The Nicholas Brothers tap-danced a love letter on the Opera House stage to Sammy Davis Jr. Jimmy Stewart, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy read what amounted to a love letter to Bette Davis. And Pinchas Zukerman and Midori played out their love for Nathan Milstein on violin and viola.

It was a night filled with affectionate and devoted offerings of words and performances to the five Kennedy Center honorees. Celestial references abounded. Said Lucille Ball, an honoree last year herself, of Sammy Davis, Jr. "when God was giving out talent Sammy was first in line."

Violinist Zukerman, in his remarks about Milstein, said, "Nathan Milstein has taken our hand and walked us through heaven."

But then actress Angela Lansbury brought it back to earth when she quoted Bette Davis saying, "I did something no actress dared to do -- not to be loved."

President and Mrs. Reagan kicked off the evening for the two Davises, Milstein and the other honorees, singer Perry Como and choreographer Alwin Nikolais. It was the annual dazzling affair.

Standing in the foyer of the White House earlier, while most of presummit Washington paraded past him in black tie and glitter, Como, the one-time apprentice barber from Canonsburg, Pa., acknowledged a touch of awe.

"I mean if you're not impressed in here," said the 75-year-old singer, "something's wrong."

The festivities began Saturday night with a dinner at the State Department given by Secretary of State George Shultz and stretched though a seated postgala dinner for 1,600 in the Kennedy Center foyer with music by the Count Basie Orchestra.

"Hectic, wonderful, surprising," said Sammy Davis Jr. of the weekend's events. "It's very kind of strange -- seeing all these people you know, it has a kind of nostalgia. But you know you ain't been here like this before."

Reagan praised the honorees for having "given us joy," and added: "How many millions have you entertained, inspired, provoked! ... How many precious moments have you given us."

Fond as always of recalling his acting days, the president had special greetings for his former colleagues from Hollywood. "The name Bette Davis conjures up classic after classic," he said, and as he named them he noted, "I saved till last 'Dark Victory' because I was in it with her."

Extolling Sammy Davis Jr., the president exclaimed: "What talent, what energy and, despite everything, what joy ... It hasn't been an easy life -- in the early years, especially, there was bigotry and hatred, but you fight with the weapons God gave you."

Reagan praised the "brilliant and effortless technique" of Milstein, "one of the greatest musicians of his time." "

Nikolais' choreography, the president said, "has given the American dream new expression," and "through television the voice of Perry Como became one of the best loved in America."

Como was a sentimental favorite of the gala crowd, who formed a Who's Who of the entertainment world in New York and Hollywood.

Singers Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone sang a medley of old Como standbys, including "Its Impossible," "Till the End of Time" and "Prisoner of Love."

Damone recalled the encouragment he received from Como in the 1940s, when Como was already a star and Damone was working as an elevator operator in a New York theater. After listening patiently to an impromptu audition in the elevator, Damone said, Como set up an genuine audition for him with a band. He didn't get the job then, Damone said, but "43 years later there he is and here I am and thank God for elevators."

It was a night when dancers seemed particularly to capivate the crowd of 2,000. The Nikolais Dance Theater received a standing ovation for a stunning number called "Tensile Involvement" in which dancers wove ceiling-hung streamers into geometric patterns. The choreography bore out producer Joseph Papp's description of the 77-year-old Nikolais as a man "engaged in multimedia before the term was coined."

Also receiving standing applause was the powerfully athletic dancing of Bolshoi ballet stars Lyudmila Semenyaka and Irek Mukhamedov and an ancient film clip of Sammy Davis Jr., already a tap star at the age of 5.

One of the evenings's most lavish tributes was to the Man Who Wasn't There, composer Irving Berlin, now approaching his 100th birthday. The Kennedy Center Honors committee has always wanted to honor the dean of American popular music, but he's always felt too frail to attend the gala. In his absense, a phalanx of singers that included Carroll, Damone, Rosemary Clooney, Joe Williams and Ray Charles sang a medley of Berlin hits ranging from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "White Christmas," and concluding with Berlin's best-known anthem, "God Bless America."

Many of the guests at the gala and the White House had come for personal as well as professional reasons.

Actress Angie Dickinson said she had worked twice with Como on his Christmas Specials and decided "it's not good to have Christmas without Perry Como, so I had to come to Washington."

"It's a thrill," said film director David Lynch, who came with actress Isabella Rossellini, his star in "Blue Velvet." "It's a lot different from Hollywood." Lynch and Rossellini, both sporting similarly slicked-back short hair, stood in the White House receiving line for the president with actress Michele Lee and her husband, CBS executive Fred Rappaport.

Lynch and Rossellini are "hopefully in January" starting a new movie, "Ronnie Rocket." And are they dating?

"Are we dating? You answer," Rossellini said.

"Maybe," Michele Lee offered helpfully.

"Maybe," Rossellini echoed, fiddling with the long string of pearls around her neck.

"That's what they used to ask us," said Rappaport. "Then we got married."

Other sightings: Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, violinist Pinchas Zukerman and actress Tuesday Weld, and television personality Maria Shriver without husband Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Few people appeared to be talking about the summit, close as it actually is. "That's what I've been doing all day long and I've come here tonight to not talk about the summit," said national security adviser Lt. Gen. Colin Powell with a laugh.

Sammy Davis said he had no plans to talk to Reagan about it. "We went through the {receiving} line. That's it, ain't it?" he said.

"I know it starts tomorrow," said Perry Como.

However, Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem is part of the cultural exchange program planned with the Soviets. "We signed our contract," he said of his company, which will tour three Russian cities next May and June. And Mitchell will be back at the White House on Wednesday for a lunch that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is attending.

And George Stevens Jr., producer of this event, had coincidentally signed up two Bolshoi dancers to be part of the Honors Gala. Stevens had asked them to dance at the Honors several months ago when the Bolshoi was in town. "We asked them in the summer," he said, "gambling that the timing might be terrific."

By the time Stevens, Joe Williams, Jimmy Stewart and Lucille Ball arrived at the State Department Saturday night, there was already an undercurrent among the crowd of security personnel, reporters, photographers and onlookers. But when Sammy Davis Jr. entered there was an explosion of flashbulbs, and even a chorus of greetings from a State Department night crew looking down from a balcony above the lobby.

"I don't think anyone is ever prepared for a moment like this," Davis said later upstairs in the Adams Room after passing through the receiving line. "You anticipate the moment and think about what you're going to say and then you get up there to say it and you feel like an idiot. But a marvelous idiot!"

Nikolais was "in seventh heaven. I'm in seventy-seventh heaven; I was 77 two days ago. It's a great thing and I wish everyone could be here tonight to raise hell with us."

Como, the last of the honorees to pass through the gantlet, said he was "thrilled to death" and considered the award a way "of finding out how well or how bad you've done for 50 years. It's quite an honor."

Milstein, although sharing the exuberance of his fellow honorees, nonetheless found the gathering a bit overwhelming. Sitting in a corner chatting with friends, the 84-year-old virtuoso explained, "I feel very happy, but it's too noisy. The noise bothers my neck, my shingles."

The noisy reception didn't seem to bother any of the others gathered for the black-tie dinner to salute recipients of the 10th annual Honors. And there was scarcely an unrecognizable face: Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone; Robert Wagner talking with Angie Dickinson; Michele Lee, swathed from head to toe in red silk, kissing Ball; Angela Lansbury chatting up Stewart.

Bette Davis, asked how she felt about the evening, responded with a look of incredulity. "Well -- I'm very happy," she said sharply. She commanded such deference from the crowd that when she unintentionally blocked the entrance to the reception room, no one dared to pass by.

"I'm so impressed, so excited to be in this setting, with all this magnificent colonial Americana," Lansbury said, eying the splendor of the Adams and Jefferson rooms, where the predinner reception took place. Ball, an honoree last year, was "glad that they asked me back, because last year was the year of my life. You get a lot of honors and awards (in the arts and entertainment), but this one is the one."

"I call it an annual reunion because I'm on the {Kennedy Center Honors} board," explained actress Cicely Tyson, "but I'm especially thrilled tonight because of Sammy and Bette." Tyson, along with Sammy Davis' wife Altovise and choreographer Geoffrey Holder, brought along her own pocket camera to ensure photographs for her personal album. A distinguished-looking gray-haired woman wearing a gold medallion, emblazoned with the word "MOM" in diamonds, worked the crowd with enthusiasm. "Hi! I'm Sammy's mother!," she said. "Tonight is the happiest night of my life."

Eunice Shriver, with her brother Sen. Edward Kennedy, was enjoying the evening but confessed to a preoccupation with the summit meetings a couple of days away. "This is exciting," she said, "but I think what is really outstanding -- I probably shouldn't say this here -- is what the secretary {of state} has done this week."

Shultz, host for the dinner, likewise had the summit very much in mind as he began the postdinner tributes. First, diva Leontyne Price served up an a cappella "America the Beautiful." When the standing ovation had subsided, Shultz said of the song's lyrics, "As we look to next week, that is the message," and over the applause expressed hope that one day "nations will be more recognized for their art and architecture than for the force of their weapons ... We see in this period coming up a meeting in which a treaty will be signed that for the first time {may} reduce nuclear weapons."

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy presented the recipients with their medals -- multicolored ribbons with three gold bars -- and each was accorded a toast from a friend. David Hartman recounted his unforgettable first meeting with Bette Davis and told her, "We hope your career has been as fulfilling for you as it has been gratifying for us." Honors coproducer Nick Vanoff said of his "friend and a great artist" Perry Como, "When he would sing, the whole world would hear him, yet each person would think he was singing for them alone." And of Sammy Davis' receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, singer Joe Williams announced, "Everything is finally copacetic."

Perry Como got off the elevator at the Ritz-Carlton hotel for brunch yesterday morning and was met by a blinding light show from the paparazzi. He asked the most aggressive of the bunch for his name. "Ron Galella," said the photographer. Como paused a moment and told him, "You don't look so bad."

Between the guests entering through the lobby and those descending the elevator on the opposite end, photographers had to pivot 360 degrees to get them all. Dina Merrill preceded Holder and his wife, dancer Carmen de Lavallade, through the front. Weren't they tired from the dinner last night? "This is our Christmas treat," answered de Lavallade. "We always look forward to these three days." "We look forward to it every year," agreed Holder, adding, "and to see people like Davis and Davis get what they deserve makes me very proud to be in the profession.