbling on lobster tarts and fried cheese squares and nabbing autographs from the performers in town for the show.
Don Johnson scrawled out his name on a few pieces of paper -- but not so many that he didn't have a chance to wander around and reminisce.
Pointing out the dance floor in the North Portico, Johnson said, "The last time I was at the White House, Patti and I danced here -- the band wasn't as big." That's Patti D'Arbanville, he explained, "the mother of my child."
Then, accounting for his absence from the show's afternoon rehearsal, Johnson said, "The door of the airplane flew open, and we had to make an emergency landing" in St. Louis. He seemed unfazed by the incident. "I was asleep," he said. "I woke up, but went right back to sleep. The door just broke its seal -- and came open a small way."
Copperfield and his friend Dawn Swathick were observed peering studiously through a large arrangement of pink peonies and snapdragons.
"We're reading a prayer," the magician said, pointing at an engraved marble fireplace. "A prayer by John Adams."
With a little assistance from a waiter, the words revealed themselves to Copperfield: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof."
Ticket prices for the fundraiser began at $1,000 a couple, good for last night's show and OAS dinner-dance. Couples paying $5,000 enjoyed a Saturday night reception for the stars in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, as well as the preperformance White House reception.
The show was taped for future broadcast, but theater officials have yet to finalize an air date and network contract.